Largely unnoticed in European history books is the tiny French village of Le Chambon. Mountainous, impoverished, and easily overlooked, the small town of Le Chambon represents a miracle of compassion.
During the four years of the German occupation of France in the 1940’s, this sleepy town assisted nearly five thousand Jews, most of them children, to navigate Nazi-occupied France into neutral Switzerland. Under the leadership of a local minister named Andre Trocme, hundreds of ordinary Chambonnais risked certain death to rescue, house, and forge identities for the Jewish refugees of World War II.
History books tell us it is great men and great armies who make history.
Compared to the military operations of WWII, the story of Le Chambon is a small one. In a world where moral action is often deemed worthy by its impact on the greatest number of people, ordinary individuals affecting the lives of few are easily overlooked.
With nearly 70 million lives lost in World War II, a few French eccentrics in Le Chambon did virtually nothing to stop Hitler’s war machine and death camps.
Their mountainous village was a blip on the map, a tiny irrelevant drop in the bottomless ocean of war.
But in the secret rooms and converted attic spaces in Le Chambon, the actions of a Protestant minister and a few dozen allies were far from insignificant.
They believed that God acts in stealth ways, under the radar, and so should they also.
They believed that Christian compassion is tangible verb of purpose, a fog of goodness filtering under doorframes and through air conditioning vents, wafting beneath kitchen tables, and settling in the floorboards of newly painted safe rooms.
The Chambonnais believed each individual life saved was one step closer to the end of the war and the eventual redemption of humanity. They were ordinary citizens, motivated by the preciousness of each human life, acting in the present for the right purpose. Or what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. has famously dubbed, “The fierce urgency of now.”
The actions in Le Chambon were carried out, not by City Hall or the Red Cross but by individual citizens in the privacy of their homes, led by both men and women alike. In their daily decisions of courage, mostly at their kitchen tables and in groups of few, the Chambonnais brought the most pressing needs of the world into their living rooms. Andre Trochme’s wife, Magda even considered their actions a “hobby” for her and her friends as they skillfully colluded with church members and neighbors to shuttle and transport Jews around Le Chambon and into Switzerland.
In the 1970’s an American named Phillip Hallie spent a few months in Le Chambon conducting research for a book he would later write called Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Hallie interviewed surviving leaders about their experiences, and specifically on the nature of “goodness” in their rescuing of Jews. In almost every interview Hallie had with the Chambonnais, they were put off by the moral complexity of his questioning and as to why he was exploring the topic of “goodness.”
Hallie writes there came a moment when nearly every interviewee would pull back and looked firmly into his eyes. One after another, they responded with,
“How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.”
For the Chambonnais, the question of Nazism wasn’t how could God allow such evil to occur, but how does God work through ordinary people to combat such evil.
Rather than over-theologizing and over-analyzing, the Chambonais jumped in headfirst. They didn’t wait for a conference on starting a movement or hold out for a shiny diploma to hang on an office wall. Guided by true feelings of empathy, they met in their one room church, trained themselves, and changed the world.
As modern people looking back on history, we have the unique ability to romanticize and deify its dissidents into super-human saints, immortalized in stained glass.
The courage of the Chambonnais seems almost Marvel Comic worthy, existing in a time and place outside the human experience. And as we face the most pressing challenges of our time, it’s easy to wish for the likes of William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi. If somehow we could resurrect them from martyrdom, melt down the statues, snip out the date on the calendar in their honor, and bring them back to lead the charge for justice, equality, and sanity.
But like the ordinary citizens of Le Chambon in the 1940’s, it is us who are called to these troubling times. Not Thomas Jefferson or Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass or Mother Theresa. It is us whom God has chosen for today.