Saturday, June 24, 2017

She opened her door: Madame Trocmé

Because I am very busy organizing a party for a friend this weekend, I'm re-running a piece I wrote when the blog was only three weeks old. I'll be back on my regular schedule next week!

“The struggle in Le Chambon began and ended in the privacy of people's homes. Decisions that were turning points in that struggle took place in kitchens, and not with male leaders as the only decision-makers, but often with women centrally involved.”

- Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

It was a cold evening in the terrible winter of 1940-1941—the worst winter France had known in a long time—and Magda Trocmé was feeding the fire. In her town up on the Vivarais plateau, where the winters were harsh at the best of times, this one was a time for worries. She was carefully adding bits of dried genêt brush, trying to build up the fire without wasting the precious firewood that would get them through till spring.

She heard a knock on the door.

She opened it to find a woman shawled in snow, fear and hunger in her face, hesitating. She was a German Jew, she said, a refugee. She had heard that here in Le Chambon, someone could help her. Could she come in?

“Of course,” said Magda. “Come in, come in.”

Magda was the wife of André Trocmé, the pastor of the Reformed Church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. If you have heard of anyone in this story, you will have heard of him. He was a brilliant scholar and preacher, sent by his denomination to this small rural parish because he refused to stop preaching nonviolence. He was a big fish in a small pond, both a charismatic leader overflowing with ideas and one who warmly loved his people and visited them constantly. Since France's defeat in the spring of 1940, he had preached to his people that they must resist pressure to act against their consciences and against God, and he had himself resisted in politically symbolic ways. When it was decreed that all schoolchildren would now salute the French flag with the same salute used in Nazi Germany, he refused to enforce the order in his church-run school, and the principal of the public school followed suit.

That was the time of symbols. There in the unoccupied zone, the new collaborationist Vichy regime was trying to capture the hearts and minds of the people with their program of National Revolution, its goal quite literally to make France great again. On the Vivarais plateau, people had long memories, and those memories were of government persecution and the brave resistance of their Huguenot ancestors. Their country's greatness wasn't their main concern. André Trocmé helped to focus and embolden the new sense of resistance welling up in their hearts.

But Magda opened the door.

Magda was not always sure just what she believed about God—or if she was, she never said so very definitely. She supported her husband in everything he did, but she was a practical woman, not much taken with words or symbols. She wanted to know what she should do—and do it. “I am not a good Christian at all,” she explained once, “but I have a few things I believe in... I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me or asks for something. This I think is my kind of religion.”

The time had come for her kind of religion.

This was the first time a refugee in need had come to the village openly asking for help. When Magda gave it, she ushered in the second time in Le Chambon: the time of helping. Simply helping people who needed help. Within a year and a half, in the summer of 1942 when the round-ups began, the time of hiding would come; by then the village would be full to bursting, the vast majority of households sheltering at least one refugee, with many more in children's homes and dorms of the church-run boarding school. There would be false identity cards, planned hiding places, code-phrases to alert Jews to the presence of police.

But first there was an open door, a place by the fire, a bed for the night.

It was only for the night, that time, because there's another part to this story. Magda made a mistake.

Leaving the woman to warm herself by the fire, she went straight to the town hall, to ask the mayor to help her get a ration card and hopefully a false ID for the woman. There were no round-ups yet, but as a refugee and an illegal alien she could still be deported back to Germany by the French. Magda assumed the mayor would help. It was what she would have done; it was what her neighbors would have done. She was not experienced yet.

The man was shocked. How dare she endanger the French town under his care for the sake of one foreigner? He told Magda to get her out of town the next morning—at the very latest. She looked at him, turned on her heel, and walked back out to comply. She had no choice. She had told the authorities who and where the woman was. She had put her in danger and she would have to get her out if it.

Thankfully, Le Chambon—though it's the one you may have heard of—was not the only town on that plateau where people believed in welcoming the stranger. In the next town over, Magda knew a Catholic family who were willing to take the woman in. But she was ashamed, ashamed for her town and for herself, to be sending this refugee who had come to her back out into the snow. She did not remember that day as a triumph. She learned from it the precautions to take, the next time she opened her door. Not precautions against the person who stood on the other side, but for them.

Her mistake is really interesting to me. It seems so obvious to us in hindsight, and yet she was not a stupid or naïve person. She was a mother, an organizer, the equal partner of a brilliant man. She didn't suppose everyone approached needy refugees in the same way as her; just that everyone in her community did. And the crazy thing is that she was almost right. There were thousands of Jews in Le Chambon during the war, and no informers. Also—though I haven't been able to discover whether this was due to a change of heart or a change of mayor—it's a matter of record that for most of the war years the town's mayor fully supported the rescue efforts. Magda Trocme assumed a moral community that was almost there. And her assumption came true.

