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A ‘Conspiracy of Goodness’ Saves 3,500 Lives


By all appearances, the tiny French hamlet of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne favored a quiet, simple life, one where farmers took sheep to graze on nearby hills and villagers tended vegetables in their gardens.

But appearances can deceive.

On Nov. 12, Fordham University presented “The Story of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne, the Rescue of Jews in Southern France During World War II,” a program on the village that saved 3,500 Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps by hiding them, often in plain sight.

From left to right, Rudy Appel, Max K. and Hanne Liebmann and Nelly Trocmé. Photo by Janet Sassi

Survivor Rudy Appel said that, during 1940, when Hitler came to power in France, more than 50,000 Jews fled to southern France because it was still considered a “free zone.” There, they lived in internment camps under relative safety—until the Germans began deportations in 1942.

It was then, he said, that various organizations began moving Jews to safe havens in some remote areas of France. Appel and his friends Hanne and Max K. Liebmann were sent to Le Chambon from the Gurs internment camp, to live in Swiss-run children’s homes and, later, with farmers.

Following a screening of the 1989 documentary Weapons of the Spirit, which chronicled the story of the townspeople, the three survivors joined in a discussion in Tognino Hall with Nelly Trocmé, daughter of André Trocmé, one of the leaders of the rescue effort. All four of the panelists were teenagers at the time of the occupation.

Trocmé recalled her father as a pacifist pastor who had trouble getting jobs because he was an outspoken conscientious objector during a time when making war was the topic of the day. His appointment to the remote village of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne, she said, was really a move by his church to get him out of the way.

“[But] they sent the right person to the right place at the right time in history,” Trocmé said.

Her father’s belief in taking care of one’s neighbor as part of one’s faith resonated with the villagers, said Trocmé, as did their own ancestral history as Hugenots persecuted in 16th-century French religious wars. When persecuted Jews started showing up in their villages, they did not question what must be done.

“It was really a gut reaction, and not intellectual at all,” Trocmé said. “Our people were French Protestants. They read the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, and they took their cues from it, not from anyone preaching theory or theology.

“Call it a tradition that was revived,” she continued. “We were protected at one time by people, and now we were protecting other people in need of protection. And the challenge was individual—you opened the door and asked yourself, ‘Am I going to take this person in or not?’”

There were dangerous moments: Hanne and Max K. Liebmann recalled the feeling of breathless stillness as they hid upstairs while French police questioned their farmer down in the kitchen. Later, she said, they were roused from their beds and taken into the hills to other villagers, when the farmer feared authorities would return to seize them.

“Hiding us sounds simple, right?” Hanne Liebmann said. “But they were taking the chance that police would find us and take not just us away, but the farmers away. They had to pay the same price we had to pay.”

Liebmann, who last saw her mother being deported in a cattle car from Gurs, called Le Chambon a “wonderful place on earth.”

“Whatever their reasons, what the people did in Le Chambon and neighboring villages, it saved our lives.”

Christophe Chalamet, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and moderator of the event, called Pastor Trocmé a “spiritual leader, but just one part of the whole effort” to save the lives of thousands of Jews. Chalamet, a descendant of Hugenots from the same plateau region of France and a scholar in Protestant theology, is currently at work on a book on Trocmé’s life.

The event was sponsored by the Department of Theology.


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