While nearly six million Jews went to their deaths in the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, scattered remnants were saved by heroic and self-sacrificing Gentiles. One of the most moving stories comes from a small Protestant town in southeastern France.
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The Holocaust Comes to France
At the outset of World War II, France had a population of approximately 350,000 Jews, mostly assimilated and some having already fled Germany after the rise of Hitler. The Nazi triumph over the French left the southern part of the country unoccupied for two years, and the Jews in that region were relatively undisturbed even after deportations and extermination began elsewhere. But in 1942, the German authorities ordered roundups of the Jews and received the cooperation of the puppet Vichy regime.
Hearing of the new murderous development, Pastor Andre Trocme of the mountain village of Le Chambon sur Lignon urged his congregation to shelter as many Jews as reached their area and to help them escape from the country when possible. The Pastor insisted that it was their Christian duty to save the lives of the people of the Old Testament. He was also probably influenced by the history of the Protestants, known as Huguenots in France, where they were a small minority and had been subjected to persecution and massacres going back to the 16th century.
Trocme also obtained the assistance of a neighboring Catholic parish.
Word of the courageous stance of Le Chambon reached desperate Jews in other parts of France and many headed for the remote village. Pastor Trocme, his wife Magda, and several associates identified places of shelter, directed fleeing Jews to them, and organized clandestine journeys over the nearby mountains to neutral Switzerland, which was beyond German jurisdiction. Magda Trocme led several of the treks herself. The Trocmes and the villagers were confronted and threatened by Vichy and German representatives but, even after the imprisonment of Pastor Trocme and others, refused to give up their rescue mission. A nephew, Daniel Trocme, was caught with some Jewish children and was executed in a death camp gas chamber.
Honor for Le Chambon
While at least 20 percent of French Jews died in the Holocaust, an estimated 5,000 escaped by finding shelter and aid in Le Chambon sur Lignon. The State of Israel, established in 1948 as a permanent refuge for Jews, created a Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem known by the Hebrew words Yad Vashem. One of its features is a place of honor for “The Righteous Among the Nations” who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Andre and Magda Trocme and 32 of their neighbors received this designation and, ultimately, the entire village was given a special and unique recognition for its work.
In a test of humanity that millions failed, the story of this humble mountain village is inspring and, in every sense, redeeming.