Who made it true? Who can say? Every person who opened their door, one by one, made it true. Every person who offered a little help, whatever someone needed. A pair of shoes, a meal, an invitation to hide in their hayloft anytime there was need. And yes, André Trocmé with his preaching helped make it true too. But his words and his symbols would have been nothing without the people willing to make them real. Without farmer after farmer saying (they were surprised after the war that anyone was impressed) “Well, they're in trouble, of course they can stay here.” Without woman after woman, standing in her kitchen, deciding she could stretch the rationed groceries in her pantry enough to feed another mouth.

Without his wife, opening that door.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"I came back. Therefore, I won't complain." Madeleine Dreyfus, Jewish rescuer and deportee

A lot of the rescuer stories I've told so far have been of non-Jews hiding or saving Jews. This one is quite different.

There's an image, sometimes, that Jews were passive during WWII: victimized or rescued, their fate depending solely on others. The truth is otherwise: many, many Jews resisted as they could. Some resisted by force of arms, even in the face of hopeless odds, some by underground activities and rescue, some by--like Daniel--continuing to worship God as Jews when it was terrifyingly forbidden. (Read more on Jewish resistance here.) Madeleine Dreyfus resisted by saving Jewish children.

Saving them, hiding them, and counseling them. Madeleine was a psychologist.

She hadn't felt any particular bond with the Jewish community, growing up; she was raised as an atheist, and had friends of different faiths. Her studies took her into intellectual and artistic circles in Paris, where she met her husband Raymond (whose background was also Jewish.) But as the war encroached on their lives, things changed bit by bit. Her husband, drafted into the French military and then discharged after the defeat, took a job in Paris--then lost it for being Jewish. The new French government had made it illegal for Jews to hold jobs they considered "positions of trust." The Dreyfuses left for Lyon in the Unoccupied Zone, where a friend who was leaving the country asked Madeleine, as a trained psychologist, to take over her job. The job was with the OSE, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants--a Jewish organization with a double life and a double name (which still exists today.)

Secours means more than one thing. The OSE's name can be translated as Children's Aid Network--or Children's Rescue Network. This was exactly right. Officially, they were about aid--food, shelter, social services. But as the threat rose, a shadow side of the OSE rose to meet it, with rescue.

Madeleine started on the social services end, plying her trade, counseling troubled young people whose parents had taken refuge in Lyon. Then disaster struck--the first great round-up of foreign Jews in the Unoccupied Zone, August 1942. She was called on to help in an incredible illegal rescue performed by the OSE and a network of Christian aid organizations, the Venissieux rescue I wrote about last year, in which over 100 children--almost all the children arrested in the Lyon area--were spirited away and hidden from the authorities who had intended to deport them. Madeleine's work was to make the children disappear before the police could find them.

 This was her entry into the new underground side of the OSE, and she plunged into it fully from then on, understanding that the children's lives were at stake, and willing to risk her own for them. She organized the making of false papers and ration cards, did the risky work of feeling out local institutions to find places to hide Jewish children. She made a contact that led her to Le Chambon, and found the town a godsend: a place where not just a few, but dozens or hundreds of children might be welcomed.

Soon she was traveling regularly from Lyon to Le Chambon, to find places for Jewish children and to deliver them to their new homes. She was put in charge of that section of the Garel network, a highly organized secret network in which Jewish children were transported anonymously, each worker not knowing the name of the fellow worker she passed them to. It was much like the work my mother and I described in Defy the Night, but far more terrifying: if the children slipped up and spoke the wrong language or called each other by their real names, they might be arrested and immediately deported, and the worker too. Madeleine personally transported over 100 children--some of them given to her by their parents, some of them escapees from their parents' arrest. She cared for them, helping them to adjust, bringing letters from their parents (who weren't told their addresses, for safety) if she could. She valued her local allies in Le Chambon very much, and told stories about them after the war--one of her favorites was about how a dear friend of hers, when asked about Jews by the police, used to say "Jews? What does that mean, 'Jews?'"

Madeleine had two children, and during this time became pregnant with a third. After her daughter's birth she resumed her traveling. It was 1943, and French Jews like Madeleine and her family were under threat of arrest now. Her husband, whose sister-in-law had just been deported with her children, begged Madeleine (who didn't have false papers of her own) to stop risking her life. She asked him to wait till she could find someone to replace her in the work.

