André and Magda Trocmé

André and Magda Trocmé

Remembering and Honouring Peacemakers

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

This is a story which took place during World War II, between 1940–1944. It happened in Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in a predominantly Roman Catholic area of a mountainous region in southeastern France, near the border with Switzerland.

The heroes of the story were the 3,000 residents of the village, simple men and women led by the Pastor of the French Reformed Church, André Trocmé. They decided that they could no longer stand by while the Nazis implemented their program of exterminating the Jews.

It began very simply. Magda Trocmé, André’s wife, explained it this way: “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done — nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you make a decision?’ There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!”

These villagers didn’t decide to be heroes. They were ordinary people, with ordinary concerns — raising their children, making ends meet, surviving this terrible war — and they decided to do what was right. Like many, they were afraid of what might happen to them if the Germans discovered what they were doing.

Nevertheless, almost every villager took part in the effort, including the children. They provided food and shelter for escaping Jews. They forged fake identity papers and ration cards for the refugees and helped them over the border to safety in Switzerland. When they heard about an upcoming police raid, they hid those they were protecting in the surrounding countryside.

It seems incredible to me that they should dare to do such a dangerous thing. How could a small village hope to withstand the mighty German empire? How would they endure? Yet they did. Goodness happened in Le Chambon. The Chambonais saved human lives at the peril of their own.

They had no power to match the mighty Nazi war machine. The struggle in Le Chambon happened in the privacy of people’s homes. Husbands and wives and children sat across the kitchen table from each other, trying to figure out what to do. Quietly and faithfully, they made decisions which became turning points in that struggle.

Despite the danger, they agreed to risk their lives. They defied the Fuhrer and refused to comply with the orders of the pro–Nazi Vichy government established in Paris.

Why? Perhaps the best answer is that their lives were shaped by the gospel which Pastor André Trocmé preached and taught day in and day out. He ended his sermons with these words. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Go practice it.”

They did. Day by day they practiced their faith.

They were not fighting to liberate their country or their village. On the contrary, their resistance put their little village in grave danger of massacre, especially in the last two years of the war when the Germans became increasingly desperate. Under the guidance of their spiritual leader, they acted in accord with their consciences in the middle of a very bloody, hate–filled war. They acted on their conviction that their duty was to help their neighbours in need.

Years after the war, Magda Trocmé reflected on her choices. “When people read this story, I want them to know that I tried to open my door. I tried to tell people, ‘Come in, come in.’ In the end I would like to say to people, ‘Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself.’ I would not say more.”

It’s a tiny story in the middle of a brutal world–sized story. We remember this story and honour these people because it asks a question about identity. What are our values? What do we stand for? What shapes our lives?

The lives of the Chambonais were shaped and formed by the gospel of God’s love for all people. They were Christian people. They belonged to Jesus Christ. Their primary loyalty was to God. They lived by different rules than the society around them.

Philip Hallie tells the story of Le Chambon eloquently in a wonderful book called Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. It is the compelling story of ordinary people who became extraordinary, not by attempting something spectacular, but by being faithful in their ordinary day–to–day lives. It is a story of faith, courage, and ordinary heroism.

Such incredibly simple yet difficult choices have the power to change the world. It certainly did for the refugees who were hidden and protected in Le Chambon.

This story is also important to remember these days as anti–Semitism is once again on the rise all around the world. It is more important than ever to ask ourselves the question which the Chambonais answered for themselves: What are our values? What shapes our lives?

This year, on November 11, when I hear the words “Lest we forget”, I will remember the people of Le Chambon and their pastor, André Trocmé. I will remember what a life shaped by the gospel looks like.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook