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
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.
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.”
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.
But Magda opened the door.
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
The time had come for her kind of religion.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Without his wife, opening that door.