Menu JTA Search

U.S. College Honors Village in France That Saved Jews During Ww 11

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Haverford College made history yesterday when it conferred an honorary degree on an individual representing an entire town in France whose villagers helped save 2,500 Jews from Nazism between 1940 and 1944. The college, which has a Quaker heritage, presented an honorary doctor of laws degree to Magda Trocme who accepted it on behalf of the 3,000 residents of Le Chambon, in the remote mountainous region of southern France.

The role of the Chambonnais in this dramatic historic episode escaped the notice of historians for nearly four decades and only came to light recently, said Bernard Lowenstein, a member of the honorary degree selection committee of the college.

It remained for Philip Hallie, Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Wesleyan University, to relate the story in “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed,” published in 1979.

Hallie’s research reveals that in the winter of 1940-41, Burns Chalmers, an American Quaker aiding war victims in France, and Andre Trocme, the late husband of Magda Trocme and pastor of the Protestant village of Le Chambon, agreed on a plan to save Jewish children whose parents had been deported to concentration camps.

The inaccessibility of Le Chambon rendered it a desirable sanctuary for such an operation; its terrain was rough and only one train a day passed through the town.

THE ROLE OF THE VILLAGERS

The Chambonnais accepted the charge as a practical solution to a desperate situation. After the French armistice with Germany in 1940, France was divided into the Occupied Zone in the north, administered by Germans, and the Unoccupied, or Free Zone, to the south.

Centered in Vichy, the Unoccupied Zone was governed by French Marshal Phillippe Petain whose forces generally embraced the anti-Semitism of the German Nazis and, in some instances, exceeded them in cruelty to the Jewish citizens of France. Following the Nazi pattern, the Vichy government attempted to incarcerate all the Jews in France.

Despite the surveillance of Vichy police and the gestapo, and with little regard for their own safety, the villagers of Le Chambon from 1940 to 1944 concealed, cared for, and eventually led to safety some 2,500 Jewish men, women, and children who sought refuge. Moreover, they absorbed refugee children into their homes and schools and educated them for the duration of the war.

Because of its close proximity to the railroad station where refugees arrived daily, the presbytery that housed Andre and Magda Trocme served as a clearing-house for the operation. As the wife of one of the chief organizers of the mission, Magda Trocme contributed to the effort in every way.

She greeted refugees at the door, fed and clothed them, and through clandestine meetings with the townspeople, helped determine with whom they should stay. A teacher of Italian at the local Cevenol School, mother, and helpmate, “she was an effective gatekeeper for a city of refuge,” Hallie observed.

Magda Grilli Trocme was born in Florence, Italy, in 1901. She emigrated to America and while studying to be a social worker she met Andre Trocme at the International House in New York City in 1924. Andre, the recipient of a scholarship to Union Theological Seminary, abandoned his studies in America to pursue the ministry in his homeland where he returned and married Magda. Andre’s devotion to his chosen work led him, Magda, and their four children to Le Chambon in 1934.

Four years later, Andre recruited a prominent teacher, Edouard Theis, to serve as first director of the newly-created Cevenol secondary school and his assistant pastor. In the years that ensued Theis would become known as “the rock of Le Chambon” for helping the refugee Jewish teachers and students at Cevenol, and others in the village, obtain false identity and ration cards and for leading refugees through dangerous mountains and German troops to the Swiss border.

Theis succeeded Andre, who died in 1971, as pastor of the Protestant Temple and in recent years accompanied Hallie in his search for eyewitness accounts of the events that occurred in the village.

Roger Darcissac, director of the boy’s school, photographer of bogus identification papers, and a prime figure in the mission, is currently historian of Le Chambon and, along with other surviving participants, also assisted Hallie in his research. The author discovered, however, that age and time had taken its toll. Many of the villagers had died, and “the story of Le Chambon was being swept out of human memory.”

But however diminished their numbers, the spirit of the Chambonnais remains etched in stone over the door of the Protestant Temple: “Amie-Vous Les Uns Les Autres” — “Love One Another.”

NEXT STORY