[Varian Fry Institute]          [Chambon Foundation Home]          [Chambon Institute Home]

FRANCE: When Protestant "communal" values saved thousands of Jews

The Challenge of Le Chambon

by Pierre Sauvage

This is a slightly expanded adaptation of Le défi du Chambon, the only article to appear in the French press questioning aspects of French President Jacques Chirac's visit to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on July 8, 2004 and his major address there.  In France, the article touched on hot-button issues and challenged a widespread, politically-correct consensus.  I am very grateful to Le Figaro for immediately accepting the article as submitted and publishing it the next day, July 13, 2004, five days after Chirac's address.  Please see also a shorter version of this article, first published in the Jewish newspaper, the Forward on Oct. 8, 2004.



On July 8, 2004, French President Jacques Chirac made an official visit to the historic village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in the mountains of south-central France.  He wanted to deliver there a major address on rising antisemitism and intolerance in his country.  He began by paying tribute to this "place steeped in history and emotion":

"Here, 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 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 for our collective destiny—the principles that make France what she is."

It has been estimated that some five thousand Jews, including many children, found refuge at one time or another in this tiny corner of France that never ceased to be free.  The French President who was the first to formally recognize, fifty years after the war, France’s responsibility in the murder of the Jews, was thus the same President who, sixty years after Liberation, at last assigned a role for Le Chambon in French history.

As a Jew born and sheltered during the Nazi occupation in Le Chambon, as the president of the Los Angeles-based Chambon Foundation committed for over twenty years to preserving the memory of what happened there, I was touched and encouraged by this extraordinarily high-level recognition of the importance of Le Chambon.  But I was also disturbed by it: it now seems like the challenge of Le Chambon’s history to France risks being buried under praise instead of neglect.

The road toward public recognition has been a long one.  It took more than thirty years for a handful of former refugees from the area to place a plaque, opposite the village’s Protestant temple, proclaiming that “the memory of the righteous shall be everlasting.”  It was in 1979 that the late American philosophy professor Philip Hallie published his pioneering study of Le Chambon, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.  It was in 1982 that I myself returned to Le Chambon to gather the last testimony of the village’s "righteous" in what became in 1989 my feature documentary film Weapons of the Spirit, finally broadcast on French television in 1998—in the middle of the night.

Indeed, less than a month prior to Chirac’s visit, without evoking much national interest in France, there were a hundred of us former refugees who responded to the joint invitation of the Chambon Foundation and the mayor of the village to make a pilgrimage for a sometimes emotional “Liberation Reunion.”  The event also included a well-attended conference featuring major participants from those times and leading historians of the war years in France.  I had sought a videotaped message of greeting from President Chirac, but he decided instead to come in person shortly after our gathering.

It was in Le Chambon, in a highly covered media event, that Chirac wanted to call solemnly upon the French to react forcefully not only against antisemitism but also against the rise in what the French call communautarisme*—a sense of self-absorption within ethnic and religious communities widely viewed as challenging the very essence of French national identity.

The actions of the area of Le Chambon during World War II certainly appeared relevant to Chirac's intent.  We most assuredly need examples of the best of which we are capable, individually and collectively.  But of what precisely is Le Chambon an example?  Why there?

Of course, as Chirac didn’t fail to note, Le Chambon was an old Huguenot stronghold in historically Catholic (and now largely secular) France.  It is certainly to a great degree because the collective memory of past persecution remained vivid throughout "the Protestant Mountain" that these people were so able, in Chirac's words, to make “their banner out of the beautiful verb ‘to resist’."  Indeed, everywhere in France where there was a significant Huguenot presence the Jews had an especially good chance of finding shelter.

But was History enough to propel these peasants and villagers to “chose tolerance, solidarity and fraternity”?  If History alone sufficed to instill such conduct, would not the entire world today be an ocean of mutual understanding and goodwill?

