Righteous Gentiles: Living Our Ideals in a World at War
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 8, 2002
The holiday season is a time for stories, of course; it’s a time for fables, and myths, and legends. Some of the stories we tell might transcend a narrow sense of history: we know that they didn’t really happen in the material world, or at least, we’re not sure. But we also know that we don’t have to believe that a story is literally true in order to believe the truth that a story tells.
Some of the stories that we tell at this time of year are from ages past, from times long ago; they extend back centuries, even millennia.
This morning, I’m going to tell you a story, but one that doesn’t match the pattern we’ve come to expect from most tales of the holiday season. We know that this story did happen—historically, verifiably. It’s not from a long time ago, either; to the contrary, it took place only about sixty years ago, within the lifetimes of many of us.
It is story about the people in a small village in France during the early 1940s, and was originally told by Gary Kowalski, who is minister of our Unitarian Universalist church in Burlington, Vermont. It’s a story of heroism and courage and faith. Perhaps by hearing it, we can glimpse some of these great ideals in our own souls, as well.
We are told that the winter in France in the year 1940 was unusually cold and bitter. Perhaps to the French people, that winter seemed especially bitter because the Nazis had just occupied the northern part of their country, and had installed a puppet government under Marshall Petain in the south. In the small village of Le Chambon, the snow was piled in large drifts, and strong winds blew incessantly. So it was that, late one cold, stormy night, the pastor’s wife, Magda Trocme, was startled to hear a knock at the front door of the parsonage. Years later, Madame Trocme told of the experience:
“A German woman knocked at my door. It was in the evening and she said that she was a German Jew, coming from northern France, that she was in danger, and that she had heard that in Le Chambon someone would help her. Could she come into my house [she asked]. I said, ‘Naturally, come in, come in.’”
This woman would be the first of hundreds of refugees who would be sheltered in Le Chambon during the course of the war. All were enemies of the Nazis, and by far the greater number of them were Jews—for it was the Jews, of course, who were the special object of Nazi hatred. The Jews were being persecuted throughout Europe; but in one small town—a town of 3000 souls in the hills of southern France—the Jews of Europe were not despised, but were welcomed and given refuge from the mad storm raging all around them.
“I have a kind of principle,” Madame Trocme explained later. “I am not [really] a good Christian at all… I do not hunt around to find people to help. But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks for something… When things happen, not things I plan, but things sent by God (or by chance), when people come to my door, I feel responsible. During the war, many people came, and my life was therefore complicated.”
Rev. Andre Trocme, the local pastor, shared his wife’s commitment to help those in need. He believed that the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” was the very essence of his Christian faith. Trocme had grown up in the city of Saint-Quentin in eastern France. Saint-Quentin was a place surrounded by barbed wire and occupied by German invaders during the First World War. It was only a few miles from the Western Front, only 20 miles from the battlefields of the Somme, where 3 million men had engaged in a fight to the death, and where nearly a million of them had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
One day, after the war had just ended, Andre saw in the streets of Saint-Quentin a disarrayed column of wounded German soldiers. In the front of the line were three heavily bandaged men. The head of the middle man was completed wrapped in cloths; he was blind, and was being led forward by his two comrades. When they came closer, Andre saw that the man’s lower jaw had been completely blown off. He was a hideous site, and with a feeling of awful pity, Andre realized then, in a flash of insight, that these German soldiers were not his real enemy: the true enemy of all humanity was war itself. The true enemy, Trocme came to believe, was “man’s inhumanity to man”. From this day on, he committed himself to a life of non-violence and service. When the hierarchy of the Reformed Church in France, in which he had been ordained, issued a dictate forbidding its ministers from preaching pacificism from their pulpits, Trocme resigned from the larger church he was serving, and came to the small town of Le Chambon. There in this remote mountain village, far from the forbidding gaze of his ecclesiastical overseers, Trocme hoped to be able to preach openly the dictates of his conscience.
The people of Le Chambon were descendants of the Hugenots, and represented a Protestant community in a nation where less than one percent of the population shared their faith. For nearly 300 years, the Chambonais had been considered heretics and outcasts by the people of the Catholic villages all around them. The Reformed Church of France had been persecuted throughout its history. Its members had been forbidden to worship openly. Their churches had been destroyed or forcibly confiscated. They had, in the past, been deprived of their freedom, their property, and even their lives. From such a history, the people of Le Chambon learned that the laws of the state are not always on the side of justice or right. They learned that, for them, obedience to their God often meant disobedience to civic authorities. From such a history, they learned the means of quiet resistance—and they learned that living one’s faith often comes at a tremendous cost.
