BY VIC ALHADEFF
Sydney Morning Herald
January 27, 2015
Le Chambon sur Lignon is a tiny village in southern France. Seventy years ago its 5000 inhabitants displayed extraordinary courage to an extent rarely seen either then or now, yet whose humanitarianism resonates more poignantly and powerfully today than ever before.
Huguenot Protestants who had been persecuted by the Catholic establishment centuries earlier, the villagers lived uneventful peaceful lives, farming in their fertile hilly region. Distrustful of authoritarian government, when World War II broke out they flatly refused to co-operate with the Nazi-aligned Vichy government, swear an oath to Vichy head Marshal Petain or even sound church bells in his honour.
Pastor Andre Trocme of the village’s Reformed Church became aware that 30,000 Jews had been detained and were being held in internment camps in southern France and were in desperate need of assistance – and he also knew that his faith would not permit him to stand by as his compatriots were persecuted because of theirs. So he approached a Quaker group – the American Friends Service Committee – to discuss possible assistance, only to be informed they were confident they could secure the release of many of the Jews, particularly the children – but had nowhere to place them. Trocme immediately offered Le Chambon as a place of refuge.
Despite Trocme and his wife, Magda, being arrested and threatened by the French police for their clandestine activities, a remarkable 3500 Jews were hidden in Le Chambon during the following four years – in homes, schools, farms and hotels. With the tacit support of the Quakers, Catholics, Red Cross and a child-care agency, the Jews received clothing, food and falsified identity and ration documents. Jewish children attended Protestant schools, participated in village youth organisations and even participated in Protestant church services, as well as occasional Jewish services held in secret.
When villagers learnt that German or Vichy police intended to conduct a search, they hastily shepherded Jews deeper into the countryside and even over the Swiss border, 300 kilometres away. They also hid members of the French underground seeking to avoid capture.
On June 29, 1943, German police raided one of the village schools and arrested 18 students, five of whom were Jews; they were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. They also arrested the students’ teacher, Daniel Trocme, Pastor Trocme’s cousin, and he was dispatched to the Majdanek death camp, where he perished. Le Chambon’s medical doctor, Roger Le Forestier, who had played a key role in procuring life-saving documents, was also arrested and eventually shot.
President Jacques Chirac formally recognised the remarkable heroism of Le Chambon during a visit on July 8, 2004, and three years later – 60 years after the Holocaust – the government belatedly honoured its inhabitants at a solemn ceremony in Paris.
January 27 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – the epicentre of the Holocaust, where an estimated 1.1 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi machine. While a primary focus of Holocaust education is the universal lesson of where racial hatred can lead, equally critical is the message which emerges from the story of Le Chambon – refusal to look away, refusal to be a bystander, the importance of identifying an issue for what it is.
All of which relates to France 2015. The litany of anti-Semitic attacks against French Jewry – which has had an integral presence in the country for 300 years – is as concerning as it is appalling, from the trumped-up charge of treason against Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 to the round-up by French police of 13,000 Jews and their deportation to Auschwitz in 1942; from the bombing of a Jewish restaurant in 1982 to the abduction, grotesque torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006; from the cold-blooded shooting of three children and a rabbi at a Toulouse school in 2012 to this month’s murder of four Jews at a kosher deli.
The message from Le Chambon sur Lignon is painfully clear. It is up to the people of France to acknowledge the very real issues confronting their country and to respond as their compatriots did in that tiny village 70 years ago.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Twitter: @VicAlhadeff
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