In November 1943, Madeleine walked into a trap.

She called a boarding school that turned out to be in the midst of a Gestapo raid, to ask after some children she'd placed there. The woman who answered the phone asked her--being ordered to do so at gunpoint--to come to the school immediately. She was arrested when she walked in. The trap had been set for a major local Resistance organizer, but she was swept up in it too.

She asked to be allowed to go home briefly to breastfeed her baby, or at least to call home and arrange for her care. When they allowed the phone call, she called the National Jewish Council instead and slipped a warning into the message. Her family fled their home immediately, and the OSE was warned as well.

Incredibly, although Madeleine was interrogated by the Gestapo under Klaus Barbie, the infamous Butcher of Lyon, they did not find out about her clandestine activities. But her papers revealed she was Jewish, so they didn't let her go. She was sent to Drancy, a French internment camp from which people were regularly deported to Auschwitz, and barely saved from that fate by a lawyer friend who was a fellow prisoner there and was able to falsify her legal status enough to exempt her. Even from the internment camp, she was once able to get a warning to a Jewish children's home she had heard was in danger. She also sent off a coded message asking her husband to have their own older children smuggled to Switzerland, and they made it safely there.

But in May 1944 she was deported to Germany.

She was sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp without gas chambers. It was a terrible place, where forty thousand inmates died of starvation and disease, but Madeleine said very little after the war about her experiences there. Once she wrote: "I came back. Therefore, I won't complain."

She worked hard to keep her dignity in the camp, and uphold others' as well. She helped others as she could, and they trusted her. One of the few stories she told out of her time there: she was once chosen to divide a hard-boiled egg among fifteen people. "I still have the taste of that fifteenth of the hard-boiled egg in my mouth," she wrote many years later. The effects of profound hunger, the way it made human beings feel like animals in their longing for even a handful of rutabaga peelings or a bone, haunted her then and later.

In the spring of 1945 she was liberated with the other camp survivors, so starved that they combed the fields for dandelion leaves to eat, and feasted on boiled soup-bones they found in a railroad workers' shack. She finally made it back to France and to her family. They had all survived. There would be much to rebuild; her 21-month-old daughter barely knew her. But they had time.

She came back. And she did not complain.

She worked with and counseled the children the OSE still cared for after the war, children who had survived terrible trauma, many of them now orphans. Later she went into private practice as a psychotherapist, especially skilled with families and children. She kept deep friendships from her work during the war. Her husband summed up her life, in a memoir, with the word "Ecoute": listening.


There's one other thing I would like to talk about today. Speaking of bones, leaves, and one-fifteenth of a hard-boiled egg. The worst famine since World War II is happening in Africa this year. And like the hunger during World War II, it is not caused by nature but by war, by people willing to shoot and dehumanize others. In South Sudan people are being forced to flee for their lives into wilderness where they can hide from soldiers, knowing that there is no food there. They go knowing that their children may starve. And that if they stay they'll be murdered.

When the survivors of this terror make it to the other side, to places that are, or should be, safe, they are desperate for food. Especially for their children. Young bodies are resilient; they can bounce back from starvation--if they get enough food, and fast. And there is food aid coming in, being made available to these people. But not enough. Nowhere near enough.

We can change that.

We can't change all of it. We can never change all of it. We're too few. Our government could, but it won't at this point. And that makes it hard to think about; that article I linked was hard to read, for me, the pictures hard to look at. But: I can only imagine how hard it was for Madeleine, knowing how many she could not save. There were so many. But she saved the ones she could. There are women like her out there, doing everything they can, carefully dividing the handfuls of food they have. Let's add what we can.

I've set up a fundraising page for fighting this famine, through Oxfam. They're a reputable, thoroughly experienced organization, and I feel they're the best choice to get as much food to these people as quickly as possible. (But if they are not the organization you'd choose, please--find one that is.) I'll be donating when my book advance comes in.

Would you donate too?

Saturday, June 3, 2017


I have a confession. I like to read terrible reviews of other people's books.

Only books that genuinely deserve them. (Twilight, anyone?) But I don't know that that makes it any better. I could try to spin it, but the fact is that this is a trait of mine that is genuinely not very nice. I can tell, when I do it, that I am satisfying a low impulse in myself by reading: even if I'm feeling low, I can feel a little better by telling myself at least I do it better than that person.

