[Varian Fry Institute] [Chambon Foundation Home] [Chambon Institute Home]
Questions About Righteous Conduct
In Le Chambon And Elsewhere During The Holocaust
address by Pierre Sauvage
in Humankind: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust”
U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council conference
Elie Wiesel, Chairman
Washington, D. C., September 19, 1984.
Train entering Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
Henri Héritier of Le Chambon
One day fifty years ago, a young French pastor arrived with his wife and children in what seemed to these cosmopolitan city people a rather sleepy mountain community. The new parish had, however, one promising feature, which the pastor, André Trocmé, described in a letter to an American friend.
In Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Trocmé wrote, "the old Huguenot spirit is still alive. The humblest peasant home has its Bible and the father reads it every day. So these people who do not read the papers but the Scriptures do not stand on the moving soil of opinion but on the rock of the Word of God." Time would soon prove just how right he was.
Le Chambon has affected my own life twice, and I'm no longer certain which of the two times is the most important. It was in Le Chambon that I was born in March 1944—a Jewish baby lucky to see the light of day in a place on earth singularly committed to his survival. This, at the very time when much of my family was disappearing into the abyss.
But it is only in the last few years that I have come to sense, in my bones and in my soul, the importance of what it is the people of Le Chambon and others like them tell us about ourselves. If only we can learn to listen. If only we can recognize our need. This, above all, is what I have learned so far: We need to know about the righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust far more than they need our gratitude.
We need to know how it is possible that some five thousand Jews were helped, were sheltered, were escorted to safety by some five thousand Christians of the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
And thus I ask ten questions about the people of Le Chambon and other rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, questions that suggest ten areas of interdisciplinary, inter-religious research and reflection that are at the top of the agenda of the Friends of Le Chambon Foundation.
1. Most and indeed virtually all of the people of the area of Le Chambon considered themselves committed Christians and most of them were the descendants of the Huguenots who had fled to this windswept, wintry plateau in the mountains of south-central France in order to escape persecution by the kings of France, in order to continue practicing their own brand of Christianity.
Aristotle asserts that the true nature of anything is the highest it can become. But for a Jew, that is a particularly difficult criteria to apply to Christianity during the Holocaust.
Given that the Holocaust occurred in the heart of Christian Europe and would not have been possible without the apathy or complicity of most Christians and without the virulent tradition of antisemitism that had long infested the very soul of Christianity, are we nonetheless to view these Christians of Le Chambon and other caring Christians of that time as rare but legitimately representative embodiments of exemplary Christian faith or merely as marginal, possibly accidental successes of a disastrously ineffective one?
To summarize, just how Christian were they?
2. However much the psychologists and the social scientists and traumatized secular Jews such as me will wish to minimize the spiritual and religious and hence not scientifically accessible dimensions of righteous conduct during the Holocaust, the evidence will, I submit, spill out, and will inevitably generate fundamental questions about the essential nature and specific characteristics of the religious faith of the righteous Christians.
What were their distinctive religious attitudes and perceptions? What did they, what did the peasants and villagers of Le Chambon, understand that so tragically eluded their Christian brethren from the Pope on down?
Could it be, for instance, that the righteous Christians were, in particular, Christians who were comfortable with the Jewish roots of their faith, indeed with the Jewishness of Jesus? Were they Christians for whom Christianity was, perhaps, more the religion of Jesus than the religion about Jesus? This appears to have been remarkably the case in Le Chambon, where a number of Jews never got over their astonishment at being not only sheltered but welcomed as the People of God, and where Judaism was also sheltered to some extent and not just persecuted people who happened to have been Jews.
By the way, among the ramifications of this question for today are the fact that we live in a time when some surprising Christians are proclaiming their love for the Jews and for Israel, while many and possibly most Jews doubt that such a love could have any genuine basis. I would like to suggest that if we Jews knew more about who our friends were then, we might find new ways of knowing who they might be today and tomorrow.
