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Rescue and Resistance on the Plateau

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
Hold back those who are staggering towards slaughter
If you say, ‘But, we knew nothing about this’
Does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Proverbs 24 :11,12


One of the great tragedies of Christian history is the failure of the church to oppose Nazism and the horrors of the holocaust in particular. On the whole the church’s response to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was one of bumbling passivity and indifference; sometimes even complicity. In Germany the Lutheran church remained rooted to the spot with a theology that urged obedience to the state and personal piety. Christians were not to be involved in political matters. The sacred and the secular were never to mix.

Under siege, the church spent most of its energy trying to maintain its institutional viability by naively working together with a political force that was ultimately determined to destroy it. Both Catholic and Protestant churches were ineffective at best, and appeared unable or unwilling to take notice of what was occurring under their noses. Strains of anti-Semitism existing within the church no doubt blinded it to the fate of the Jewish population. The consequences were dire – as theologian David Gushee says, ‘The Holocaust was not merely an event in Christian history but in fact a nauseating Christian moral failure’.

The failures of the church in this era are glaring and undeniable. Which is why the story of the rescue of thousands of Jews by the mostly protestant Huguenot Christian villagers along the plateau Vivarais-Lignon, provides such a stunning contrast to what largely took place across Europe in those desperate years. It reveals the importance of theology as a motivator or inhibitor of action, the significance of key leaders, and the way the history of a people can shape them for good or ill. It tells us something of the way Christianity, properly understood, can and should be a force for good.  

The failures of the church in this era are glaring and undeniable

The Rescue

Between 1940 and 1944 a sustained rescue of refugees, many of whom were Jewish children, took place among the villages running along the isolated plateau Vivarais-Lignon in south central France. The town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in particular, has become known as the heart of the rescuing efforts of the plateau. Up to five thousand people were sheltered in the region in those years. In breathtaking contrast to the collaboration around them, efforts to shelter Jews and other refugees were widespread in the region. The majority of those who did the rescuing reported that they did so because of their ‘Christian’ convictions.  Recognised by the Israeli government in 1990, as Righteous among the Gentiles, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and neighbouring villages are honoured with a plaque on the grounds of Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.

After the Nazi takeover in 1940 France was divided into the occupied Northern zone and ‘unoccupied’ southern Zone. The southern zone was administered by the collaborating Vichy government, which quickly passed anti-Semitic laws that were even more severe than those of the Nazi’s. Foreign-born Jews seeking to escape the Nazis and many French born Jews were sent to internment camps where they were held in appalling conditions. Mothers and children were separated and 75,700 Jews were sent from there to the death camps in Poland.  Of these 11,402 were children, many under the age of six.

Up to five thousand people were sheltered in the region in those years

Key players

Jews and other refugees fleeing Hitler were quietly being sheltered on the plateau from the mid 30’s. Charles Guillon, the mayor of Le Chambon had been organizing shelter for such people from 1938. All thirteen Protestant pastors on the plateau urged their congregations to hide refugees 'as their Christian duty'  and had their own rescue networks. The rescue expanded when in 1941 André Trocmé,  pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, through his contacts with the Quakers working in the internment camps, arranged for his parish to become a place of refuge primarily for children. Trocmé was an outstanding leader and inspirational preacher; a passionate pacifist who believed that faith must find itself in action. He was an important catalyst of action in the region.

In 1943 AndréTrocmé wrote a letter to his older brother saying:

  By the tens by the hundreds Jews are being directed to Le Chambon. My usual ministry has ceased completely because of this situation. Normally in summer, my dining room has been transformed into a waiting room (10-15 people a day). Now that’s the situation all year round.   

First stop for many of the refugees was the Hotel May on the central intersection of Le Chambon, the Pension Beau Soleil, or the Trocmé Presbytery. Bible-study groups became important communication channels for finding places to hide refugees. Many would be housed in outlying farms where they could slip into the thick forests that cover the area in the event of a roundup. Sometimes entire families would be taken in. Children released from the camps would be taken to Le Chambon by train or bus and sent to one of seven children’s homes in and around the village which were funded by groups such as the Quakers, Swiss Red Cross and pacifist organizations. False identity papers were produced and some refugees were guided along an underground railway to Switzerland.

