So this week someone sent me a Smithsonian magazine, with this story in it (please do read it! I can't do it justice.) A story about the little place in France which I write about, where during World War II the local plateau farmers and townspeople went about sheltering and saving thousands of Jewish refugees as if it was the obvious thing to do. You run across stories about it here and there online, often on Holocaust memorial sites (the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a good one,) telling what they did during the war.
Well, this one isn't about what they did during the war.
It's about what they're doing now.
Now, they are taking in refugees. Now during the worst refugee crisis since World War II, they are simply doing what it is their towns' and their region's tradition to do: offer shelter to those who need it.
If you don't know yet about the story of this place, I'll offer you here the summary I put into the historical note in Flame in the Night:
In south central France there is a high, cold plateau, a hard place to farm, a hard place to keep warm through the long, bitter winters. Hundreds of years ago the Huguenots—French Protestants fiercely persecuted by Catholic kings—fled to that cold plateau and made it their own, built their homes out of the rocks, and learned to till the stony soil. For hundreds of years their descendants kept their traditions: their worship, their independence, their distrust of the government. Their memory of persecution.
And then France fell to the Nazis, and the new French government in Vichy began arresting Jews.
Writers still debate why the people of the Vivarais-Lignon plateau hid so many Jews during World War II, but one thing is clear: they did, and it seemed normal to them. It’s said by people with memory of that time that there was a Jewish refugee in every farmhouse. They saved thousands of lives at the risk of their own, saying afterward that it was only the decent thing to do. And across the plateau, in its eleven villages, a network of pastors worked with each other and with their congregations and their neighbors to welcome refugees, hide them, feed them, provide them with false papers, and eventually (with the aid of allies Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, French and Swiss) smuggle many of them across the border into Switzerland.
And they continue that tradition—local families taking in families from Congo, from South Sudan, from Syria. Teaching them French, giving them a place to breathe, to taste peace and normal life again. It's remarkably similar to what was going on there during WWII, even in that—it's not always said, but there was a huge emphasis on not only hiding the Jewish refugees but giving them (especially the children, many of them separated from their parents) enough peace and normality and hope to help them carry on. They're really doing the exact same thing they did during WWII—I've said it before and I'll say it again, they would never have saved the lives they did if they'd done it for the sake of being heroes, if they'd waited till they knew the mortal danger before taking people in—no, they weren't trying to be heroes then and they aren't now. They are simply continuing their tradition. Simply giving their neighbor what they would wish for themselves, what we all wish for: a roof over our heads, a table with friendly faces around it, a place where our children can play in peace.
It seemed normal to them then, it seems normal to them now.
God grant us such normality in our own country, in our own communities. God grant us such traditions.
It's not just a matter of granting, of course. But man, God grant us the chance.