Another version of this that many people go for (and, again, so do I) is stories of people behaving badly. Some people watch daytime talk shows and reality TV. I read Not Always Right. We come out feeling better: I would never act like that.

(I still do it. I try--keyword: try--to do it only as a stress valve. That might be the one redeeming part: if I can bleed off some irritation and be calmer for the people around me.)

Over the years as I've written and read fiction, I've come to understand better some of the ways in which fiction can cater to low impulses in us as well.

After writing that sentence, I realized sex might come to mind, but it's not actually what I'm thinking of. I'm thinking of books that pander to our pride.

For an example I'll pick an author famous enough not to suffer from anything I might say: Anne McCaffrey. I've enjoyed her Dragonriders of Pern series very much, read almost all of them and many of her other works. After awhile, though, I started to notice a pattern that grew more pronounced with time: Our Heroes had their flaws, sure, they weren't always nice, but there was one thing they always were--they were Right. And the people who opposed them were Wrong--and selfish and jealous and had no actual good reasons for opposing them, nary a one. This is an exaggeration, most likely, but read it all and you'll start to notice it too.

There are many other writers who do this, to different degrees. Very many. And it isn't exactly a writing flaw, even though it does sometimes annoy us as readers if we pick up on it. I feel pretty sure that it's sometimes, as programmers say, a feature rather than a bug. Deliberate pandering rather than a mistake. Because, when we don't notice it consciously, we tend to like it.

We like it because it gives us a similar feeling to the things I started this post with. Vindication. A sense that we aren't so bad, that we are better than other people, or other people are worse than us. Fiction is even more powerful at giving us this sense of vindication, because it doesn't just give us Bad People to look down on, but also Good People to identify with.

In any fictional story, except for the most detached literary fiction, we're given a character that we don't just watch from the outside--someone into whose skin we can slip, someone we can identify with. Sometimes it's a hero, sometimes it's an anti-hero, sometimes it's an "Everyman," but whoever it is, whether we admire him or not, this is the person we suffer and rejoice with; what happens to him happens to us. (I'm going to go with a "him" on this for now. It's more often a "him," even nowadays--and almost always a "him" the color of the majority. I almost opened that can of worms here, but it's too big; I'll have to do a separate post.) We hope that he finds what he is seeking. If he does, we feel deeply gratified.

And if the author overinflates this hero's ego--makes him Right, shows him off to the world vindicated beyond his real deserving--we walk away inflated too. Either that or we see through it, and detach, and walk away unsatisfied.

It's not just a matter of the hero doing no wrong. Almost every hero makes mistakes, even bad choices; otherwise there's very little story. But when the hero goes up against other people, is he ever wrong? Does he ever have to admit that someone else saw the situation more clearly than him, that he should have listened? Does he ever have to admit that someone he dismissed or looked down on or even hated had a point? If the answer is no, never, no hint of any such thing, I think there's something wrong.

This definitely happens in Christian fiction. (I won't name names--none come to mind, it's probably been years since I read the books that started this impression forming. And indeed that may be an indication that it's getting better. I have hope that it is.) It's particularly insidious in Christian fiction, at least in the form it often takes: you see, the Christian is right. The non-Christians are wrong. Why? Is it because we believe that our beliefs are right? Or is it because we like to see someone like us vindicated?

What I know is, I am always and will always be refreshed when I see an author do, even briefly, the opposite: the Christian sees the non-Christian's point. Says I'm sorry. You're right. I've been a jerk. When the character we identify with is forced to swallow his pride, to widen his view of the world through the eyes of the other.

So, there they are, my thoughts on pandering. I've been thinking them a long time, telling myself Don't do this, never do this. (And on occasion the voice in my ear, my own voice: You could sell more books! Of course there's always the other voice saying drily: Sure you could.) There isn't a bright line that you cross or don't cross--it's one long, smooth continuum from Give them everything they want to Give them nothing they want. Where do you draw that line? How do you judge? So murky.

Until you step away from playing some cynical version of God, from thinking you know "what the reader wants"--from thinking you know everything about people just because you know something bad that they want. Until you choose to trust the reader, and say: The reader wants the truth. The truth of the love and the selfishness inside each person, the high courage, hungry need and angry pride, the yearning for the good and true; the journey through the tangled wood after the light. It's been my principle, my bright light to follow in all my writing: Tell the truth. And there are readers who want it. I'd rather sell a thousand books to them, friends--to you--than fifty thousand to people who want pandering.

Let me trust that. Let me trust you.

And if I ever start pandering--please let me know.