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For print publication, please contact Pierre Sauvage. A shorter version of this article is also available.
France and Antisemitism
Le Chambon's Challenge Today
by Pierre Sauvage
As the Holocaust loomed, a few Jews made their way to the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the mountains of south-central France, 350 miles south of Paris. And the peasants and villagers took in the Jews who came. And the Jews kept coming. And the people kept taking them in. In this one speck of France that never ceased to be free, 5,000 Jews found shelter, at one time or another—among 5,000 Christians.
It was thus in Le Chambon that French president Jacques Chirac chose recently to deliver a major address calling upon the French to react against the rising antisemitism and intolerance in their country. His starting point was this “place steeped in history and emotion.”
"Here," Chirac said, "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 the 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 of our collective destiny—the principles that make France what she is.
I am a Jew born and sheltered in Le Chambon during the Nazi occupation. As the president of the Los Angeles-based Chambon Foundation, I have long been seeking French support to establish a museum in Le Chambon dedicated to the area’s conspiracy of goodness. I was thus gratified by a French president’s belated tribute to 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, first broadcast on PBS in 1990 but aired on French television only 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.
The area of Le Chambon was an old Huguenot stronghold in historically Catholic (and now largely secular) France. Once, Protestant temples had been destroyed, the people's rights abolished, men deported to slave on galleys, women interned in towers where they scraped messages for future generations: “Resist.” Once, itinerant preachers had risked their lives reading psalms from the Old Testament and identifying with the biblical journey to the Promised Land.
During World War II, the collaborationist Vichy government willingly joined in Nazi policies, ultimately contributing to the Final Solution more than 75,000 Jews, including 10,000 children. For the people of Le Chambon, nothing that occurred then seemed had seemed entirely unfamiliar; in every challenge there had been an echo of their forefathers' struggle and faith in the face of religious intolerance.
In France today, it is “humanist principles” and “the values of the Republic” that are nearly sanctified. Communautarisme—which roughly translates as ethnocentrism—is widely viewed as challenging the very essence of French national identity. French officials focus on upholding the militant French-style secularism known as laïcité, responding to the Islamic threat by banning conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools.
In his speech in Le Chambon, Chirac made no reference to the Hebrew Bible or to the New Testament, to faith or the power of religious convictions. He touched only lightly on the “Protestant Mountain’s” once determined particularism. He urged his compatriots “always to carry [their national] heritage with pride.” But had the people of Le Chambon not been motivated to resist the Holocaust by more than mere Frenchness?
If this issue matters to me, it’s in part because I was raised without any “narrow” sense of community. My parents, ardent secularists, went so far as to hide from me until I was 18 that they were Jewish—that I was Jewish. Instead, although my mother was in reality a Polish Jew and my father had been born of immigrant Jews, they successfully transmitted to me their love of French culture and, for a long time, their deeply anti-communautariste and vigorously anti-religious sentiments.
Everything changed when I returned to Le Chambon in 1982 with a film crew to gather the last testimony of the village’s righteous in what became my documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit. Until then, I had viewed religion as a source of conflict and ignorance, religious people as by definition bigoted and fundamentally stupid. It was only in editing my footage, as a result of watching the rescuers’ testimony again and again, that I began to decipher the explosive content of what they had to say. It did not make me religious, but it made my children Jews.
When I pressed Henri and Emma Héritier with regard to the risks they had taken in sheltering Jews, Madame Héritier would provide only a short, definitive response coupled with an eloquent shrug of her shoulder: “We were used to it.” Georgette Barraud had mainly this to say: “It happened so naturally. We can’t understand the fuss.”
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.” Barely after being introduced, the two women hugged each other like sisters meeting after years of separation. My cousin later explained why the tears had come to her eyes: “It was like hugging a tree.”
What gave these people such solidity? What was it specifically that these peasants were so used to? And how could their actions have seemed so natural to them when the area of Le Chambon is one of only two communities in all of Nazi-occupied Europe to have been honored collectively as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust?
Given the very purpose of Chirac’s call to arms against intolerance, why wasn’t it imperative to begin acknowledging—especially in Le Chambon—the good that can be derived too from religious faith and identity? Couldn’t a better understanding of religion’s successes help in confronting its excesses? As paradoxical as it may seem to some, might there not be buried in Europe’s Christian roots a needed antidote to contemporary antisemitism? If we are to become like trees ourselves, do we not need roots? Even if we are no longer religious, is it not a source of strength to identify and accept what remains in us of our ancestors?
It may 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. But it was not the motto of the Republic that the President could read on the Protestant temple, across the street, that he declined to visit. It was a religious admonition: “Love One Another.”
Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage is president of the Los Angeles-based Chambon Foundation (www.chambon.org). He directed Weapons of the Spirit and the upcoming And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille.
© Chambon Foundation, 2004. This article has been published (with variations) in the Paris daily Le Figaro and in the Jewish newspaper the Forward. It is available for further dissemination, and is available online at www.chambon.org/challenge.htm.
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© Copyright 2004, Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: May 20, 2010