Jane Eisner is director of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
By Maggie Paxson
358 pp. $28
The village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sits on a high plateau in southern France, remote and isolated, subject to brutal winter winds and yet protected by its stunning terrain. While France itself is predominantly Catholic, most of Le Chambon’s residents are Protestants, and the hardiness demanded by geography and reinforced by religious difference has created a stalwart people used to their own quiet code of behavior.
But those factors alone do not explain why this village defied Nazi occupiers during World War II by rescuing and hiding countless strangers, mostly children, and why it continues to welcome refugees today. Geography and religion alone do not explain why Le Chambon retains its hold on the imagination by raising the deepest questions about the capacity for human love in the face of extreme human cruelty.
In his 2011 memoir, “My Long Trip Home,” the journalist Mark Whitaker, whose maternal grandfather, Edouard Theis, was an assistant pastor during the war, describes the village as an “international symbol of moral courage.” Most famously, the philosopher Philip Hallie probed the ethical underpinnings of the Chambonnais in his landmark book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed,” published in 1979. As he wrote: “The struggle in Le Chambon began and ended in the privacy of people’s homes. . . . Their consciences told them to save as many lives as they could, even if doing this meant endangering the lives of all the villagers; and they obeyed their consciences.”
And now, the anthropologist Maggie Paxson picks up the thread in her new book, “The Plateau,” a loving combination of personal memoir, historical investigation and philosophical meditation. After years of studying strife-torn communities, Paxson focused on Le Chambon because she yearned to study peace, to conduct “research that asked how, in hard times, regular decency can sometimes translate into extraordinary kindness.”
I’m not sure she answers her own question. Perhaps it is unanswerable.
But in the process of trying, Paxson introduces us to vivid characters, from the past and present, and uses their stories to probe the deepest recesses of the human condition with candor and true feeling.
Her quest begins with regret: When she was 15 years old, her parents allowed her to tour Europe with a friend and her family. During that time, a distant relative by marriage invited Paxson to visit her in France, but it all seemed too much for a teenager, and the visit never happened.
Years later, Paxson learned that the relative, Suzie Trocmé, was a cousin of André Trocmé, Le Chambon’s beloved pastor and moral leader, who with his wife, Magda, is credited with preaching, teaching and modeling active, nonviolent resistance against the Nazis that saved thousands of lives. Even more poignantly, Suzie’s younger brother Daniel played a key role in those dangerous years, directing first one and then two homes for refugee children and young people until his arrest, imprisonment and eventual death in the Majdanek concentration camp in the spring of 1944.
Paxson’s search to learn more about Daniel Trocmé drives the book’s narrative with such passion that it sometimes clouds her analysis of what motivated him to sacrifice on behalf of total strangers. Then again, as much as Paxson probes Daniel’s writings and interactions to piece together his life, there remains something indecipherable about his story, and you sense Paxson grieving for him without always knowing why. “I didn’t mean to follow you all the way here when I began,” she writes plaintively.
His innate goodness was hardly unique in his community. As Paxson writes: “In the business of sheltering children, there were many jobs to be done. . . . There were those who retrieved children from the train stations; those who took care of their daily needs; those who passed on messages or forged documents. There were those who inspired at the pulpit — not just André Trocmé but a dozen other pastors — and others who inspired in the classroom or the town square; and those assigned to the psychological well-being of the kinds of children who were so seized by fear and sorrow that they had night terrors and wet their beds.”
In repeated visits to the Plateau, Paxson gradually earns the trust of villagers whose silence was both an inbred personality trait and a survival strategy during the war. (In a famous scene recounted in Hallie’s book, when André Trocmé and Theis return to Le Chambon after a brutal internment by the Nazis, the townspeople gathered to greet them in respectful silence, knowing that with spies in the crowd, cheers would only endanger others.)
Eventually, Paxson is able to interview older Chambonnais about their experiences during the war, and she juxtaposes them with younger residents who are continuing to shelter asylum refugees from war-torn nations around the world. The current circumstances are different, of course — welcoming strangers may upset the cultural and economic status quo, but it does not endanger the very lives of villagers. French far-right politicians may grumble, but today Nazis aren’t waiting to imprison those who help Chechens and West Africans and Armenians.
Paxson spends a lot of time getting to know this new generation of refugees — indeed, she grows so close to some families that she drops all pretense of scholarly objectivity — and those who help them. Her examination of the culture clash that accompanies dislocation and exile is powerfully rendered. In one of many touching passages, she describes the challenge of being an injured Muslim man in a Christian country. “There are many fine things, here in Mairbek’s sunny, safe apartment, far from the warring lands of Chechnya — here, where the daffodils have already begun again to explode in the forest and in the fields. Where his daughter can clutch them in her hand without fear. But there is no meat for a tall dark man with one leg who sits in the shade. All hunger; no meat.”
But I never felt that she got to the crux of the matter. “Under the moral leadership of André Trocmé and Edouard Theis,” Hallie wrote decades ago, “the people of Le Chambon would not give up a life for any price — for their own comfort, for their own safety, for patriotism, or for legality. For them, human life had no price; it had only dignity.”
How are those values maintained without that moral leadership today, since the good pastors are long gone? What inspires generation after generation to do this work? Would it continue if the stakes were as serious as they were during the Nazi occupation? I wish that Paxson had trained her considerable intellect and compassion toward these deeper questions. But perhaps they are, indeed, unanswerable. And in times like ours, perhaps it is enough to elevate these stories as examples and aspirations.
“If we would understand the goodness that happened in Le Chambon, we must see how easy it was for them to refuse to give up their consciences, to refuse to participate in hatred, betrayal, and murder, and to help the desperate adults and the terrified children who knocked on their doors in Le Chambon,” Hallie observed of the World War II residents. “Goodness is the simplest thing in the world, and the most complex, like opening a door.”
Paxson has movingly showed us that the doors in Le Chambon continue to open.
By Maggie Paxson
Riverhead. 358 pp. $28