Last weekend I spent 4 days in Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, a small Protestant village of about 2,000-3,000 citizens, with a longstanding history and tradition in welcoming refugees and providing rescue and asylum. I arrived at the gare in Lyon, and then rented a car and drove for two and a half hours, past St. Etienne, into a place which was quite unknown. I ended up driving through back roads (D500 and D103), through farmland and woods until I reached the small village of Le Chambon, situated on the Lignon river (hence Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon). There I met with historian M. Bollon who worked with me on the history of the place, the Protestant pastors who encouraged the community to take in Jewish children and other Jewish refugees, many of whom were saved from the camps in France, and to hide them from Nazi persecution during the war years. One of these pastors is Andre Trocme and his wife Magda, amongst others. The two main pastors received the “medeille des justes”.
Le Chambon is one of only three entire communities in the world to be awarded the medal for Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, for the work of the entire community in rescuing and hiding Jews.
Le Chambon has an interesting preexisting Swiss connection, as it is a Protestant “culte”, or community, in a Roman Catholic country. Le Chambon welcomed Swiss Protestants from the counter-reformation, and there has always been the idea of humanitarian aid for those who are persecuted in Europe, longstanding since the 1600’s.
During the war, Le Chambon housed around 3,000 Jews in the tiny village. I was able to see many of the homes and maisons set up for orphaned and refugee children, including Les Roches, Faidoli, and Tante Soly. They are today different private residences, including an artist’s studio (Les Roches). The Jews arrived by train to Le Chambon, no longer running except once a week during the summer months, in large groups, and right away the community knew what to do with each arrival. They placed the children in homes, the families in hiding, not only in Le Chambon but all over the Plateau, in Le Mazet Saint Voy, Istor, Villelonge, and other small farming towns. Villelonge, for example, houses a plaque that says that each farm in the small, small town hid either a Jew, a person escaping forced labor in Germany (STO), or a resistant. There is only one plaque commemorating the rescue efforts and the Jewish presence in Le Chambon during the war, and the community members are happy not having more.
I was able to meet with Claire from the Office of Tourism, who guided me to the maison d’enfants and other small villages. I also met with the mayor of Le Chambon, who told me about the plans to make a new museum dedicated to asylum and rescue, and the international partnerships she hopes to build with the museum. Right now, a small exhibit exists in the gare.
I was also able to visit the Presbytere, where Andre and Magda Trocme lived, where Pasteur Braun and his wife live today. Pasteur Braun is from Germany, and he is the pastor for the Protestant “culte” in Le Chambon today. I also saw the “Temple”, or church where Trocme and others preached. He was an incredible pacifist. I also learned about the connection between Protestants and Jews, as the Protestants read and respect the Old Testament and felt it was their obligation to help and hide the “people of the Book”.
I have posted some photos on facebook, but will also post some photos from Le Chambon here. It is amazing to me to think that, especially after 1943, the Nazis would go into these small, remote farms to look for Jews to deport. It was amazing the systematic approach to the “Final Solution” that reached all parts of Europe, even a French farming town consisting of 3 farms.
I spent Sunday traveling around the area and drove literally through a dirt road in the woods to get to Istor. There I went to the “Ecole des Prophets”, where the Sixieme resistance movement was working toward hiding Jews. I was able to speak with the son of the proprietors of the building, who was 12 years old in 1943. He told me about the young men who were in the house next door, and how he was friends with them. It didn’t matter who they were, whether they were Jewish or not. Something else that was amazing about Le Chambon is that no one denounced their neighbors for hiding Jews, and this is one reason why the rescue efforts were so successful. Some children from Le Chambon went to Switzerland, some were turned away and some succeeded in entering. I would like to look further into this connection.
There still exists a refugee and asylum aid organization in Le Chambon today. I spent Sunday afternoon with M. Bollon, the historian, his wife, and their grandchildren. We spoke a lot about history and methodology, and about memory and the link between Jewish and non-Jewish rescue and resistance. It was a pleasure to be in their company.
Overall, my impression was very positive and I learned a lot about what happened on the Plateau during the war. I saw things I would have never otherwise seen, and got a real feeling for what it must have been like to live in a small village in 1940-1944. Once again, I was able to bear witness to places in history. I look forward to returning to Le Chambon to visit the new museum, being built in the old school building.