Recently I’ve been reading a very moving book entitled “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip P. Hallie. It’s about a small French village called Le Chambon during the Nazi Occupation and “how good happened there.” They helped thousands of Jewish and other refugees escape the horrors being razed upon them. They did it not for money and not because they were organized by any group. Quite the contrary. One man in particular stood out: A Protestant minister named André Trocmé was the mover and shaker for the movement. His powerful messages both from the pulpit and every day about loving all men rang true for every villager.
Not one person betrayed the refugees. They hid them in their homes, taught them in schools and didn’t come out and lie about hiding them when the Gestapo came into town. There was a system of alerting those hidden when there would be a raid so they could hide in the nearby woods. Some of those helping even died in the cause. And some took extremely risky chances and lead some to freedom into Switzerland.
Trocmé and two others spent time in an internment camp themselves and wouldn’t leave, even when they were allowed, because they refused to sign a doctrine that stated they would follow the French rules. These rules were aligned with the German rules they believed were cruel and went against the laws of a higher power.
So many that would have surely died were saved because of this village. And while only a fraction of the millions murdered, it still is an amazing beacon of hope during the darkest of times. France for the most part was not a safe place for Jews or anyone aligned with Jewish people. So the simple people of Le Chambon showed such depth of character, high ethical beliefs and an ability to move beyond fear for what is right and just.
It made me pause and think: what would I do in such a similar instance? I’ve always thought of myself one of high ethics and believe we are all one. While not a religious person, I certainly feel we are all cut from the same mold. The people from this village took it so far as to not even hate the Nazis and believe in non-violence always. This is actually what helped them in many instances with the Gestapo.
If push came to shove, would I put my life on the line to save others in such a time as was seen here? Would I put my family, my community and everything I had ever known in jeopardy to save people I didn’t know because I believed it was right? And would I try to get others around me to do the same? I have always thought I would.
I would because to live in a world where to run from helping and turning my back on others, is not a world in which I would choose to live anyway. If I had to stand by and watch my fellow human beings march down a street–most of whom were my neighbors–to certain death, then I might as well be dead too. I would at least have to try to help and risk dying myself.
The beauty of Le Chambon was the simplicity of so much of it all. No real planning. The right hand never knew what the left hand was doing–and this was actually critical. That way if one house was caught, they couldn’t divulge information about another because they honestly didn’t know. They never even knew who provided the false identification cards–to this day it is unknown. And they never truly and came out and lied about harboring Jews. They would just say things like: What is a Jew? Because they believed they were just men like they themselves were.
And ultimately these people only did what is right. When Hallie interviewed them years later and asked why they put themselves at such risk, he said they would shrug and say things like: well of course it’s what you would do! They needed help! Trocmé and others were recognized by Israel many years later as Righteous Among Nations as was the whole town.
In other parts of the world genocide continues. Human beings continue to slaughter other human beings because they are ‘different’. We are the only species where this happens. But within these pockets of death and inhumanity, there always seems to groups of people who rise above. The Quakers, some Catholic organizations, American Red Cross and many other groups that have gone in to help the helpless for years.
Does this mean there is hope for us? For me? I can only wish that I would rise to my best self as the people of Le Chambon did during the dark days of the Nazi occupation and put my life at risk to save others. And hopefully motivate others to do the same.