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Archive for the ‘… France – Chambon’ Category

* Chambon-sur-lignon – Aug 2007

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 18, 2007

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Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents,children who cried in the night from nightmares.

After the collapse of French forces, the Nazis occupied much of France and controlled it all. Soon, the Germans brought their hunt for Jews to France. Many were rounded up, transported, and murdered. The French Vichy government generally collaborated with the Nazis in this activity, sometimes seeming even to exceed the German enthusiasm.

There were, however, many individual French men and women who did not bend to the despicable German demands. Some helped Jews (and others) escape over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain. Others hid Jews, sometimes for years. Some blew up and shot Germans. These people are known as the French resistance.

In a small remote mountain village called Chambon-sur-Lignon, Pastor Andre Trocme, his wife, and many other local citizens determined to hide Jews, especially children and arrange safe passage for others. Their incredible story is told in a book by Phillip Hallie called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. Pat read Hallie’s book many years ago, as has long wanted to visit the village. This week we did.

We took a train from Collioure to Valence, where we rented a car to drive west to Chambon. Michelin said the drive would take less than 2 hours, but the constant mountain turns slowed us down considerably. The scenery, to the extent we could look at it, was breathtaking. We stopped for an excellent lunch in the town square of L’amastre and learned once again that the French, even in the most remote villages, can do remarkable things with a piece of lettuce and some oil.

Somewhere along the way, we realized that our rental car had a GPS system, and we managed to get it on. Pat even changed the language to English. It showed where we were, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I figured out how to set a destination.

Meanwhile, it had started to drizzle, and by the time we reached Chambon, it was late and we were tired, so after a brief stop at the Tourist Office, we went to our Hotel Clair Matin (Clear Morning). It is up in the hills, set in a deep forest. But it wasn’t a clear morning, and in the deep mist was the eerie feel that German patrols were just out of sight.

In the morning, we drove 2 kilometers back down into the village, enjoyed the market day booths, and used the maps provided by the Tourist Office to find the locations where Jews had been saved. We purchased the DVD “Les armes de l’espirit.”

At lunch, we met a Belgian couple who had been at our hotel, and they decided to join us in a walking tour (in French) of the same sights we had seen in the morning. Dominique, who turned out to be an appeals judge in Brussells, translated the guide’s comments for us as we walked from place to place.

We began at the railway station, where Jews from all over France had arrived in search of safe haven. Staring at the thin rails and the station, changed little if at all from 1943, we imagined the desperation of those who disembarked, there lives totally dependent on the assistance they hoped to get from the Protestant pastor and this largely Protestant community.

A few blocks from the station is a place that was home for many Jewish children, run by a Jewish man named Emile Seches.

M. Seches … “A policeman phoned me one day to ask me why I had not registered as a Jew. I answered him: It isn’t necessary, everyone in Chambon knows I am a Jew. I nevertheless had to see him. In large red letters, he wrote the word JEWISH on my identification card and on my food coupons card. The result was that, in order to visit my family in Saint-Etienne, I had to secure false papers.”

It is puzzling that known Jews in Chambon, and the thousands of others who passed through the village, whom the Nazis must have suspected were Jews, were with one exception, never rounded up and sent to the death camps.

In Hallie’s book, it is told that one day the local commandant came to Pastor Trocme and announced … tomorrow a bus will be here, and all the Jews must get on the bus, no exceptions. The next day, the bus arrived, and not a single person boarded. After several hours, the bus left.

But not all escaped …

On June 29. 1943, at dawn, the Gestapo arrested eighteen students as well as the headmaster, Daniel Trocme, Pastor Trocme’s cousin. They were all deported. Six returned to Chambon. Five young Jews died at Auschwitz and Daniel Trocme at Maidanek. No one knows what happened to the others.

Next to the school where so many Jewish children lived, there’s an old hotel, boarded up now, which was requisitioned for wounded German soldiers. We got chills imagining the soldiers glancing out their windows, seeing the children, doing nothing.

