Learning about Le Chambon
In the 1970s, I came upon a book called Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There by Wesleyan professor Philip Hallie. Fred and I were both intrigued by the story Hallie related of a Huguenot town in France called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon which, during World War II, hid and saved at least 3,500 Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis, among whom were many children hidden in one of the 12 surrounding villages and on farms on the plateau Vivarais-Lignon . (The exact number will never be known.)
We learned that local Pastor André Trocmé and his colleague, Pastor Edouard Theis, urged the citizens of the town and the surrounding areas to risk their lives to hide Jews in their homes, on farms, and in public institutions. Not one refugee was turned away, and at least 3,500 Jews were saved. They also obtained false papers and ration cards for some, and helped them across the border to Switzerland.
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem honored LeChambon and surrounding communities with a small stele erected in a small rock garden. Both Andre and Magda were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, as well as about 40 members of the community.
The First French Connection
The name Trocmé rang a bell with me, as a French boy named Jacques Trocmé had joined my senior class at Westtown School, a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, in 1948-49. Next time Fred and I traveled to France, we spent a lovely evening with Jacques and his wife Leslyn at their home outside Paris. As we were leaving, I asked him if he was related to the pastor who had saved so many Jews during the war. “Yes,” he replied, “he was my father.” We were privileged to learn more about the family’s heroic acts and to see the plaque awarded to the pastor and his wife Magda by Yad Vashem.
Driving in south central France on a subsequent trip in the fall of 1981, Fred announced—as he often did—that he had a surprise for me. I immediately searched the map to see if I could discover where we were headed, all the while enjoying the hillsides brilliant with colors, more vivid in their golds and reds than even New England in the fall. Admidst rolling hills were nestled little farms, and cows and goats grazed on the verdant grass, sometimes ambling across the road in front of us. I was completely baffled as to our destination until at last I saw a directional sign pointing to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
Arriving in the town, we found ourselves looking into the faces of those over 60 and wondering if and how they were involved in the wartime events—a kind of ironic reversal of the feeling we had in Germany when we saw people of that same age.
At the tiny Huguenot temple where Trocmé had thundered his moral messages to the people, we met the current young pastor who proudly showed us the plaque that was erected by Jews who had been saved by the village. We saw the College Lycee Cevenol International, the school the refugee children attended and the House of Rocks where many of them stayed.
We fell in love with this little town—first, of course, because of what they did, but also because of its beauty and charm. In the summer, it’s a bustling resort with many hotels and even a beach. The air is pure, and the surrounding countryside like a painting.
Pierre Sauvage and “Weapons of the Spirit”
After Fred passed away in 2002, I founded the Fred Marcus Memorial Holocaust Lecture in his memory. Initially housed at Temple Sinai, the annual lecture has been under the auspices of the Holocaust Awareness Institute of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver since 2007. The lecture is held each spring, and now attracts 600 people, including many middle and high school students.
Continuing my romance with the story of LeChambon, I invited filmmaker Pierre Sauvage to speak and show his award-winning film “Weapons of the Spirit” at the 2004 lecture. One of the children who was saved by the village, Pierre made this exceptional documentary to pay homage to those who saved his life. The film marks the first time that villagers spoke of their role during WWII.
As you can see, my connection with Le Chambon has spanned six decades. I hope you are as inspired as I by this community and their leaders, whose extraordinary resistance against the Nazis has touched me deeply.