Referring to the population's ordeal as a result of past French religious intolerance, the French President mentioned that Protestantism in France had had to engage in a painful "struggle for the nation, a struggle that led to the inclusion of religious freedom in our Declaration of the Rights of Man" (a founding document of the French Republic).  But was the Huguenot struggle really "a struggle for the nation"?  Was it as a result of "the humanist principles that unite our national community" that the peaceful haven of Le Chambon flourished?

In France today, it is “humanist principles” and “the values of the Republic” that are nearly sanctified.  In a disturbing trend, the word “community” (communauté) is on its way to becoming a pejorative term in France—except when it is applied to the national community.  But was it not crucial that there still was then in Le Chambon and throughout the surrounding plateau a very strong sense of communal religious identity that not only preserved but ran deeper than the tragedies in their history?  Was is not in large part because of this identity—independent of any national identity—that there arose among these people this singular conspiracy of goodness? 

In his speech in Le Chambon, Chirac asked his compatriots "to always carry their heritage with pride."  But why is that heritage always restricted to a near-sanctification of the "values of the Republic"?  Why has it become sacrilegious in France to advocate relearning pride in "communal" heritages, whether religious or ethnic?  How can one convincingly praise Le Chambon while concurrently allowing that nasty word communautarisme to eradicate any sense of the generosity of spirit and openness to others that can also be derived from participation in a shared community of values?  

To be sure, I am a Frenchman living in the United States, and I am influenced by American attitudes about such matters.  Moreover, if this issue matters so greatly to me, it is because, for my part, I was raised without this narrow sense of community.  Not only was I not raised in the worship of Le Chambon, but my parents, ardent secularists, went so far as to hide from me till I was 18 that they were Jewish—that I was Jewish.

Raised very French in New York City, I vaguely assumed that I was a product of rural France, with which I did not, in reality, have deep ties.  My parents, Léo and Barbara Sauvage—actually Léopold Smotriez and Barbara Suchowolska, a Jew raised in Lorraine, in Eastern France, married to a Polish Jew—successfully transmitted to me their love of French culture and, for a long time, their deeply anti-communautariste and vigorously anti-religious sentiments.

Until I returned to Le Chambon with a film crew, it was crystal clear to me: religion was only a source of ignorance and conflict; religious people were by definition narrow-minded, bigoted, fundamentally stupid.  It was only during the editing of my film, as a result of viewing again and again the testimony of the rescuers of Le Chambon, that I began to decipher the explosive content of what they had to say.

When I pressed Henri and Emma Héritier with regard to the risks they had taken in sheltering Jews, Mme Héritier would provide only a short, definitive response coupled with an eloquent shrug of her shoulder: “We were used to it.”  Mme Georgette Barraud had mainly this to say: “It happened so naturally.   We can’t understand the fuss.”

But what was it specifically that the population was so used to?  How could such an attitude have seemed so natural?  It is collectively that the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the neighboring villages have since been honored in France as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust.  If their actions were so natural, how is it that these honors are, in fact, unique in France and almost unique for the rest of occupied Europe.

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 when we ran into Marie Brottes, who for her part had helped the Jews in large measure because they were “the people of God.”  Upon being introduced to each other, the two women hugged without restraint, like sisters meeting again after years of separation.  My cousin later explained why the tears had come to her eyes: “It was like hugging a tree.”

If we are to become like trees ourselves, do we not need roots?  Even if we are no longer religious in France, most of our ancestors certainly were.  Why not identify and accept what remains in us of them ?  Why not take pride in the fact that our roots were irrigated by great and diverse religious traditions?

A few essential words thus seemed to this non-religious Jew to be missing from the French President’s moving tribute, words such as faith and religious beliefs, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, words one is not likely to hear a representative of the French Republic utter.  (As for the word God, it is almost inconceivable that a French President, even a church-going one, would ever use it in public.)

One can appreciate the President’s desire to see in Le Chambon the embodiment of the humanist principles which the Republic seeks to uphold.  It may also be understandable that on the eve of Bastille Day, Chirac chose to end his address in Le Chambon by recalling that France has inscribed on the front of her public edifices the historic call to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. 