Around the corner and down a hill is the Protestant presbytery, built in 1842 on the site of the former lords of Chambon, home during WWII of Pastor Andre Trocme and his wife Magda. The sun is shining, the River Lignon flows gently below, and we are surrounded by the residual presence of the very best that civilized human beings can be.

Magda Trocme … “We simply tried to do our very best. There were people in the village who needed help. How could we not give it to them?”

Pastor Andre Trocme … “We are not aware of what a Jew is. We only know human beings.” 

            dscn1907-children.jpg   dscn1897-darcissac-trocme-cropped.jpg

Further down the hill is a primary school. Several of the students there were Jewish, but the head of the school, Roger Darcissac, “forgot” to enter their names in the registers. Inside the train station, there’s a photo of M. Darcissac (on the left) with Pastor Trocme, just an ordinary looking person, academic, forgetful. 

On the wall of a building across from the Protestant church, in a building which was a bakery during WWII but seems to be a private dwelling today, a plaque has been mounted, which says, in Hebrew and French, The memory of the just will remain for always, a quote from the 6th Psalm.

The people of Chambon have been recognized at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Israel as among the many righteous non-Jews who helped Jews escape death at the hands of the Nazis.  


 After the tour, we went to the train station where we were met by Madame Flaud, who created the memorial exhibition two years ago. She took us from photo to photo and explained each in detail.

There were quotes with each photo. Each calls forth a mixed response of gratitude, anger, and pride …

Pastor Andre Bettex, from the pulpit of the Protestant Church of Freycenet, a village near Chambon  … “The laws against the Jews are illegal. Our duty is to help them with all the means available to us. I urge you to do so.

Mireille Philip … “I feel humility and of gratitude in front of many of these refugees who became my friends. They were an example of dignity and courage.”

Hanne Hirsch-Liebmann, a survivor … “the people of Le Chambon believed we must all live together and even risk our lives for our fellow beings. They always shared with us, no matter how little they had.”

Elizabeth Koenig-Kaufmann, a survivor … “Le Chambon was different because of its religious ardor. The villagers read their Bibles daily and tried to live what the Bible taught them.”

Francois Levy-Lecomte, a survivor, in his book “I’ll never be 14” … “On September 9th 1944, a column of tanks. jeeps and trucks entered Le Chambon. The French soldiers gave us chocolate in brown wrappers, thick, huge chocolate bars. It was so good.”

… and so it was finally over. The people of Chambon and other nearby villages had saved perhaps 3,500 people, mostly Jews. I signed the visitor’s book at the station …

“It is our privilege to be in the presence of such goodness.”

We left Chambon, and drove further west. It was late afternoon, with the sun lowering in front of us, and the meadows and forests of the mountain country offered views perhaps as beautiful as any we had ever seen. Then we arrived in Le Puy, a center for pilgrims and hikers, perhaps the least attractive city in all of France. The GPS, however, worked perfectly, bringing us through the city streets precisely to our hotel. We thought how wonderful it would have been to have a GPS in Nice, where we had such difficulty finding our hotel, and decided to purchase a portable GPS when we got home.

And, even in Le Puy, there was something.

We were directed from our not lovely hotel to a small square and found a tiny restaurant, 4 tables downstairs, 4 more up, that looked worth trying. Pat wanted pasta, but not with the cream sauce it came with.

“Do you have a red sauce?” I asked

“No, but I have tomatoes,” said the young cook/owner. “I’ll see what I can do.”

What he did was make a spectacular red sauce. I ordered salmon, and both dishes were as good as any other meals we could recall. Put this guy in a major city, and he would be rich. But maybe not happy.

The next morning, we drove back over the mountains to Valence, had a nice lunch at an outdoor restaurant on a broad avenue, did some window shopping, returned the car to Hertz, and took the train home to Collioure.

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