August 22, 2011


Protestant French Village that Resisted Vichy: With History of Discrimination, Chambon-sur-Lignon Stood Up (Robert Zaretsky, July 22, 2011,Forward)

Ever since the Louis XIV's revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which had imposed a century of religious tolerance, the low and sturdy stone houses had been a haven for the Huguenots, or French Protestants. Hunted by royal troops and hounded by Catholic inquisitors, the Huguenots nevertheless held fast to their faith. Their ministers led Sunday services in the craggy folds of the Cévennes, and their military leaders led a guerrilla war against the Bourbon battalions. As a result, even after the Revolution of 1789, which emancipated and enfranchised both them and French Jews, the Huguenots remained deeply marked by the so-called "years of the desert."

A remarkable minister, André Trocmé, embodied the historical wisdom accrued over the centuries by the Protestants.

Scarred by the murderous reality of World War I, Trocmé was a committed pacifist when he arrived in Chambon in 1934 to assume the ministry. Four years later, with the help of his colleagues Edouard Theis and Roger Darcissac, Trocmé founded the Cevenol school. His motivation reflected the same mixture of hard-nosed practicality and spiritual sublimity that later informed his actions during World War II: to teach the pacifist ideals central to the work of the Gospel, but also to create a steady source of revenue that the students could provide, and without which the small village would soon wither and die.

When republican France was routed, the Germans occupied the northern half of the country, while the newly created French state, known as Vichy, ruled the southern half. Vichy quickly passed a series of anti-Semitic laws, forbidding Jews from practicing most professions, from studying at universities and from owning businesses. They also had to register with the authorities, laying the legal and psychological foundations for the French police's notorious rafles, or roundups, of foreign and French Jews in the summer of 1942.

Well before most of France, Trocmé and his flock in Chambon were acutely aware of the future that Vichy was preparing for the Jews. In 1940, an utterly dispirited nation had embraced Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of Vichy. Yet Trocmé kept his distance, refusing in 1940 to sign the oath of allegiance to Pétain or to sound the church bells in 1941 to mark his birthday. In these and similar cases, Trocmé avoided confronting the authorities directly: holding fast to his beliefs, but not endangering his church.

All this changed, though, when a mounting stream of Jews -- in 1941 they were ordered to wear the yellow star on their outer garments -- quit the Occupied Zone and began to find their way to Chambon by train. In order to shelter these men, women and children, Trocmé realized that a more systematic, and much more dangerous, resistance was required. In his moving account, "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed," published by Harper & Row in 1979 and revised in 1994, Philip Hallie emphasizes that Trocmé and his fellow villagers were amateurs. There were no teachers, primers or even resistance pamphlets for them to consult. Establishing lines of communication with other clandestine groups, finding safe houses and creating aliases for the refugees, and forging papers and identity cards all demanded an extraordinary degree of planning and care. Yet, the practical and organizational aspects to the work of saving the lives of others always remained a work in progress.

Equally significant, however, were the less practical elements of resistance. While the villagers groped toward developing an effective organization, they did not hesitate over the need to resist. Their clarity of vision resulted in part from the historical experience of the Huguenot community, but, no less important, it reflected an ethical stance that Trocmé had practiced his entire adult life. Resistance is, first and foremost, a way of seeing the world, one that makes manifest the moral imperative to acknowledge and respect the dignity of each and every fellow human being.

Posted by at August 22, 2011 6:12 AM

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