And yet, it was not the motto of the Republic that the President could read on the front of the Protestant temple opposite the school courtyard where he made his speech.  It was a religious admonition: “Love One Another.”  It is in this temple, headquarters—to the extent that there were any—for the rescuing activities of Le Chambon, that  the two pastors of Le Chambon, the very day after France signed the armistice with Nazi Germany, exhorted the population to resist through “the weapons of the Spirit.”  Would it thus have been so out of place for the chief of the secular and republican French state to cross the street and meditate briefly in this haven of memory and faith?

In an article in National Review Online (Sept. 23, 2004), Fighting Anti-Semitism with Faith, Joseph Loconte, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, cites Le Chambon to argue that the new flurry of concern in Europe about antisemitism is "limited by a public culture increasingly cut off from its deepest resources for promoting tolerance: Europe's Christian ideals and heritage."  While acknowledging the Christian world's  mostly un-Christian response to the Holocaust, Loconte argues that the Christian sources of Le Chambon's "deeds of grace" are also "part of Europe's heritage, a bit of history worth getting right."

If it is indeed an open and generous secularity (laïcité*) that is to be defended and promoted in France, as French officials insist (while responding to the Islamic threat by banning conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools), shouldn't they also acknowledge the good that can also be derived from religious faith and identity?  A better understanding of the successes of religion could it not, indeed, be helpful in the struggle against its excesses?  Is it not on the specific and cherished experience of some that the future of others is often productively built?  Does not France—and the world—still have much to learn from the story of Le Chambon?

Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage is the director of Weapons of the Spirit about Le Chambon, and the President of the Chambon Foundation.  For two years, in partnership with the village of Le Chambon, the Chambon Foundation has been seeking support in France to establish a museum complex in the area; a temporary exhibit has been established in the heart of the village.

Footnote from the Internet

* Russell Cobb, Behind the Veil, inthefray.com:

"To really understand why the Islamic headscarf has become so controversial in France, one must try to understand two words that are often bandied about in this debate and are not easy to translate into English: laïcité and communautarisme. The first term is often translated in the American press as “secularism,” as if it simply designated the separation of church and state, a familiar issue to Americans. In reality, laïcité implies a set of political and cultural values, that, in a way, have become a pseudo-religion of the state.
Communautarisme, on the other hand, roughly means “multiculturalism,” although its connotations are almost entirely negative.  Communautarisme, to the French, is what happens when you let immigrants form their own communities, speak their own languages, and practice their own religions.  Consequently, France becomes less “French” and more open to foreign values and cultural practices."

Excerpts from an important article by Joseph Loconte, Fighting Anti-Semitism with Faith: Europe's Christian heritage is its deepest source of tolerance, National Review Online, September 23, 2004:

The problem is that [recent measures against antisemitism] are limited by a public culture increasingly cut off from its deepest resources for promoting tolerance: Europe's Christian ideals and heritage. (...)  Jacques Chirac's recent speech condemning anti-Semitism, delivered in the southern village of Le Chambon, typifies the problem. The French leader praised the bravery of the Chambonnais, who sheltered more than 5,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation, even as the Vichy government actively collaborated with Germany to deport thousands to concentration camps.  Chirac called the inhabitants of Le Chambon the embodiment of the nation's conscience, but then cited France's "humanist" principles — tolerance, solidarity, and fraternity — as their inspiration. He went on to extol the nation's commitment to "laicite" (secularity) as the best guarantee of preserving French values. (...)

The remarkable deeds of grace at Le Chambon remind us that the Christian gospel is, fundamentally, a story about a rescue mission. It is a narrative of redemptive love in the face of great evil. It was this message that helped sustain those faithful villagers in the French [mountains] and in all their other outposts of mercy during Nazism's raging storm. "Greater love has no one than this," Jesus said, "than when a man lays down his life for his friends."

That story, too, is part of Europe's heritage, a bit of history worth getting right.

[Varian Fry Institute]          [Chambon Foundation Home]          [Chambon Institute]

[email us]   [contact information]   [table of contents] [make a contribution?]  [search]   [feedback]   [guest book]   [link to us?]

© Copyright 2004, Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved.                    Revised: May 20, 2010