The tranquility of the place is deceptive. The center of the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in the heart of France, looks almost deserted. Green hills surround the town. Few cars drive down the main street that goes through it. On one side of the street is an old stone building, the church. Across the street, on the brick wall of a building, is a sign with a line in Hebrew: “The memory of the righteous shall be everlasting.” The righteous are the residents of the village, all Protestants. Thirty-five of them were recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center as Righteous among the Nations. The French text that appears beneath the Hebrew explains that the memorial site in the building was established as a gesture of gratitude to the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, who opposed the Nazis’ crimes during World War II and rescued many Jews.
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The memorial site in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was dedicated just nine months ago. It is a modern museum that painstakingly documents one of the most moving and lesser-known stories of the rescue of European Jews during World War II. The heroes of the museum are not the Jews who were saved but rather the village inhabitants who saved them. The numbers are a bit vague, but it is generally agreed that the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding area, a total of 5,000 people who lived in small villages and on isolated farms, saved more than 1,000 Jews in the 1940s. Some reports speak of 3,000 or even 5,000 Jews who were saved thanks to the inhabitants of the Haute Loire district.
Ruth Golan, who lives on kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in Israel's Upper Galilee region, said, “I’m alive thanks to the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren thanks to them. They risked their lives to save us. There are no words to describe what the residents of that area did for us during the war years. No one can describe how much they sacrificed and how much they gave us. To sum everything up in a single sentence: It’s thanks to them that I’m here.”
A righteous minority
Ninety-five percent of France’s inhabitants are Catholic. Almost all the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its environs are Protestant. During the war, the head of the Protestant church in the village was an independent-thinking, charismatic minister named Andre Trocme, who saw the Jews as “the people of the Bible.” In a sermon he gave in 1942, after the deportation of the Jews of Paris, he said that the Christian church ought to ask forgiveness from God for its helplessness and cowardice. He began to act immediately afterward. Although he and his wife Magda had seven children, they began working to hide Jews in the homes of members of their community, at great risk to themselves.
The Trocmes found hundreds of families who agreed to hide Jews in their homes. The Jews were hidden in private homes, farms and public buildings such as orphanages and boarding schools. Many of the hidden Jews were children who had been taken from their families. For three years, the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon cared for the Jews in hiding, bringing them food, drink, clothing and, in many cases, giving them assumed identities and forged identity papers. They helped many of the Jews cross the border into Switzerland, where other Protestants waited to receive them.
Trocme was arrested, together with several ministers who were active in the area, on suspicion of hiding Jews, but they were released shortly afterward. Trocme’s cousin, Daniel, who ran the orphanage in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald together with many children whom he had hidden. He died there.
Andre Trocme’s daughter, Nelly Trocme Hewett, lives in the United States. She has not visited the new museum yet.
Golan, who was hidden in a home near the municipal building for four years, says it is not surprising that it took the people of the region 70 years to establish the museum as a memorial site. “After the war, they were opposed to any publicity. It was out of modesty, and that approach is typical of them. They say that God commanded them to save the Jews and they obeyed, so they do not deserve any reward or publicity. I know that they did not want to do a thing to glorify their names, and even establishing the museum took years of persuasion. Even when Yad Vashem named them Righteous among the Nations, not everyone wanted to come to receive it,” he said.
Bonded by persecution
Maxime Friedenberg, who lives in the city of Rouen, France, was hidden in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon as a child. He was born in Rouen in 1935. In 1942, when he was 7 years old, he moved together with his family to a hiding place on a farm near Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The farm belonged to a woman he knew as Madame Dulac. “It’s impossible to describe how wonderful the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were,” he says. “They helped us through that time. When the Germans came to patrol or inspect the village, they would tell us in advance and ask us to go out to pick mushrooms in the forest. When the Germans left, they would tell us we could come back.” A sculpture that Friedenberg created stands in the museum, and he is a member of the public board that runs the site.
Friedenberg says that much of the credit for establishing the museum belongs to the mayor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Eliane Wouquiez-Motte. The mayor met with a group of journalists from various countries who were staying in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to report on the museum. Although she spoke proudly about how the village residents hid Jews, she also said that it was against the local character to take pride in the act. “For the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, such an act was the obvious thing to do — to protect those who were weak and in need. Even before the war, sanctuary was given here to many refugees who came from the Spanish Civil War. The basis for this attitude is our feeling as Protestants that as a minority, we suffered quite a lot from the Catholics, and we know what it feels like to be a persecuted minority. The local ministers have always preached pacifism and helping the weak. I have no doubt that even now, the village’s inhabitants would act in exactly the same way. That is how it is when you live in an isolated place where the central government is seen in a slightly different light.”
Wouquiez-Motte notes that the museum is located next to the permanent historical exhibit of 15 paintings by the Israeli-French artist Avigdor Arikha. For her, the exhibit symbolizes the ongoing relationship between the Jewish people and Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. She explains that the town is twinned with the Israeli town of Meitar in the Negev, and that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has an auditorium and a memorial stone in memory of the village inhabitants who rescued Jews. “There is no other place in France where these 35 Righteous among the Nations are recognized,” she says. “Only here, among us, and they are only representatives of a much larger group.” Wouquiez-Motte recalls that French novelist Romain Gary's "The Kites" ends with the words: “I shall end this tale by inscribing once again the names of Pastor Andre Trocme and of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, because you can’t do better than that.”