Refugees are fleeing, hate groups are rising, the far-right is winning elections around the world. Those who want to do something about it are going to need a model for resistance. And there may be none better than the story of a small French community, Le Chambon in South Central France, that rescued around 5,000 refugees from the Nazis. They sheltered, fed and protected refugees, including 3,500 Jews. Even more incredibly, they did this while openly rejecting Nazism, as well as its collaborators in the French Vichy government.
Led by Pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda and seeing the rise of Mussolini and then Hitler with their own eyes, they weren’t about to look the other way while fascism spread in France. André immediately spoke out against the Paris roundups from his pulpit.
André Trocmé: It is humiliating to Europe that such things can happen and that we, the French, cannot act against such barbaric deeds that come from a time we once believed was past.
Action was central to André’s faith. To him, being a Christian meant being actively engaged in issues of justice and making peace a reality, which is why he had been working since before the war had even started to prepare for and counter the currents of violence and hatred. His biggest accomplishment had been co-founding a school in Le Chambon with the very unique aims of promoting international unity and nonviolence. When Vichy took power, the school wasted no time teaching the students about Gandhi’s concept of noncooperation.
Magda Trocmé (wife): It was suggested that we put a picture of Marshal Pétain on the wall. We decided not to do it. It was a small disobedience, but then we started to be more disobedient…
They refused to do things like salute the flag and ring the church bells on Pétain’s birthday…Eventually, at André’s urging, Le Chambon began sheltering refugee children, who had been released from the camps, thanks to the efforts of various aid groups. Other refugees came on their own.
Magda Trocmé: Why…? Because we were in the mountains… because someone had spoken, perhaps, of a minister who at that time had funny ideas.
By the time of the Vel d’Hiv [a Nazi directed] roundup in Paris in July 1942, word-of-mouth had played a major role in establishing Le Chambon as a safe place for refugees. .. Of course, they couldn’t expect it to remain a secret for long. And the first sign … was a government notice that the village would soon receive an official visit from the Vichy Minister of Youth – Georges Lamirand – who was tasked with building up a French version of the Hitler Youth. André was devastated.
André Trocmé: For two years we had been struggling to steer our youth clear of state domination… We were teaching pacifism and opposing every type of totalitarianism.”
André wanted to refuse the visit, but members of the Protestant Church hierarchy said it was out of his hands. What’s more, they were to organize a huge day of activities, showing off the area youth and their dedication to France and Pétain.
André Trocmé: We felt like we were up against a wall. Nonetheless, things went our way rather than Lamirand’s.
When the big day finally arrived, and the Vichy motorcade rolled into Le Chambon, the Vichy Minister of Youth did not see the celebration he expected. Instead, the streets were empty.
André Trocmé: The official procession was a rather sad affair. I was sitting in Lamirand’s car as we drove through the town. There were no flags in the windows, no one lined up on the sidewalks: Everyone had followed our instructions. Lamirand was stunned.
Next, they drove to the sports field, where all the youths were supposed to be assembled to greet the minister. Again, however, the celebration was lacking. Only Prefect Bach and several other local officials were there to shake his hand.
André Trocmé: It seemed that he had planned a long speech but was forced by circumstances to keep his thoughts to himself.
So Minister Lamirand and his entourage processed on to the banquet that had been prepared for him. It was held on the grounds of a YMCA camp with nothing but picnic tables for seating. And the servers were the local girl scouts, one of whom was André’s 13-year-old daughter Nelly. While serving the minister a bowl of soup, she accidentally spilled it on his shoulder. The incident was the perfect encapsulation of how little effort the people of Le Chambon were willing to put in for this guest that had been foisted upon them.
After the banquet, it was time to head to the church, where Minister Lamirand was to join the village in worship. But André and his assistant pastor — a man named Edouard Theis — had refused to preach. So another pastor was brought in from outside the village to conduct the sermon.
André Trocmé: He did a wonderful job, kept his sermon short, and summarized the position of the Church: obedience to the State, on the condition that the State did not obligate one to violate the laws of God.
Finally, the service came to an end. Minister Lamirand must have wanted to cut his losses and head back to Vichy. But the village had one more thing in store for him. A delegation of 12 older students from the international peace school had a message they wanted to read. While it was presented as their own, it was more than likely written by André.
Students: Mr. Minister, We have learned about the horrifying events that took place in Paris three weeks ago… We want you to know that there are, among us, a certain number of Jews. Now, as far as we are concerned, we do not make any distinction between Jews and non-Jews. That would be contrary to the teaching of the Gospel. If our friends, whose only offense is to have been born in another religion, receive the order to let themselves be deported or even be subject to a census, they will disobey those orders, and we will do our best to hide them in our midst.
According to André, the Minister of Youth turned pale and simply said, “These matters are none of my business; you should speak to the prefect.” Then, he quickly turned and walked away to his car. Prefect Bach was standing right there. And he was enraged. He also had a good guess as to who was behind the letter. Turning to André he said: “Reverend Trocmé, this was supposed to be a day of national harmony. Instead, you have created division!”
André responded: It’s hardly a question of national harmony, when our friends are threatened with deportation...We do not know any Jews, we only know human beings
The parallels between WWII and today are hard to ignore. After all, we’re in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since that era — with millions of people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan after years of war and thousands leaving Central America and Africa due to increasing violence, poverty, drought and climate change. And how is the rest of the world responding this time around?
This is an excerpt from Bryan Farrell’s Podcast – Part 1 – City of Refugee