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A Surprising Haven for Jews

Noel Hershfield, August 2, 2016

A Surprising Haven for Jews.


Editor's note: The story of how the Huguenots saved the Jews during Nazi times is one not that well known and worth retelling. Thank you to Noel Hershfield, who lives in Calgary, for writing about this. 



Le Chambon is a commune in south-central France. It is  a town that is populated by Huguenots.  The history of the Huguenots has some similarities to the history of the Jews. and the story of how the Huguenots saved the Jews during Nazi times is one not that well known and worth retelling.


Sometime in the 15th century, a group of Protestants became disenchanted with the writings of John Calvin, and formed a separate sect, possibly named after a Swiss politician called Huges, although the derivation is in some doubt among academic theologians.  There was a great deal of conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant church.  The sect was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church and therefore attempted to join the Calvinist Reformation.  Many of them did this in secrecy and some of them who emerged  from secrecy at that time, in the 14 century, were slaughtered by King Francis 1, in the 1545 massacre of Marindol.  The Huguenots actually were in great conflict with the church at the time, as they felt it was far too radical for their religious beliefs.  The church responded with persecution, as exemplified in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre when from 5000 to 30,000 Huguenots were killed.  This sect faced persecution from the onset of the Reformation, but Francis 1  protected them, and they were able to establish villages, etc. in the country. 



In the middle of the 16th century, there were said to be 2 million Huguenots in the southern and central part of France, and as they grew in number the persecution diminished.  However, following the death of King Francis, his wife,the Queen consort also known Queen Mary of Scots decided to round up the French Huguenots on charges of heresy and were  tortured and burning and other punishments .   


There were many civil wars in France, and of course the Huguenots were massacred randomly throughout that time.  Eventually Huguenots, like the Jews started to leave France, many going to Switzerland  and and other countries.  Some arrived in Brazil, and settled in what is now Rio de Janeiro.  Others were spread across the southern United States, South and North America and in the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia.  After 1724, the Huguenots were given French citizenship and many ended up in the south of France at  Le Chambon, where they became farmers and craftsmen.        


During World War II, the citizens of Le Chambon  came under the  Rule of  Gen. Petain in Vichy,  who agreed with Hitler’s policy to exterminate all Jews in the Vichy part of France.  Whenever the Nazis came by, the Huguenots  hid the Jews in the countryside and as one villager recalled “as soon as the soldiers left we would go into the forest and sing a song and when they heard the song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”


 Word got around the south of France among the Jews such that if they heard   the Nazis were planning another action, many turned up at the doors of the Huguenots in Le Chambon .  According to documentation none were turned away, even thuh the Huguenots knew that if caught, they would be killed .  They also gave the Jews ration cards and food and helped them across the border  to Switzerland. They also gave them forged Swiss passports, as did Raoul Wallenberg. Some of the local residents including the son of the leader of the area  Daniel Trocme, were arrested by the Gestapo which sent them to the concentration camps and were murdered.


After the war the Huguenots were acknowledged by  Israel and given the honor of Righteous among the Nations in the 1980's. Also in 1981, the entire town of Le Chambon was awarded an honorary degree by Haverford college in Pennsylvania in recognition of its humanitarian efforts.


When asked why they acted as they did,one of the town's leaders responded “We are Christians and we were taught to love our neighbors as ourselves .These people came here for help and shelter. I am their shepherd. Shepherds dos not forsake their flock.I do not know what a Jew is.I only know human beings.”


There is a film which documents the actions of these people named Weapons of the Spirit.  This film was released in 1989.  There remains on the grounds of the Yad Vashem in Israel a memorial to the people of Le Chambon.  In 2004 French President. Jacques Chirac officially recognized the heroism of the town,  at The Pantheon in Paris.   


As we get farther and farther away from the Holocaust, we continue to find evidence of groups and individuals in Europe, and in the Middle East, who risked their lives to save Jews.  Recently, I found another example in Hungary, where Jews were rescued in a building called the Glass House.  This building was owned by a non-Jew and as yet as far as I know he has not been recognized by  Yad Vashem.

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