In August of 1940, all laws in France against anti-Semitism in the press were repealed. Almost overnight, the newspapers and airwaves were saturated with accusations against the Jews. In October, Jews were forbidden from holding public offices; they were barred from the civil services, from practicing law, and from service in the military. Next, a census of all Jews in France was ordered—as a first step toward their deportation to the death camps.
As the Vichy government passed more and more repressive and unjust laws, the people of Le Chambon were prepared to question and disobey them. The resistance began quietly at first. At the “Peace Academy” Trocme had founded in the village, students refused to give the stiff-armed Fascist salute. Teachers refused to sign loyalty oaths. Soon, too, the refugees began to arrive…
“A family of refugees might come to town in winter,” writes Philip Halle, “and the morning after their arrival, they might find a wreath of holly leaning against their front door, with no hint of the identity of the giver. A little boy would come to Miss Maber’s door, screaming in a high-pitched voice so that the whole neighborhood could hear, that the English teacher had better hide Henri because the police were after him… Miss Maber would calm the boy… then go straight to the house of a mousy little [neighbor] who was known to have an empty room. She would ask the tiny woman if she would hide Henri, and the woman would answer immediately, ‘Yes, there is a room downstairs, and the door opens into the woods. If the police come, he would have time to get away…’”
The police did come to Le Chambon, of course, but the townspeople knew how to handle them. In the course of searching a farm for “illegals”, a police lieutenant, all handsome and bright in his new Fascist uniform, might “just happen” to walk over the rotten planks covering the cesspool. Apparently, no one thought to warn him that they were there… When asked about Jews hiding in their village, the townspeople would stair at each other incredulously and ask, “What would Jews be doing here, officer? Have you seen any Jews? They say that Jews have crooked noses, you know. No, there are no Jews here, officer…”
Yet, there were Jews—everywhere, throughout the village. They were in pensions, in private homes, in the barns of outlying farms. It wan’t easy. Just a few days before his own arrest in 1943, Andre Trocme wrote a letter, smuggled out of the country, in which he described the strain faced by himself and his family; the lack of food; the lack of money; the constant stress of living in a house with refugees coming and going at all hours of the day and night. “In the course of the summer, we have been able to help about 60 Jewish refugees in our own house,” he wrote. “You can imagine what struggles with the authorities—what real dangers—this means for us: threats of arrest, submitting to long interrogations… it is [at first] by tens, [then] by hundreds, that the Jews are being sent to Le Chambon.”
Who were the people who sheltered these hundreds of Jews? Some were pacifists; others were not. Some, like Rev. and Mrs. Trocme, were committed Christians; others, like Madame Eyraud, whose boarding house became a shelter for adolescent boys, had no religious affiliation at all. Yet, all were bound together in service to their fellow human beings. Some in the village became experts in forging fake ration cards and identification papers for the new arrivals; others became experts in gathering clothes, shoes, food, and everything else these refugees would need. Some of the refugees remained only a few days, until they were whisked away into Switzerland; others remained in Le Chambon for the course of the war.
Working together as one, the people of the village saved hundreds and hundreds of lives. But they didn’t think of themselves as heroes. They were simply unamazing, unassuming, decent people who, like Madame Eyruad, “quelque chose de bien”—who wanted to do something good. Or who, like Madame Trocme, faced with a shivering woman asking for help, didn’t stop to ask what religion or race she was, but simply replied instinctively, naturally, straight from the heart: “Come in, come in.”
As William Schulz has written:
This year, as in the past, as we gather for this holiday season, the world seems to hover at the brink of a precipice. Even as we sing our songs and pray our prayers of peace, we know that war might come. May this season kindle within us renewed understanding of the truth that we are all brothers and sisters, with the oppressors of the world, no less than with the oppressed. We are one with a Jewish family in Jerusalem, living under the threat of suicide bombings; we are one with the Palestinian Arabs seeking justice and a homeland of their own. We are all brothers and sisters—no less to the people of Iraq than to those of any other land.
Ours is a world where war threatens and tyrants still remain among us. Ours is a land where those in power often do not stand on the side of justice and peace.
But so, too, abide our shining lights, our deepest values. And there are still those angels who come to us, oftentimes disguised in the most amazing ways: disguised, perhaps, as a shivering woman on a stormy night in a world on the brink of war. Let us, in return, cast our own angel spirits—our spirit of compassion, our spirit of courage, our spirit of love—just as wide as we can over the face of the world.
And may the example of those good people of that little village in France help us to kindle again the shining lights that burn in the menorah of our souls.