To some extent it seems this ‘goodness’ was catching. There were raids by gendarmes looking for refugees but Magda Trocmé would be warned of an upcoming raid by a phone call and gendarmes would talk loudly in cafes about which farm they were going to raid next. There is some evidence of purposeful inattention to the rescue activities by the prefect for the region.   

After the summer of 1942 things became more precarious after the Germans moved into the southern zone. In 1943, three of the people heavily involved in the rescue were arrested: Trocmé, his assistant-pastor Edouard Theis and Roger Darcissac, headmaster of the public school in Le Chambon. They were released four weeks later, just before the entire camp in which they were imprisoned was deported. In June 1943 the Gestapo raided a boarding house and deported eighteen young adult refugees, as well as their boarding master Daniel Trocmé. Daniel, who was André Trocmé’s cousin, was later murdered in Maidenak concentration camp.

To some extent it seems this ‘goodness’ was catching

Not only did the villagers hide Jews but in Le Chambon they practiced non – cooperation with the Vichy government. Amélie the bellringer refused to ring the church bell in honour of Marshall Pétain saying the bell did not belong to the Marshall but to God. The private school set up by Trocmé and Thies refused to put up a picture of Petain on the wall, or pledge an oath of allegiance and would not enforce the mandatory saluting of the flag.

After 1943 sheltering Jews on the plateau was the norm. It was a collective and ecumenical effort that involved not just all twelve Protestant parishes but also  Darbyists, Swiss Protestants, American Quakers, Evangelicals, Catholics, Jewish organisations, and nonbelievers.  Almost the entire population of eight thousand people worked towards saving Jews and other refugees from destruction. They did so at great risk to their families and themselves. Not a single inhabitant of the plateau ever betrayed any of the refugees.

So what was it that motivated these people? And what role did faith play in their actions?

Motivations

The Faith Factor

A major motivator of action for those involved in the rescue was their Christian faith. At the heart of this was a particular understanding of what it meant to be obedient to God. Eva Fogelman’s study of religious rescuers has found that the belief that they were accountable to a higher authority was the most salient aspect of their rescuing identity:

  It overcame anti Semitism, transcended fear and impelled them to action …The moral dilemmas that rescuers grappled with were dealt with through prayer and study of Scripture and through this they became convinced that their work demonstrated God’s love and compassion for those suffering under Nazism.  

Many villagers referred to the Parable of the Good Samaritan when asked for the reason why they rescued. This parable acted as the foundation on which the rescue operation was grounded – a faith that reveals itself in action. Unlike the religious leaders of the parable who turned their faces from those in need, the inhabitants of the plateau saw and acted. They made it their business to be informed of events and questioned what they were being told by their government. A major reason why they were able to see is that rescuers chose not to fall for stereotypes but saw people as people. As Klempner notes:

  Nazi’s sought to stereotype Jews as subhuman, dangerous parasites whose destruction was necessary for the greater good of Europe. They asked Europeans to exclude Jews from their obligation to care. The success of the ‘Final Solution’ depended to a large extent on the cooperation or at least the passivity of what are now known as the  bystanders.  

The reflections of a Jewish girl who had travelled across Europe hounded from place to place fleeing the Nazis highlights the difference she found in the people of Le Chambon:
 

  Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your Father was and if you could pay. They just accepted us, taking us with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents; children who cried in the night from nightmares..”  

The people of Le Chambon understood well the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When it comes to having mercy there are no limits. And rescuer research has shown that it was this attitude to ‘the other’ that distinguished rescuers from bystanders. 
 
A shaping history

Fundamental to the rescue was a collective memory of persecution,  which gave the villagers empathy for those suffering a similar fate. Many of the rescuers of the plateau were descendants of French Huguenots  who had fled there during periods of severe persecution at the hands of their own government during the French Wars of Religion 1685-1789. The Huguenots referred to this period as le désert
– identifying themselves with the Old Testament Israelites and their time of wilderness wandering. The area became known as La Montagne Protestant –  The Protestant Mountain. Never part of the establishment, they encouraged each other to “Régister” – or resist pressure to recant their faith.

