Le Chambon is a minor holiday resort of about 3,000 people, high in the mountainous Haute-Loire in east-central France. It is midway between Le Puy and Valance and has two distinctions: It is a Protestant village in a sea of Catholicism, and it took in a great number of Jewish refugees during the war.
Philip Hallie, who teaches ethics at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, became interested in the question of why this particular village behaved so nobly while the majority of other villages, like the majority of Frenchman, did nothing to help those whom the Nazis wanted to deport and murder.
The large Jewish community in France was the most considerable one to survive the occupation in Europe It did so because the French Jews were initially protected by the Vichy Government in the face of abominable French antisemitism, and because Vichy deliberately pandered to the Nazi blood-lust by handling over only foreign Jews to the Gestapo. About 60,000 people who had sought refuge in France were shipped off to Auschwitz.
Later in the war, as Vichy's spurious autonomy evaporated, the French Jews began to be murdered, too. About 6,000 were sent East. Of the total 66,000 foreign and French Jews sent to the camps, only 2,500 returned. When Pierre Laval, second in command to Vichy's prime minister, was tried after the war, he defended himself by pointing to the survivors whom he had protected. His accusers evoked the shades of those he had sacrificed.
Laval was shot, but the corruption of the occupation was not washed away so easily, and still haunts the country. There were heroes, right from the start; there were traitors; and there was the great mass of people who hated the Germans but who put their own safety first and just waited.
Even though refugees were hidden elsewhere in southern France, Le Chambon was most unusual, because of the extent of the help it gave to refugees. Hallie says that the best estimate is that about 2,500 people were sheltered in the village. Most of them were later smuggled into Switzerland by one of the Resistance groups. The book, unfortunately, is not about how this was accomplished. Instead, it is an account of Hallie's cogitations on the ethics of resistance to authority.
He attributes, I think, much more weight than he should to the Protestant tradition to France, a tradition which "had prepared them for a certain kind of resistance to governmental authorities." The Huguenots were, indeed, savagely persecuted by Louis XIV and Louis XV, but that had ended nearly 200 years ago. Besides, a similar village a few miles from Le Chambon did nothing comparable.
The hero of the story is the village pastor, Andre Trocme - a man of exceptional powers of leadership and courage, dedicated to the principle of nonviolence - who succeeded in persuading his parishioners that it was their duty to obey the commandments and Christian teachings.
This meant not only the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," which Hallie describes as a negative prescription, but the parable of the Good Samaritan, which prescribes a positive course of action.
Outside the Yad Uashem memorial in Jerusalem is alley of trees planted in memory of "Righteous Gentiles," people who helped the Jews during their torment. Trocme has his tree, and Hallie's book makes clear how well he deserved it.
All the same, it is a muddled book, often repetitious and sometimes contradictory. Hallie says at one point, for instance, "It is tempting to make the Trocmes all-important in the story of Le Chambon, but it is wrong to do so." That is just what he has done.
Perhaps a professor of ethics is the wrong man to write about France under the occupation. He talked to a few of the people living in Le Chambon at the time. But he seems to have ignored the refugees. At least, he makes no use of anything any refugee may have told him. He does not tell us who they were, where they came from or how they left, beyond saying that they were conveyed to Switzerland. He does not seem to have gone to neighboring villages, to ask their opinions.
Instead, he goes on for pages about the ethical question, concluding, "If you were to put those two eloquent men, Andre Trocme and Adolf Hitler, in a comfortable room . . . neither would persuade the other that his judgment was the final one; nor would they ever both acknowledge any court to decide conclusively between their conflicting judgments."
Trocne gave a simpler statement of the case in notes for an autobiography he never lived to complete. Discussing official war-time propaganda to the effect that the Jews were being sent East to lands set aside for them, where they would be left in peace, Trocme wrote, "Many French let themselves be deceived."
Trocne didn't. He and his village obeyed the commandments.