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A Protestant town's 'conspiracy of good' in Vichy France

As the French education ministry revisits Holocaust curricula this month, advocates say Chambon-sur-Lignon's story would be 'revolutionary' for schoolchildren.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

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Chambon-Sur-Lignon, France

The mostly Protestant villagers of this tiny mountain plateau didn't talk about it at the time. Today, they still mostly don't talk about it.

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But during World War II, in defiance of the Vichy and Nazi regimes, they hid some 4,000 Jews, many of them children. Ordinary French farmers and shopkeepers risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust in the largest communal effort of its kind in Europe. What they did has been largely ignored or forgotten in France, experts say.

Yet in Israel, Chambon is one of two European towns honored at Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Opposite a stone Protestant church in this French hamlet sits a plaque presented by Jews to "the righteous."

Pierre Sauvage, born here of Jewish parents, says the church and its pastors sparked a highly conscious but silent "conspiracy of good" – to oppose Nazi policies.

At a time when targeting and deporting Jews was considered patriotic, residents of Chambon refused. Instead, they fed, clothed, and housed Jews; sanctioned an industry of false passports and identity papers; and developed an underground railroad to Switzerland.

But the deeply pious faith behind these acts has been lost in the complex politics and denials of postwar France and the shock that settled over Europe as details of the Holocaust emerged over decades.

For years, French students were smothered in myths of heroic war resistance – what British historian Tony Judt calls the nation's "tortured, long denied and serially incomplete memory."

France facing its Nazi collaboration

But in the past decade, France has faced its collaboration with Nazis as never before. In February, President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered fifth graders to adopt and study a Holocaust child victim next year. That proposal, considered pedagogically too harsh, has since been withdrawn.

However, France's education ministry this month is charged with offering alternative curricula for the Holocaust. In this context, Mr. Savauge and historians familiar with the Chambon story say the "rescuers" deserve another look.

For younger French students, the rescuers represent an affirmative story about the Holocaust without sugarcoating the scale of the inhumanity, some educators say.

If German political philosopher Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" was a main insight into Auschwitz, historians say, the rescuers illustrate the possibility of decency and natural goodness in dark times. In a world where man's inhumanity to man has hardly been stamped out, it's argued, such stories are even more relevant.

"Why would we ever want to forget the only people who remembered the Jews during the Nazi plague?" asks historian Patrick Henry, author of the recent work, "We Only Know Men." Mr. Henry's title is taken from the response of Chambon pastor Andre Trocme, who, when asked to identify Jews in the town, told Vichy officials that, "we don't know Jews, we only know men."