French Christians save Jews from Nazi holocaust, Le Chambon, 1940-1944

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
November
1940
to
September
1944
Location and Goals
Country: 
France
Location City/State/Province: 
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France
Location Description: 
A town located in south central France
Goals: 
The goal was to hide, accommodate, and provide escape routes for Jews from Nazi persecution.
 

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was a community located in south central France. With a history of being a refuge for persecuted Protestant Huguenots in 17th century, it was primarily a Presbyterian town.

In 1934 Andre Trocme arrived in Le Chambon with his wife, Magda Trocme, to become the pastor. He gradually revived the air of excitement in the deprived community, and established the first secondary school in the town. In 1938, he met Edouard Theis, who became his assistant pastor and took a position in the secondary school he established. The blend of firm religious (and pacifist) conviction and activism made the Trocme family and Theis to be the natural leaders of Le Chambon.

In May 1940, German Nazi forces successfully occupied the French area. On 22 June 1940, Nazis and the remaining French cabinet signed an armistice. As a result of the treaty, France was divided into two areas: the north and west area as the “Occupied Zone”, subjected to direct Nazi control, and the remaining area as the “Free Zone”, under the control of the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain. Under Nazi supervision, Petain enforced anti-Semitic laws that handed over Jews that the German government demanded.

Trocme and Theis, men guided by religious principle, thought that inaction in such time of crisis was transgressing the commandment of the God. Thus, they went to internment camps in Marseilles (which was the center of the efforts of relief and strategic escape by international organizations) in November 1940 to meet Burns Chalmers of the American Friends Service Committee. They asked Chalmers how they could provide help for those who needed it.

Chalmers said that internees in Marseilles were subjected to comparatively lenient enforcement, and thus, it was easier for them to be certified by doctors that they had no physical utility for the forced labor in concentration camp. While these internees were fortunate in that they would not be deported to severe concentration camps in Germany, they had no place to live. Moreover, there were children of the deportees who needed protection and care.

Chalmers asked if Le Chambon could accommodate the people released from the camps. He also asked if the children could be educated in schools. When Trocme and Theis accepted Chalmers’ request, Chalmers promised that he would persuade his Quaker organization and other relief organizations to provide funding for the living costs and people who would volunteer for the venture.

As soon as Trocme and Theis agreed to accommodate the Jews and establish their town as a refuge, they returned to Le Chambon, and preached to people, persuading them to agree with their plans. Trocme told people to “obey God rather than man when there [was] a conflict between the commandments of the government and the commandments of the Bible.” While minor populations—mostly Catholics—questioned Trocme about why they should care about the lives of Jews when such effort could jeopardize the entire Chambonnais, the majority of residents—Huguenots and Darbyists—of Le Chambon readily agreed to provide shelter for the Jews.

The effort to shelter the internees also brought aid by several relief organizations. Especially, Secours Suisse aux Enfants, an agency created under the Swiss Red Cross’ leadership, took a large part in providing refuge for Jewish children. In total, eight hundred youngsters had ultimately been hidden and educated by Secours Suisse establishments.

In addition to the effort to accommodate the Jews, Chambonnais also engaged in symbolic resistance against the Vichy regime. While all the French towns had been commanded by the government to ring their church bells on 1 August 1941, to celebrate the anniversary of Marshal Petain’s regime, Trocme instructed the bell ringer not to ring the bell. Chambonnais also refrained from saluting to the flag and giving oaths as instructed by Vichy regime.

As the persecution of the Jews in Free Zone elevated due to the Nazi’s increasing demand on the Petain to adopt harsher measures, Le Chambon began to accept Jews who were not internees in Marseilles, but refugees from random remote towns. The first refugee arrived Le Chambon in the winter of 1941. During 1942 the influx of refugees increased dramatically.

Instead of turning their backs, most Chambonnais accommodated the Jews asking for help. The Chambonnais didn’t even bother asking the refugees their ethnic background. These Jews were hidden in various places including farms, public institutions, and private houses. The mission was not an organized one. Although Trocme and Theis took a concurrent leadership role, neither written records nor hierarchical administration existed, because people deemed it dangerous. Instead, unconventional strategies were used in order to carry out this mission.

