We all know stories of brave individuals who saved Jews from the Holocaust during World War II. We may not have heard about congregations, however. Yet in a small village in southern France, a tiny Protestant congregation set up a network to rescue Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
The tiny village of Le Chambon served as the starting point in an underground railroad leading to Switzerland. As recounted by Philip Hallie in his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, its function was the opposite of Adolf Eichmann’s railroad to Nazi death camps. This network hid Jews in their homes, rapidly sending messages whenever Nazis arrived for a roundup. Each person knew only what was needed to know, nothing more.
Le Chambon became known as the safest village in Europe, a place where refugees could receive false ID cards, shelter, food, and safe passage to Switzerland. There were three reasons why they did this:
- As the Protestant minority in Catholic France, they identified with Jewish persecution;
- They identified Jews as the people of the Old Testament, and
- They were inspired by Pastor Andre and his wife Magda Trocme, the network’s organizers.
It began with a sermon Trocme delivered after the round- up and deportation of Jews in Paris in July 1942. He told his parishioners, “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its present incapacity and cowardice.”
One day, a squadron of khaki-colored buses pulled into the town square. The chief of police for the region entered the town hall and summoned Pastor Trocme. “We know about your suspect activities. You are going to give me the list of these persons and addresses, and advise them to be on good behavior and not to flee.” The pastor said, “I do not know the names of any fleeing Jews.” (That was true, they had false ID cards and he did not know their real names.) “If I did, I would not give it to you. If they seek protection, I am their pastor, their shepherd.”
When the pastor went home, he called the Boy Scouts and members of his Bible classes to his office. “I want you to warn the Jews in outlying farmhouses to flee into the woods.”
It was Saturday. That night, mysteriously, the power went out in the whole village allowing them to them to flee while the police slept in their buses. The next morning, during worship, the church was packed. In the afternoon, police searched the village from attic to cellar. They only found one Jew, an Austrian named Steckler. Twenty policemen surrounded him! While Steckler sat on the bus waiting to be called before the police chief, a boy tapped on his bus window. It was the pastor’s son, Jean-Pierre. “I have a piece of chocolate for you.”
Pretty soon the whole village got into the act. They brought gifts to his window. Beside him on his seat he had a whole stack of gifts. Later, Steckler was released, the police declaring that he was only half-Jewish.
The Chambonais rejected any labeling of their behavior as heroic. They said: “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” Before the war ended, 5,000 Jews had been rescued.
Photo: Encyclopedia Judaica: Chambon-Sur-Lignon. Found at jewishvirtuallibrary.org.