Almost everyone in the community of 5,000 took part in the effort. Even the children were involved. When a Nazi official tried to organize a Hitler Youth camp in the village, the students told him that they “make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to Gospel teaching.”
The majority of the Jewish refugees were children. The villagers provided them with food, shelter, and fake identity papers. They also made sure that those they sheltered were involved as much as possible in the life of the town, in part to avoid arousing suspicion from other visitors. Whenever residents of Le Chambon learned of an upcoming police raid, they hid those they were protecting in the surrounding countryside. The values of the village were perhaps expressed best by its minister, André Trocmé, who concluded his sermons with the words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Go practice it.”
In February 1943, the police arrested André Trocmé and his assistant, Edouard Theis. Although they were released after 28 days, the Gestapo continued to monitor their activities. In summer 1943, the Gestapo offered a reward for André Trocmé’s capture, forcing him into hiding for ten months. Many knew where he was, but no one turned him in.
Historian Marianne Ruel Robins notes:
The fact that an entire community participated (or watched and said nothing) is remarkable indeed. The silence observed by the people of the Plateau was an important condition for its success, not simply because it sheltered Jews from external threats, but also because it minimized internal dissent. To refrain from talking meant that one would not shame one’s neighbor for his lack of participation; it also meant that different rationales for behavior would not conflict with another, be they commitment to pacifism, nationalism, Christian charity or judeophilia. Silence did not necessarily imply that everyone implicitly agreed on the reasons for hiding Jews, but rather that most people came to agree that something ought to be done.
The rescuers of Le Chambon also drew support from people in other places. There was an extensive network of sympathizers throughout the region who could be called upon for help with communication and organization. Jewish rescue organizations brought Jewish children to the area for protection. Church groups, both Protestant and Catholic, helped fund their efforts. So did the World Council of Churches. Also, a group known as the Cimade led hundreds of Jews across the Alps to safety in Switzerland.
When Magda Trocmé reflected on her choices years after the war, she said, “When people read this story, I want them to know that I tried to open my door. I tried to tell people, ‘Come in, come in.’ In the end I would like to say to people, ‘Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself.’ I would not say more.”
- Draw an identity chart for the people of Le Chambon. What parts of their identity might the people of Le Chambon have drawn upon when they chose to act?
- What do you think allowed the people of Le Chambon to act successfully and decisively to help Jews even though, as Magda Trocmé says, they had “no time to think”? Compare Trocmé’s description of having “no time to think” to that of the professor in the reading No Time to Think. He, too, says he had no time to think, but his response was very different from Trocmé’s. How do you account for that difference?
- In the reading, historian Marianne Ruel Robins mentions other factors that may have influenced individual villagers’ choices to participate in the rescue of Jews, besides exceptional moral behavior. What were some of those reasons? Do they make the villagers’ actions any less admirable?
- Elie Wiesel has said, “Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.” Why do you think Wiesel thinks we should remember these stories? What were the stories that might have inspired the people of Le Chambon to act? What stories do you know and value that could inspire you to act in a difficult time?