In other words, just what sort of Christians were the righteous Christians of the Holocaust?
3. Both André Trocmé and assistant pastor Edouard Theis were determined pacifists. "The responsibility of Christians," they proclaimed in church during Sunday services the very day after the armistice with Nazi Germany was signed, "is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit." What can we learn from the dramatic effectiveness of these weapons in Le Chambon?
If it is true, as the American bishops proclaimed in their important pastoral letter on war and peace, that "Nonviolent means of resistance to evil deserve much more study and consideration than they have thus far received," are not Le Chambon and the righteous Gentiles of the Nazi era—including a number of caring, devout Catholics in whom the Church thus far has shown very little interest—are not they the obvious place to begin?
And to my fellow Jews I would also like to ask this: Independently even of our share of responsibility in the survival of mankind in this most perilous time in history, do we not have a special incentive to be interested in the only weapons that were specifically and productively used by others at that time to save some of us?
Can we learn something useful about nonviolent resistance from the Holocaust, despite the pervasive contrary assumption?
4. In Le Chambon as elsewhere, women played a key role in rescue. It was often women who were faced with the first all-important decisions as to whether or not to take a stranger into their kitchens and into their homes, a stranger whose presence could imperil the lives of their families. Certainly, the women of Le Chambon were the backbone of much of what occurred there.
Could it be that one reason we have been taught so little about righteous Gentiles is that so-called higher education is so dominated by distorting male values, and that it is easier for male historians to get excited over the sometimes meaningless clatter of military hardware than about manifestations of spiritual resistance, even when this resistance produced much more tangible results?
Do conventional male values limit our perspective on resistance to the Holocaust?
5. The people of Le Chambon, as Protestants in a Catholic country, were no doubt especially sensitive to the oppression of minorities, and I hasten to add that the Catholics in Le Chambon, a minority within a minority, as it happens, joined actively in the rescue effort.
Just how important, just how determinant was this sense of being a minority to the sense of active empathy that developed? Is not every single one of us a minority of one sort or another, and could it be that many of the righteous Gentiles had a greater sense of this even before they joined the tiny minority of people who resisted the persecution of the Jews?
6. The moment I became interested in righteous conduct, and indeed as soon as I met Magda Trocmé and other such good people, I had to start rethinking my vocabulary.
I am hardly enthusiastic about the word "righteous" in English, for instance, given that too many people hear "self-righteous." Even the word "Gentile" suggests an emphasis that for my part I do not really intend. I'm interested in righteous people and righteous conduct, not in non-Jews per se. (I also do not like the inadvertent implication that there weren't some equally remarkable Jews implementing similar values, about whom, incidentally, we know even less than about the Gentiles.)
But words such as "righteous" and "Gentile" appear unavoidable at this stage, and perhaps they can be shaped to meet our needs. Other words, however, are dangerous and must be jettisoned.
To give just one example that I believe raises a crucial issue, I have become convinced that the adjective "selfless" precludes any understanding of the people it is misleadingly used to praise. I am among those who suspect that Hitler and Eichmann suffered from what could be termed selflessness—but not the people of Le Chambon.
And if it is indeed true, in Le Chambon and elsewhere, that it was on the contrary a very secure, very anchored sense of self—a spontaneous access to the core of their being—that resulted in a natural and irresistible proclivity to see the truth and act upon it, if it is indeed true that many or all of the righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust displayed this characteristic psychological solidity, then a question arises that my wife and I face all the time as we raise our four year-old son.
How does one nurture that powerful and benevolent a sense of self-esteem? If self-esteem was indeed a characteristic of the righteous, then how did they succeed in developing it? What was special about their upbringing?
7. As we have had a chance to observe during this conference, it is a rare righteous Gentile who believes that there was something remarkable about his or her own courage.
The people of Le Chambon through their individual and collective actions were endangering the lives of each and every one of them and yet, there too, the risks are acknowledged but not considered to have been a very important part of the decision-making process. "One gets used to the risks," is how a peasant woman who helped my parents and me dismissed the question I put to her about this issue.
