As the Holocaust loomed, a few Jews made their way to the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the mountains of south-central France, 350 miles south of Paris. And the peasants and villagers took in the Jews who came. And the Jews kept coming. And the people kept taking them in. In this one speck of France that never ceased to be free, 5,000 Jews found shelter, at one time or another—among 5,000 Christians.
It was there that French President Jacques Chirac chose recently to deliver a major address calling upon the French to react against the rising antisemitism and intolerance in their country. His starting point was this “place steeped in history and emotion”:
“Here,” the president said, “in adversity, the soul of the nation manifested itself. Here was the embodiment of our country’s conscience. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a place of memory. A place of resistance. A place symbolizing a France true to her principles, faithful to her heritage, true to her genius.
“On this high plateau, with its harsh winters, in solitude, sometimes in poverty, often in adversity, women and men have long upheld the values that unite us. In what was one of the most deprived areas of our country, standing up to all the dangers, they chose courage, generosity and dignity. They chose tolerance, solidarity and fraternity. They chose the humanist principles that unite our national community and serve as the basis of our collective destiny — the principles that make France what she is.”
I am a Jew born and sheltered in Le Chambon during the Nazi occupation. I have long sought French support for the establishment of a museum in Le Chambon dedicated to the area’s conspiracy of goodness, and thus I was gratified by a French president’s belated tribute to my birthplace.
But I was also disturbed by Chirac’s comments. It now seems that the challenge of Le Chambon’s history to France risks being buried under praise instead of neglect.
As the president noted, Le Chambon was an old Huguenot stronghold in historically Catholic, and now largely secular, France. During World War II, the collaborationist Vichy government willingly joined in Nazi policies, ultimately contributing more than 75,000 Jews, including 10,000 children, to the Final Solution.
For the people of Le Chambon, nothing that occurred then seemed entirely unfamiliar. In every challenge, there was an echo of their forefathers’ struggle and faith in the face of religious intolerance.
Once, their temples had been destroyed, their rights abolished, their men deported to slave on galleys, their women interned in towers where they scraped a message for future generations: “Resist.” Once, itinerant preachers had risked their lives reading psalms from the Old Testament and identifying with the biblical journey to the Promised Land.
In France today, it is “humanist principles” and “the values of the Republic” that are nearly sanctified. Communautarisme — which roughly translates as ethnocentrism — is widely viewed as challenging the very essence of French national identity. French officials focus on upholding the militant French-style secularism known as laïcité, responding to the Islamic threat by banning conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools.
In his speech in Le Chambon, Chirac made no reference to the Hebrew Bible or to the New Testament, to faith or the power of religious convictions. He touched only lightly on the “Protestant Mountain’s” once-determined particularism. He urged his compatriots “always to carry [their national] heritage with pride.” But had the people of Le Chambon not been motivated to resist the Holocaust by more than just their Frenchness?
If this issue matters to me, it’s in part because I was raised without any “narrow” sense of community. Until I was 18, my parents, ardent secularists, went so far as to hide from me the fact that they were Jewish — that I was Jewish. Instead, although my mother was in reality a Polish Jew and my father was born to immigrant Jews, they successfully transmitted to me their love of French culture and, for a long time, their deeply anti-communautariste and vigorously anti-religious sentiments.
Everything changed when I returned to Le Chambon in 1982 with a film crew to gather the last testimony of the village’s righteous in what became my documentary film, “Weapons of the Spirit.” Until then, I had viewed religion as a source of conflict and ignorance, religious people as by definition bigoted and fundamentally stupid. It was only in editing my footage, in watching the rescuers’ testimony again and again, that I began to decipher the explosive content of what they had to say. It did not make me religious, but it made my children Jews.
When I pressed Henri and Emma Héritier with regard to the risks they had taken in sheltering Jews, Madame Héritier would provide only a short, definitive response coupled with an eloquent shrug of her shoulder: “We were used to it.” Georgette Barraud mainly had this to say: “It happened so naturally. We can’t understand the fuss.”
As I recounted to Bill Moyers in an interview that followed the broadcasts of “Weapons of the Spirit” on PBS, I was once visiting Le Chambon with an American cousin, and we ran into Marie Brottes, who, for her part, had helped the Jews in large measure because they were “the people of God.” Barely after being introduced, the two women hugged each other like sisters meeting after years of separation. My cousin later explained why the tears had come to her eyes: “It was like hugging a tree.”
What gave these people such solidity? What was it, specifically, that these peasants were so used to? And how could their actions have seemed so natural to them when the area of Le Chambon is one of only two communities in all of Nazi-occupied Europe to have been honored collectively as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust?
Given the very purpose of Chirac’s call to arms against intolerance, why wasn’t it imperative to begin acknowledging — especially in Le Chambon — the good that can be derived too from religious faith and identity? Couldn’t a better understanding of religion’s successes help in confronting its excesses? If we are to become like trees ourselves, do we not need roots? Even if we are no longer religious, is it not a source of strength to identify and accept what remains in us of our ancestors?
Pierre Sauvage, president of the Los Angeles-based Chambon Foundation, is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. He directed “Weapons of the Spirit” and the forthcoming “And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille.”