Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed
The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There
by Philip Hallie
Today’s column is a Memory Maker book review. Memory Maker books are those that are not recent publications, but which come to mind frequently, as good books will.
This extraordinary book, first published in 1979 by Harper & Row, is about the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. In World War II, Le Chambon, a poor mountain village of 5,000 people, housed more than 3,500 Jews, mostly children, under the noses of the Nazis. How was this possible, you ask? That is one of the questions that the author, Philip Hallie, then a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Wesleyan University, also asked when he went to Le Chambon in the 1970’s to investigate the story.
Ironically, Hallie had come upon the description of the benevolent activities at Le Chambon while doing research on cruelty . For many years Hallie had tried to objectively understand what cruelty was, and what resistance to it looked like. As he immersed himself in the grisly subject he found that: “Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape( …. ) On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of Southern France. About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks… I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.”
His emotional response to the written record of kind actions by the Chambonnais toward the Jews took Hallie by surprise. He was confused and distrustful of his tears, but he understood this much: “Those involuntary tears had been an expression of moral praise, praise that was pressed out of my whole personality like the juice of a grape… And part of the personality had been the ideas of goodness and of the evil that I had been learning and teaching for decades.”
The Holocaust anthology document that Hallie read on that day was virtually unknown. It was more than thirty years old and made up of only “a dozen… pages, most of them vague and inaccurate. The whole story could be found only in the memories of a few people who were now old and sick.” Because Hallie felt a pressing need to learn about this unique village, and collect information directly from the people involved in the compassionate rescue work who were now aged and ailing, it wasn’t long before he made up his mind to go to Le Chambon.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed is about Hallie’s c.1975 trip to France and his interviews with central figures in the WWII resistance campaign in Le Chambon. One person to whom Hallie was unable to speak, but who was considered the heart and soul of the movement, was Protestant Pastor Andre’ Trocme’, who died in June of 1971. Hallie states, “It was Trocme’ more than any other single person who made what happened happen… The fact is that when you try to understand the peculiar spirit of Le Chambon, you find that all roads lead to a Andre’ Trocme’.”
Trocme’s wife, Magda Grilli Trocme’; fellow pastor Edouard Theis; and friend, public school teacher Roger Darcissac; all of whom played major roles in the resistance, spent a considerable amount of time visiting with Hallie. They spoke with him in their homes, and took him on tours through the village and countryside so that he might glean as much knowledge as possible about Le Chambon. Hallie spoke with many villagers who were involved in housing and hiding the Jews during the war. Yet wherever Hallie went, conversation often centered around the non-violent but passionate and committed person that was Andre’ Trocme’.
Perhaps the title of the book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, can help give a picture of Trocme’. The title is taken from Deuteronomy 19:10 which reads, ” I command you this day to [protect the refugee] lest innocent blood be shed in your land… and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.” This text was the motivation for Andre’ Trocme’s desire to make Le Chambon a city of refuge for the Jewish people during the war, and was also the source of some of his sermons. From Deuteronomy 19:10, as well as the Beatitudes, Trocme’ and the Chambonnais believed that they were to care for the many refugee Jewish children that came through their little village by train. They cared for the Jews by taking the children and young families into their homes where they provided false identification papers for them, fed and clothed them, and hid them from the authorities. As a pastor, Trocme’s parish visits to various family homes were often used to make plans for the protection of the Jews. During one of these many family visits, a villager came up with the idea of starting a school for the children, which they did. It was a risky but clever cover for their illegal activities. Inspired by Trocme’s sermons at the Protestant Temple and his leadership in the active, loosely knit resistance network in the mountainous region of southern France, the Chambonnais saved thousands of Jewish lives.
I don’t want to give the impression that this book is simply a collection of interviews and a list of facts. It is not that at all. In writing Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie couldn’t help but use his years as a professor of philosophy and humanities as the lens through which he viewed the Chambonnais, their actions on behalf of the Jewish refugees, and their manner of life. He was by his very calling concerned with the idea of ethics. Hallie was also a Jew. Therefore his remarks about the lives of the Chambonnais during the war are filled with observations that exhibit great thoughtfulness and his understanding of the seriousness of the times.
Here is an example of Hallie’s comments on the difficult choices that the people of Le Chambon made almost every day:
“But for Magda (Trocme’) and the other Chambonnais, the making of counterfeit [ration] cards was not simply a matter of practicality. It raised profound moral problems. To this day, Magda remembers her reaction to hearing about the making of the first counterfeit card. During the first winter of the Occupation, (Edouard)Theis came into the presbytery and said to her, ‘I have just made a false card for Monsieur L’evy. It is the only way to save his life.’ She remembers the horror she felt at that moment: duplicity for any purpose was simply wrong. She and the other leaders knew that ration cards were as important as identity cards — the Chambonnais were so poor that they could not share their food with refugees and hope to survive themselves. Nonetheless, none of those leaders became reconciled to making counterfeit cards, though they made many of them in the course of the Occupation. Even now, Magda finds her integrity diminished when she thinks of those cards. She is still sad over what she calls ‘our lost candor.’ ” Hallie then sums up the situation this way: “The righteous must often pay a price for their righteousness: their own ethical purity.”
How did goodness happen in Le Chambon in the midst of systematic horror, torture and death? Why did an entire village of poor French Protestants get involved in helping Jewish refugees? Why didn’t Le Chambon, which was known for years as “that nest of Jews in Huguenot country” suffer the dreadful consequences that other villages in France did when they opposed the German occupants? These are some of the questions asked by Hallie of the citizens of Le Chambon. Many of these questions remain unanswered, as this paragraph from the introduction to the 1994 edition of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed shows. Hallie writes:
“To understand the story of Le Chambon is not merely a matter of understanding historical and moral facts…. It has something supernatural in it…. Members of the Gestapo knew the village was full of Jews, knew it in detail, but they did not bother to round up all the Jews in the village, though they were seizing and killing Jews in France during the whole four years of the Occupation! How could this be?”
Hallie goes on:
“Long after Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed was published I was still asking myself this question [Why were the Jews in Le Chambon spared?]. The facts I could gather before and after the book was published did not help me to answer it. And so one day I posed the question to a friend on the faculty of Wesleyan University. He was a distinguished mathematician and always a cool-headed, circumspect thinker.
The answer he gave stunned me: ‘It was a miracle.’ “
I have to agree with Hallie’s mathematician friend. I think what happened at Le Chambon was indeed a miracle, and the news of God’s miraculous care for his people needs to be shared and remembered. I hope you will consider reading Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. It is a great book to read with friends. Almost every page has a sentence or paragraph that encourages discussion. This might be a good book to use in a cross-generational book group so that younger readers can ask questions of older readers about historical terms.
Do you think it is true that there can be no neutral position, no moral disconnect, when a situation of need arises?