Overall I was interested to hear historians say that the Vichy government of the early 1940s represented "the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards". Vichy officials were the sons and grandsons of those men who had wanted Captain Alfred Dreyfus exiled or executed back in the 1890s.
Peter Grose's book, A Good Place to Hide
Now a book has come out called A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in WW2. Written by Peter Grose in 2014 (Allen and Unwin), it tells the amazing story of a brave Pastor Andre Trocme in Le Chambon Sur Lignon (in the isolated upper reaches of the Loire in southern France, 47 ks south of St Etienne) who said that godly Christians had to save human lives, to resist the violence directed at their consciences. He was supported by the church's second cleric, Pastor Edouard Theis.
As the publishers noted, the congregants kept their heads down, they kept their mouths shut and they stuck together to offer sanctuary and shelter to between 3,500 and 5,000 Jews. This is one of the great modern stories of unknown heroism and courage, a story of a community of small villages that conspired to save Jewish lives under the noses of the Germans and of Vichy France. Clearly the pacifist Protestant pastor who broke laws and defied orders to protect the lives of total strangers was a hero.
Jewish Children protected in Chambon
in a facility run by the Organisation to Save the Children (OSE)
photo credit: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
But so were the Quakers, the Children’s OSE and the Swiss Red Cross. It is the story of an 18-year-old Jewish boy from Nice who forged 5000 sets of false identity papers to save other Jews and French Resistance fighters from the Nazi concentration camps. And the story of a glamorous female OSE agent with a wooden leg, who helped to arm and organise the Resistance on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon; the 15-years-old schoolgirl whose parents tried to keep her out of harm’s way in Le Chambon, and who risked her life running suitcases stuffed with money for the Resistance; the 17-years-old Boy Scout who ran 20 missions escorting Jews to safety in Switzerland before joining the Resistance. And it is the story of ordinary citizens who offered sanctuary, kindness, solidarity and hospitality to people in desperate need, knowing the possible consequences to themselves.
Money was collected to feed and house the refugees. Every train that arrived in Le Chambon was met, every refugee was identified and hiding places were assigned. Even those adults on trains en route to neutral Switzerland were given false papers. Not a single Christian citizen handed over Jewish refugees to the local police or to the Vichy soldiers.
There was a price to pay. In February 1943, French (sic) police arrested Pastors Trocmé and Theis, as well as the headmaster of the local primary school, Roger Darcissac, and imprisoned them near Limoges. The French authorities eventually released the three men and they continued to operate rescue activities until late 1943, when fears of re-arrest forced them into hiding. At that point, Mrs Magda Trocmé took over the leadership of the project to save Jewish lives.
More than 75,000 Jews were deported from France and executed by the Nazis. But not even one from Chambon! Chambon was one of only two towns in Europe named as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem for saving Jews from Nazi extermination. One of two in all of Europe!!!! Then how did I not know this story, before Peter Grose’s fine book came out?
Le Chambon Sur Lignon (in red), near Saint Etienne