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The Message of Le Chambon

by Pierre Sauvage, July 7, 2004


French President Jacques Chirac is on July 8 choosing to make what is being billed as an important speech on the "values of the Republic" in a tiny village in the mountains of south-central France: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

In and around Le Chambon, some 5,000 Jews were sheltered during the Holocaust—by some 5,000 Christians.  There were a hundred of us former refugees who gathered there last month, right after D-Day, for our own Liberation Reunion, the first such reunion since 1986.  The French president’s visit fills with pride and gratitude all those who care deeply about this tiny corner of the world that under the Nazi occupation never ceased to be free.

I myself was born and protected in Le Chambon in March 1944.  In my documentary Weapons of the Spirit, I chronicled the conspiracy of goodness that has made of Le Chambon a unique place of pilgrimage in the world.

It cannot be overlooked that French responsibility in the “Final Solution” was considerable: a quarter of the Jews of France, some 80,000 people—including more than 10 000 children—were handed over to their murderers.  "On that day," President Chirac acknowledged at last in 1995 on behalf of the state, "France committed the irreparable."

But it is also true that many Jews of France received help here and there from the French people; some 2,000 French Righteous Among the Nations have been recognized to date.  Sixty-five of these Righteous did their work in the area of Le Chambon—forty of them in that hold Huguenot stronghold, the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.  Most importantly, the area is the only place in France—and only one of two throughout Europe—where the entire population has been collectively recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

Perhaps President Chirac will have the boldness to acknowledge in his address that it is not the narrowly defined secular values of the French Republic that motivated the Righteous of Le Chambon.  Everybody who knew the area then agrees that what was accomplished there was a response to more ancient and intimate personal priorities, rooted in Christian faith and in the population’s distinctive sense of identity as descendants of once persecuted Huguenots.

Furthermore, while it is true that the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust is increasingly and understandably considered by historians to have been a form of resistance to the Nazis, must Le Chambon-sur-Lignon nevertheless resign itself to becoming misleadingly celebrated—as it is on the official website of the French President—as a "landmark of the Résistance”?

The French Resistance, such as it was, was in fact a patriotic movement; it was not notably concerned about the plight of the Jews.  The population of the area of Le Chambon, on the other hand, resisted mainly "through the weapons of the spirit," to quote the exhortation of the two pastors of Le Chambon the very day after France signed the armistice with Nazi Germany.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II was the first pope to enter a synagogue.  I hope that the President of secular, republican France will not fail on this occasion to enter the Protestant temple the village.  These were the headquarters, to the extent that there were any, of people who practiced what they preached.  When it comes to values, the French Republic may still have much to learn from the history of Le Chambon. 

Pierre Sauvage is the President of the Los Angeles-based Chambon Foundation, which at one time partnered with the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to create a museum complex there.  More information on Chirac's visit is available on the Chambon Foundation's webste at www.chambon.org.


President Chirac Visits Le Chambon


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