We tend to interpret this reaction as mere modesty, but could it be that courage is something that everybody except the courageous themselves attaches importance to?
Could it be that whenever we overemphasize the courage of the righteous we do not communicate anything about it or increase its presence in our midst because courage cannot help but come naturally when we feel the need to generate it and will not come at all if singled out for special attention while being detached from its reasons for emerging?
A glib reference to the courageous, selfless people of Le Chambon may thus have a hollow ring to our ears—and generate no real interest in these people—because such words correspond to empty concepts. Perhaps the real, subconscious intent of such vocabulary is in fact to make such people seem essentially different from you and me and thus not really, challengingly relevant to our daily lives.
The question is: How do we learn to view the people of Le Chambon and others like them merely as people with a solid, productive grasp on life, and not as incarnations of fairy-tale virtues which we can then preach and/or ignore?
8. The people of Le Chambon remembered a lot, about their heritage and about other important things as well. The Bible, by which I refer to what Christians designate as the Old Testament but which the people of Le Chambon knew well, is, among other things, an exaltation of memory. Just how important is memory in the genesis of righteous conduct?
I might ask in passing how much do we here in America truly remember how many of our ancestors came here to escape oppression of one sort or another? If Americans had remembered better at the time of the Holocaust—if they had also remembered the oppression of the native Americans and the still almost unfathomable viciousness of the slavery inflicted on blacks—would not the State Department where we gather have been pressured to help the persecuted of Europe instead of being allowed, as Elie Wiesel has aptly reminded us, to slam the door on them?
Were all havens of refuge for Jews during the Holocaust havens of memory, just as in Le Chambon?
9. Traditional, hierarchical leadership was largely absent among Christians when it came to resisting the appeal of Nazism. But is it not true that we only have the leaders that we deserve?
And should we be so hasty as disregard the possibility that leaders of an untraditional sort may have emerged during that time and that it may be at least in part a matter of whether we are capable of recognizing who they were?
How does one recognize leaders in a time of moral decay? What form does their leadership take? Are these not pressing questions for us today?
What sort of leaders did the dynamics of collective rescue produce in Le Chambon and what can we learn from the remarkable effectiveness of André and Magda Trocmé, for instance?
10. Finally, it appears that the people of Le Chambon often did not know what their neighbors were doing, in terms of rescue. They barely if ever talked about it at the time, and did not talk about it after the war when the Jews left. Although there certainly were some overtly collective actions undertaken in the area, the conspiracy of goodness that occurred was in important respects a tacit and unspoken one.
Yes, one might say that there was a minyan in Le Chambon, an instance of communal righteousness such as did not occur on this scale, for this length of time, anywhere else in occupied Europe. But did it result from these people placing their trust in the beneficence of collective responsibility or from their understanding that collective responsibility can only occur when there is individual responsibility, and that you cannot get anywhere if you do not begin with individual responsibility, that is, with yourself?
And since that probably is merely a rhetorical question, then let me ask this: If both individual and collective responsibility begin with the notion that it is indeed better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, then how do they ultimately differ?
Albert Camus, whose allegorical novel "The Plague" was conceived and begun in the area of Le Chambon at that time, has his narrator say this: "There always comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two plus two equals four is punished with death....And the issue is not a matter of what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not two plus two equals four. For those of our townspeople who were then risking their lives, the decision they had to make was simply whether or not they were in the midst of a plague and whether or not it was necessary to struggle against it."
This address was printed in The Courage To Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Carol Rittner, R.S.M., and .Sondra Myers, Editors (New York University Pres, 1986), and in the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 13:1 & 2 (fall/winter and spring/summer 1985/86), 252-259.
[Varian Fry Institute] [Chambon Foundation Home] [Chambon Institute]
[email us] [contact information] [table of contents] [contribution?] [search] [feedback] [guest book] [link?]
© Copyright 2004, Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: May 20, 2010