The village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France has an unusual distinction. It is one of only two places with the status of Righteous Among Nations, accorded by Yad Vashem to people and groups who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. So what happened there and how did the villagers succeed in defying the Nazis?
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is one of a scatter of villages on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon in the northern Cevennes. The plateau is high, covered in pine trees. It is very cold in winter and often cut off for weeks by snow drifts. At the beginning of the war, the way of life was simple. As there were no tractors and only the richer farmers had horses, much work was done by hand. There were many isolated farmhouses with no heating and no electric light. There was, however, a little train, called Le Tortillard, which chugged up to the plateau and the clear air and tranquillity attracted visitors. By 1939, Le Chambon had nine hotels, 38 boarding houses and nine children's homes.
The area also had an unusually large proportion of Protestants. Persecuted Huguenots had settled there and their descendants continued the tradition of resistance and a strict code of morality. They took their principles from the Bible and spoke little to outsiders. The pastor of Le Chambon was André Trocmé, who was a pacifist and a fiery preacher. He and his wife Magda took lodgers in their presbytery. One of the first people to arrive was Dr Le Forestier, who became the popular doctor of Le Chambon. The mayor, Charles Guillon, set up a school, the Ecole Nouvelle Cévenol, in Le Chambon, headed by another pastor, Edouard Theis. These people were at the heart of the effort to shelter Jews.
The Beginning of the War
In September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany. The French depended for their defence on the heavily fortified Maginot Line, but the German army outflanked it, after invading the Low Countries. They advanced rapidly towards Paris, causing a rapid exodus of frightened citizens. A new leader took over in France, Maréchal Pétain, who was revered for the famous French victory at Verdun in the First World War. Pétain was 84, conservative and no friend of the Jews. Many of the French people supported Pétain, because he was seen as offering a return to traditional family values, in contrast with the pre-war government, which was portrayed as spendthrift and decadent.
On 22 June, 1940, he signed an armistice which divided France into an occupied zone (broadly the north and the west coast) and an unoccupied zone in the south. The unoccupied zone was to be governed from Vichy, a spa town in the Auvergne. Although Pétain introduced repressive measures against the Jews, they still tried to come south from the occupied zone. The demarcation line between the two zones was heavily policed but people were smuggled across by passeurs. Some of these acted out of humanitarian principles, but others charged.
In October 1940 over 6,000 Jews were rounded up in the Baden Region of Germany and sent by train to South West France. They were housed in an internment camp at Gurs. Foreign Jews in Paris and other parts of occupied France were also rounded up. By the middle of 1941, there were about 47,000 people in a number of internment camps in unoccupied France, including many children. Conditions in the camps were poor: hunger was constant and diseases rife. Madeleine Barot of Cimade and Madeleine Dreyfus of OSE (Organisation de Secours aux Enfants) worked to improve conditions and get children out. A group of aid organisations got together and suggested to Vichy that children should be allowed to leave and be placed under their care. Representatives of the OSE travelled the unoccupied zone, looking for suitable places to shelter the children. They were helped by the Jewish scout movement, Les Eclaireurs Israélites de France and other organisations that set up homes.
In July 1942 Vichy agreed to hand over 10,000 foreign Jews for deportation. On 4 August police from the Garde Mobile surrounded the camps. Convents, boarding houses and presbyteries were searched for hidden Jews, but frantic messages had been sent out, enabling some of them to scatter. As the adults in the camps were told to pack, workers from the aid organisations tried to obtain the release of children. They persuaded parents to part with their children, promising to care for them. The adults were packed on trains bound for a transit camp at Drancy, in the outskirts of Paris. From there they were sent East to unknown destinations.
Two Catholic priests got into Le Vénissieux camp near Lyon, followed by representatives of aid agencies. They had helpers outside, collecting documents and making cases for exemption. There were emotional scenes as children were taken from their parents. Volunteers drove away with three bus loads of children, with some who were over 17 hidden under the seats. They were taken to the headquarters of the EIF, in an abandoned convent, from where they were dispersed to schools, isolated villages and private homes.
Although the aid organisations operated legally, it became clear that they would have to go underground to save the Jews. Georges Garel was recruited by the OSE to set up a secret network to save Jews. He needed cover, helpers, money, false documents and places to send the children. Garel's network operated throughout the unoccupied zone, with small cells unknown to each other. Madeleine Dreyfus of OSE was in touch with Garel and Madeleine Barot of Cimade was also setting up clandestine networks. By late 1942 the fate of Jews deported to Auschwitz was becoming known and the impetus to hide children was more urgent.