The villagers had a faith that had been forged through the fires of persecution

The area had a history of providing refuge for the persecuted and needy. From the 1890’s a Protestant Pastor established boarding houses for impoverished children from the mining town of St Etienne.

Catholic priests sought refuge there during the French Revolution, as did refugees from the Spanish Civil War who arrived in the 30’s.

Extensive research into people who sheltered Jews during World War II has found that rescuing was an extension of pre-war character. Patrick Henry sums it up well.

  This explains in large measure why so many of the rescuers felt that what they did hardly warranted attention, much less praise. It seemed ordinary to them, for it was their normal way of relating to others. They simply continued to act humanely at a time when to do so could have cost them their life.  What they did (feed hungry people, give a bed or barn for someone to sleep in etc…) was simply decent, not heroic. But when they did it rendered their actions extraordinary.  

The villagers had a faith that had been forged through the fires of persecution, and it formed the core of their identity. Many of them read their bibles daily and sought to obey what they read. They were influenced by Calvin’s ideas of resisting tyranny as well as his emphasis on Jews as the ‘chosen people’.

Their theology stood in stark contrast to the Lutheran church in Germany, which equated obedience to God with obedience to the state. A sermon given by Trocmé and Theis on June 23, 1940 to a packed church the day after the armistice was signed with the Nazi’s shows that it was clear to them that what they and their congregation faced was competing allegiances:

  Tremendous pressure will be put on us to submit passively to a totalitarian ideology … The duty of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on our consciences with the weapons of the spirit.  We appeal to all our brothers in Christ to refuse to cooperate with this violence …

 Loving, forgiving and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.

 

Leadership

This inspired leadership of the pastors of the plateau is an important factor that accounts for the extent of the rescue. The Pastors of the region lead by example. They harbored refugees in their own homes and urged their congregations to rescue as part of their Christian duty – emphasizing that Vichy laws were illegal because they violated God’s laws. 

During the war, sermons focused on such biblical passages as Deuteronomy 19:10, ‘I command you to protect the refugee, lest innocent blood be shed.’ Sermons looked not only at negative commands that require one to avoid doing harm but positive ones such as ‘seek justice, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house’ (Isaiah 58: 7). Overall, the call to action in favour of the weak and the vulnerable, was seen as being at the heart of Christian calling.

It represents the beauty of courage in the face of grave threat

Conclusion

The woeful record of the churches under Hitler needs to be addressed and acknowledged. There are lessons for the churches in the Holocaust – lessons that are ignored to its peril.  But at the same time it is imperative that the actions of those who resisted or rescued for reasons of faith be understood. As Gushee points out:

  Christian rescuers knew something that all Christians should have known: that embedded in Christian faith is a compelling manifesto for resistance and rescue, and living power to motivate and sustain such behaviour. This manifesto and these resources are drawn not from the margins but from the living centre of Christian faith.   

Indeed the rescuers well understood what Jesus saw as being at the heart of faith – to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself – a concept deeply rooted in the Jewish Old Testament and expounded in his Parable of the Good Samaritan. There is no doubt that in other parts of Europe, the church failed dismally in its response to the Nazi threat. Yet the story of La Montagne Protestant offers a sharp and impressive contrast. It represents the beauty of courage in the face of grave threat; selflessness and integrity at a time when pragmatic self-preservation was the order of the day. It meant thousands of innocent victims were given a chance at life, escaping the horrors of the concentration camps. It is a bright chapter in the Christian story that offers a glimpse of the core of the faith correctly understood and genuinely lived out.

Bronwen Hanna has a degree in history and political science.

This is a revised version of an address she gave at the Micah Challenge conference in Sydney in March. She visited Le Chambon in September last year is grateful to Nelly Trocmé Hewett for her helpful comments on this article.