The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder;
wind, rain, yes.
And Le Chambon was the rainbow.
— Jewish mother whose children’s lives were saved at Le Chambon
Let me digress: One habit served me well and introduced me to the story of Le Chambon. I read books with a soft lead pencil in hand. When a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph nudges me, I mark a line in the margin, | . When I read an unfamiliar word or one I can’t confidently define, I put a √ in the margin. And when I see a reference to a song, a painting, a book title, an event that I’d like to know more about I also use the √. I usually don’t stop reading to look further at the subject. But when I comb through the book a second time, writing down compelling quotes, etc. I will follow up on the check marks.
How did I find Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed? I had decided to cull out Barbara Tuchman’s sparkling book of essays, Practicing History, from my library, a decision that still gnaws. Before I let it go, I transferred notes to my journal. In an essay entitled Mankind’s Better Moments Tuchman notes some astonishing accomplishments:
the enclosure of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands adding half a million acres to the country;
the marvel of Gothic cathedrals;
the perseverance of La Salle, who mastered eight languages before he set off exploring;
William Wilberforce’s work to abolish slave trade;
Le Chambon, a Huguenot village in Southern France devoted to rescuing Jews. √
Le Chambon? I had heard of Huguenots—French Protestants—but not Le Chambon.
Intrigued, I found this clip on YouTube:
And I found Philip P. Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The book is essentially a biography of the Reformed pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, Magda. Trocmé’s belief in God was at the living center of the rescue efforts of the village xxi. Le Chambon was a remote mountain village, predominantly Protestant (Reformed and Plymouth Brethren) in a predominantly Catholic country. The Trocmés were unshakably committed to obeying the Sermon on the Mount 28.
In practice this means that the village rescued between 3,000 and 5,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. They kept many Jewish children at a private school; some family groups stayed until they could seek refuge in Switzerland. All the villagers took great risks, but they considered harboring others more important than their own safety.
“Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.” — André Trocmé
Trocmé attended Union Theological Seminary in 1925 (five years before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was there) and found the Social Gospel too secular, too rational, lacking piety. Like Bonhoeffer, Trocmé lived intimately with those he shepherded.
For the rest of his life he sought another union [an organization he belonged to as a child during WWI], another intimate community of people praying together and finding in their love for one another and for God the passion and the will to extinguish indifference and solitude. From the union he learned that only in such an intimate community, in a home or in a village, could the Protestant idea of a “priesthood of all believers” work. Only in intimacy could people save each other. 57
A recurring motif in the book is that André Trocmé gave himself. He gave himself to his people, visiting them in their homes regularly. He gave himself to his community by his involvement in their lives. When he came home his children rushed him, enveloping him in hugs because he brought himself to them. Hallie expatiates on this theme in one of the most profound passages in the book:
When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks—and even sometimes obedience—as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded—in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become to use Trocmé’s word, féconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other. 72
At one time, Trocmé is asked whether another group struggling in WWII should practice non-violent resistance. His response was that a foundation first has to be laid before such a tactic can be efficacious. Trocmé, along with Pastor Edouard Theis and schoolteacher Roger Darcissac had poured their lives into resisting evil and teaching their neighbors before such visible means of resisting became necessary.
I tend to look for perfect heroes and tidy endings. I was sad to read that a personal tragedy reduced Pastor Trocmé’s faith and that Mme Trocmé seemed to hold faith at arm’s length even as she worked indefatigably.
Writing about this book brings threads of recent events together: Today, April 9th, is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death. There are striking similarities and certain differences between André Trocmé and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I look at the photo of the Trocmés above, Magda Trocmé reminds me of Edith Shaeffer, a different kind of rescuer, who died on April 6th. And finally, the news of Rick Warren’s son’s suicide on April 5th coincides with a Trocmé family tragedy.
Ever curious, I wondered where the surviving children were. I discovered that Nelly Trocmé Hewett, 85, was giving talks last October and is scheduled to speak tomorrow at Macalester College in the Twin Cities. How immensely would I love to be in that audience.