Madeleine Barot and Madeleine Dreyfus turned to the plateau Vivarais-Lignon for help. The children's homes and boarding houses in Le Chambon and surrounding villages filled up with Jewish children. Several times each month one of the Madeleines collected children from an agreed place in the unoccupied zone, took them by train to St Etienne, then by the mountain railway to Le Chambon. The children walked down the hill and sat in the café of the Hotel May in the main square. Once word went out that homes were needed, farmers would arrive and agree to take one or more children.
In the autumn term, the Jewish children went to school with other village children. The Ecole Nouvelle Cévenol was staffed by eminent professors who had come to Le Chambon to seek refuge. However, it was difficult to find food for so many children. Road transport was almost impossible, crops were poor due to a shortage of fertilisers, and farmers had to slaughter their cattle early. There was a black market in food and families from surrounding areas came up to the plateau by bicycle or train to barter with the farmers for anything they were prepared to sell. After school, the children went into the forest to look for chestnuts, berries and mushrooms. There was a problem providing shoes for the children and most of them wore clogs. Clothes were handed down and became much mended and bleached. There was also the danger of raids. In August 1942 there was an attempt to round up Jews on the plateau but someone tipped them off. In one children's home, the police found the bedrooms empty, because the residents had been led into the forests on the previous day.
The Germans Arrive
In November 1942 the Wehrmacht occupied the whole of France. Julius Schmälling became commander of the Haute Loire area, with an HQ at Le Puy. He didn't pursue the Jews with any enthusiasm, preferring to keep the peace and stay on good terms with Bach, the French prefect of the area. However, he had no authority over the Gestapo, who were commanded by Klaus Barbie in Lyon. After the German occupation, all Jews were required to carry ID cards with a J stamped on them. From now on, Jews needed false identities and children had to be coached in their new names and histories. In Le Chambon, Oscar Rosowsky, a young Russian, became expert in forging a range of documents, including birth certificates and ration books.
In the winter of 1942, the Hotel du Lignon on the main street was commandeered to house convalescent German soldiers and officers. At the same time Jews continued to arrive from Marseilles, which had been a centre for people seeking to emigrate, and Roanne, where many worked in the flourishing knitting industry. This meant there were Jews hidden next door to German soldiers. Fortunately, the soldiers were generally friendly and well behaved. However, life was becoming dangerous for those seeking to help the Jews. The authorities uncovered an 'escape network for Jews' among the villages of the plateau and put together a list of names of those involved. Pastor Trocmé was arrested, although he was later released.
The Vichy government had set up a scheme to recruit workers in the unoccupied zone of France to work in factories in Germany. It was called Relève because it offered to free one French prisoner of war for every three workers recruited. As the scheme was unpopular, they passed a law making national service working for the Germans compulsory for men aged between 18 and 50 and unmarried women between 21 and 35. When the Service Travail Obligatoire (STO) came into force in February 1943, it increased the anger felt by the French against the Germans. Young men seeking to avoid the STO began to turn up on the plateau and Pastor Trocmé's pacifism gave way to a more militant attitude. Armed resistance groups known as maquis formed.
In spring 1943 flying squads of Gestapo carried out raids in Nimes, Avignon, Carpentras and Aix. The Jews from Nice, who had been relatively safe, sought ways to leave. On the plateau a boarding house where many Spanish republican and Jewish students were staying was raided. The students were taken away, along with their director, Daniel Trocmé, nephew of the pastor. The Jewish scout movement and the OSE took the decision to close their children's homes and disperse the residents. By now most of the isolated farmhouses on the plateau had Jews or young men evading the STO staying there. Efforts were made to help the most vulnerable people cross into neutral Switzerland. As the Swiss had closed their borders to illegal refugees, papers had to be forged.
By spring 1944 there were 14 different groups of maquisards in the eastern Haute Loire. The young men of the maquis weren't always popular because they sometimes engaged in looting. However, the police were increasingly reluctant to crack down on clandestine activity.
On Tuesday, 6 June, 1944, Allied troops arrived in Normandy. However, there was anarchy as the maquis clashed with the collaborationist milice and some German divisions moving to face the Allies committed atrocities. On 1 September, 1944, General de Lattre de Tassigny drove through Le Chambon at the head of a convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles. The people of the plateau were free. The children hidden in boarding houses and isolated farmhouses began to disperse, although many had lost their families and faced a struggle to rebuild their lives.
Estimates vary about the number of Jews, communists and resisters who were saved by the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Some put the figure as high as 5,000. However, Caroline Moorehead in her book Village of Secrets - Defying the Nazis in Vichy France untangles some of the myths about the place. She estimates that about 800 people were saved by the villages on the plateau, and as many as 2,000 may have passed through. They succeeded in defying the Nazis partly because of the isolation of the place, and the customs of the people, who preferred to follow their faith than pay attention to outsiders. A handful of brave individuals led the movement to hide as many people as possible, and many of the ordinary residents did what they could to help.