Sunday, December 1, 2019

Miracles in France: A WWII Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

Château du Pont-de-Mars in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During WWII, many Nazi victims found refuge in the mountainous region of southern France. This region was located in the unoccupied zone, and it was controlled by the French collaborative government of Vichy France. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis arrested more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, including 6000 children, and demanded that the Vichy government do the same in its territory. So the Vichy police began arresting thousands of Jews. They were sent to internment camps to await transport to concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere. 

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia

Word reached the predominantly Protestant area around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where the Huguenots had fled hundreds of years before when faced with annihilation at the hands of their enemies. Since then the area had become a refuge for anyone in need. Despite the risk to himself, his wife, and their four children, Hugenot Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France stood before his congregation one Sunday morning in August 1942 and urged his people not to passively submit to man-made laws that violated God's laws. He encouraged them to resist evil and protect Europe's Jews and any other refugees who needed them.

Pastor André Trocmé's Reformed Church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
Author 
Pensées de Pascal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pastor Trocmé's congregation heeded his sermon and began taking in both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Others from the surrounding villages and farms also opened their homes. They kept their resistance quiet and didn't talk about their guests, and the refugees continued coming - thousands of them during the course of the war. People of all ages and occupations and from many countries reached Le Chambon. Many children were taken in and continued their education. They wore regional clothing and were given forged ID cards.

Jewish and non-Jewish refugee children sheltered in various public and private homes in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
during World War II with some of the French men and women who cared for them. Courtesy of the USHMM & Peter Feigl.

Pastor André Trocmé
Public Domain.
The Vichy leaders learned of the exodus to Le Chambon and sent a high-ranking official who demanded that Pastor Trocmé divulge the hiding place of the Jews. He replied, "'We do not know what a Jew is. We know only people.'" When the Vichy police raided the town, the Jews were so well hidden, that very few were captured. Subsequent raids usually failed to find any either.

After the Allies invaded North Africa in 1942, Hitler ordered German forces to occupy Vichy France. The German military took over two hotels in Le Chambon to provide a place for wounded and weary troops to recuperate from the battles in North Africa. In spite of this new development, the refugees remained safe.

Pastor Trocmé practiced what he preached. He and his wife provided a haven for dozens of Jewish refugees in their home, while arranging for them to be relocated in safe houses or in some cases to Switzerland. The pastor hiked through deep snow or rode his bicycle to check on the safe houses and considered this part of his Christian and pastoral duties.


Les Grillons home in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which provided refuge for both Jewish and non-Jewish children.
Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum & Peter Fiegl.

In February 1943, the Vichy police closed off the roads to Le Chambon, and two police officers arrived at Pastor Trocmé's home to arrest him. First, the officers accepted the Trocmé's invitation to have dinner with them. While they were eating, word spread about the pastor's arrest and members of his congregation came one-by-one and left items he would need in prisonsardines, socks, chocolate, a candle. They didn't have matches, so one of the officers provided them, then the other officer began crying, saying he'd never seen such a farewell. The officers led Pastor Trocmé to the police car down the street, and members of his congregation, who lined the snowy street on both sides, began singing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as he passed between them.

View of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Circa 1940. Courtesy of the USHMM & Peter Feigl.

Trocmé's associate pastor, Edouard Theis, was also arrested. They were taken to a transit concentration camp and were asked to sign an oath of allegiance to the Vichy government. They both refused because the Vichy government was complicit with the evils of Nazism, and they told the camp commandant that they would continue to disobey government orders when they went home. The commandant sent them home, and the two pastors continued their rescue ministries. They had been imprisoned for 28 days. In late 1943, word came that Nazi agents were planning to assassinate Pastor Trocmé, and he went into hiding, moving from place to place until the Free French First Armored Division liberated the area on September 2-3, 1944. Magda Trocmé kept the safe houses operating, even as more Jews arrived.

The unity of the local population had forced the Vichy authorities to be cautious in the region, and sometimes the police even warned the villages before conducting raids. As a result, an estimated 5000 men, women, and children (3000-3500 Jews) found refuge in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding areas from December 1940 through liberation in September 1944. 

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Sources:

Gragg, Rod. My Brother's Keeper. Center Street, 2016.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia. "Le Cambon-sur-Lignon."

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Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-eight years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.



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