“Naturally, come in and come in”: How often was that invitation spoken to those seeking refuge in the small village of Le Chambon during the violent years of Nazi occupation? While so many in the world turned a blind eye to the horrors perpetrated in the network of 40,000 concentration camps, the residents of this poor farming village in south-central France—where farmers barely scraped by in rough winters that brought chill winds and snow—offered everything they had, even their lives, for the sake of strangers. Led by several key leaders, especially the pastor André Trocmé, the village of Le Chambon became a place of refuge for several thousand lives in danger, most of them Jews.
For the villagers, theirs was an active, non-violent resistance to “evil and harm," the phrase often used by their leaders. Trocmé had come to the village as pastor in 1934 and opened a school that taught the principles of non-violence while preparing students for their baccalaureate exams. Such a school attracted excellent students to the dying village and prepared the best of them to go out into the world to teach these principles to others. Providing for the needs of students and teachers had an added benefit: it provided employment for the poor residents and nearby farmers during the long winter months. The village was united and revived by this new work.
Philip Hallie, author of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, recounts the healing of his own wounds when reading about Le Chambon in newspaper articles. His study of Nazi atrocities began in objectivity but devolved to cynicism and doubt. Reading the story of Le Chambon’s courageous love for their neighbors restored his faith in the simple goodness of recognizing the preciousness of life. Hallie decided to go to Le Chambon so that he could tell the story of this goodness. He writes that Trocmé’s commitment to non-violence was grounded in his relationship with Jesus, that “Jesus was for Trocmé the embodied forgiveness of sins, and staying close to Jesus meant always being ready to forgive your enemies…Trocmé could not bear to separate himself from Jesus by ignoring the precious quality of human life that God had demonstrated in the incarnation.”
In his documentary on Le Chambon, titled Weapons of the Spirit, Pierre Sauvage points out that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis was part of a larger cultural failure—the failure of government, of law, and of the intellectual class. According to Sauvage, their sins of omission, turning away from the one in need and having nothing but apathy towards another’s plight, were the result of moral bankruptcy. The Chambonnais, however, did not suffer from this disease, perhaps because of their own Huguenot history—a history of more than 200 years of persecution; perhaps because of their understanding of Scripture; or perhaps because they loved Jesus as Trocmé and the other leaders did. Sauvage, who was born in Le Chambon while his parents were sheltered there by the Heretier family, says the story of the little French village is a “banister” to hold us up to be rescuers when evil threatens to engulf us.
For it was not just the leaders: The entire village of Le Chambon plus the outlying farms, some 3,000 residents altogether, collaborated in a response to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The women of Le Chambon played perhaps the most important role: more times than not, they were the ones who opened their doors to the refugees that sought shelter, food and clothing in increasing numbers. These women were tough women, committed to loving all in need. They were not a well-oiled rescue operation. They were not adept at escaping detection. They did not get better and better at staying alive. They were merely a people dedicated to those in need. As Magda Trocmé said in an interview many years later, “How can you call us good? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.”
Magda surely expresses what the Chambonnais believed, and yet what occurred in Le Chambon was extraordinary and unique: Christians did extraordinary things, led by the Spirit and by their commitment to be Christians at all times, to all people. They would not accept violence, and for them to refuse help to those in need was an act of violence.
In the only successful raid on Le Chambon, Daniel Trocmé, cousin to Andre and head of the school for younger children, could have escaped into the woods; but he was responsible for the children and refused to leave them when the Gestapo rounded up the young students. Magda raced to the House on the Rocks where they were being held and interrogated. There she did what she could to bring peace to the children and obtain information from Daniel without revealing his identity as the head of the school. She managed to arrange the release of one young Jewish man who had the month before rescued a drowning German soldier. But the rest, including Daniel, were taken to Majdanek concentration camp where, it was later learned, Daniel was shot and killed. His sacrifice is evidence of the extraordinary nature of the Chambonnais’ radical Christianity.
Though these were dangerous times and the stakes were very high for the Chambonnais, there are surprisingly few exciting stories of rescue and escape among the stories of Le Chambon. Rather, this was a quiet, determined, simple story of love and generosity, a story that needs retelling in our own good and bad times, a story that should be remembered.
Hallie is moved to say at the end of his narrative, “I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being…that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from (those) depths, ‘Naturally, come in and come in.’”
This story helps us to remember with Hallie that “goodness is the simplest thing in the world, and the most complex, like opening a door.” As it says over the temple door where Trocmé preached non-violent resistance, all we must do is “Love one another.”
Header image by O'lhommartsam, used under license CC BY-SA 3.0. Image of Trocmé PD-1923. Image of St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre PD-Old. Image of Majdanek by M.Bucka, used under license CC BY-SA 4.0. Image of temple by Pensées de Pascal, used under license CC BY-SA 4.0.