The operation relied on accurate memories and face-to-face conversations of Chambonnais. When they sent letters to one another, encryption were used. For example, Theis printed up postcards that had a picture of Tower of Constance (the symbol that every Chambonnais knew because the tower served as a Huguenot refuge in the 17th century). As he sent the postcards, he wrote “I’m sending you five Old Testaments [Jews] today.” Moreover, Roger Darcissac, the director of the secondary school, led an effort to provide false identity cards for the Jews.

Theis also led an effort to provide escape routes, which led the Jews safely to Switzerland. Jews who had an intention to depart France for Switzerland were gathered in the farming village of Le Chambon, in which they received the false identification papers and guidelines. Theis and the Jews then travelled by rail, at night if possible. When they bought the train tickets, they bought tickets only to the next station, so that they could hide the ultimate destination. After they arrived at the next station, Theis would take them to short-term hiding places (Presbyteries or Catholic churches of other towns) that he had arranged for them beforehand. They went through the same routine over and over again until they reached the border of Switzerland.

Moreover, Theis occasionally made the similar treks to reach the Swiss border and covertly receive funds from relief organizations, such as the International Protestant Loan Association.

In summer of 1942, the plan was threatened by the visit of Georges Lamirand, who was in charge of the General Secretariat for Youth. Lamirand ordered Trocme to name and bring the Jews hidden in Le Chambon. Trocme refused, saying he did not know the names and ethnicity of the refugees, and even if he did, he would not allow the police to find them.

To counter the threat, Chambonnais shut off the streetlights. Trocme walked away from Lamirand, gathered the Boy Scouts of Le Chambon, and sent them to outlying farms to warn the Jews to scatter into the woods.

The next day the police arrived and began a search that continued for three weeks. They found only two Jews (one of whom was eventually released later for being “half-Jewish”). When each was arrested and placed in one of the dozen buses that the police had brought, Chambonnais surrounded the bus and put a pile of gifts beside him/her.

After the police search Chambonnais refrained from symbolic resistance (of refusing to salute the flags, ring the bells, etc) and focused on saving the lives of the Jews. The repression became intensified by November 1942, as the Vichy police began to be closely supervised by the Gestapo.

On 13 February 1943, Trocme, Theis, and Darcissac were arrested by two policemen. When the neighbors learned of the arrests, they surrounded the police car again, gave presents (sardines, soaps, toilet papers, and candles) to the arrested and sang hymns.

On 15 March Trocme, Theis, and Darcissac were told, to their surprise, that they were to be released. They only needed to sign papers promising to abide by the commandments of the Vichy government. The three refused to sign. The authorities then told them they were free to go.

The only major tragedy of Le Chambon took place in June 1943, when the Gestapo officers and soldiers broke into the House of Rocks in Le Chambon, which accommodated and educated Jewish children. Eighteen Jewish children and Daniel Trocme (the cousin of Andre. who took responsibility for educating Jews in the House of Rocks) were arrested and sent to die in concentration camps. Daniel Trocme was executed a year later at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

A few weeks after the tragedy, Andre Trocme and Theis were warned by an underground resistance fighter who claimed himself to be a “double agent,” that their names were on a Nazi list of French to be assassinated. Reluctantly, they left Le Chambon in July and covertly roamed around France for almost a year.

Some young Chambonnais joined the Maquis (the underground violent resistance); Trocme and Theis had worried about that possibility in their absence. But most of the Chambonnais continued their nonviolent defiance by sheltering the Jews.

Trocme and Theis returned to Le Chambon in June 1944, and by September, Le Chambon was free from the Vichy regime as a result of the military victory of the Resistance. By that time Le Chambon had saved roughly 5,000 Jews.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"Andre Trocme and Le Chambon: The Preciousness of Human Life." Justin Young. December 4, 2005. UCSB Hist 33d, "Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust" Student Web Pro. http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/church/ChurchLeChambonJustin.htm#h6

Hallie, Philip P. (1979) Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. Harper & Row Publishers.

Unsworth, Richard P. (2012) A Portrait of Pacifists: Chambon, the Holocaust, and the Lives of Andre and Magda Trocme. Syracuse University Press.

Additional Notes: 
Pierre Sauvage's "Weapon of the Spirit" is a great documentary about this campaign, but was not used for this case study
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Soul Han, 09/12/2012