Tracing Tales of Heroism in the Auvergne

The street in le Chambon-sur-Lignon where Jews were hid.
During World War II, the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding towns of the Auvergne region hid and saved Jewish refugees.
(JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / Agence France-Presse)

The best road trip has a purpose, a goal. Head for the beach just to bask in the sun and the memory will fade faster than your tan. Make it a pilgrimage and you’ll never forget it. I’m not suggesting you don a hair shirt. You’ll have no quarrel with me about enjoying the scenery, sleeping in a warm bed, eating pastries by the roadside or savoring a good meal or glass of wine along the way.

Sept. 11 illustrated that it is far easier to take a life than to save one. Shortly afterward and by coincidence, I had scheduled a four-day driving trip to a place in France that represents the triumph of virtue and courage over cruelty: Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in the Auvergne region of central France whose residents saved the lives of about 5,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. On my return trip, I would visit another village, Oradour-sur-Glane, which suffered the destruction that Le Chambon was spared. Being Jewish and having relatives who perished in the Holocaust, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and pay my respects to these places.

There are few countries better for a road trip than France. It has a rich history, lovely scenery, excellent food and adequate plumbing. And French roads are good--better than the drivers.

As I left Paris, the overcast sky seemed fitting; I was jet-lagged and in no frame of mind to enjoy the drive. I managed about 200 miles--almost to Beaune--before hitting the wall. Too tired even to pull into a town, I stopped at one of the many U.S.-style motels at an expressway plaza. No charm, but on that night I wasn’t fussy and just wanted sleep.

My mood the next morning was sunny, even if the weather wasn’t. Continuing 60 more miles through Lyon, I drove along the Rhône River, then southwest to the former coal-mining center of St. Etienne. I kept an eye out for the E-88 to the small town of Firminy to the south, where I found the tiny D-500 and followed it south into the Haute-Loire, one of four regions, along with Allier, Puy-de-Dôme and Cantal, that constitute the unofficial boundaries of the Auvergne.

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Long before I first visited the Auvergne or heard of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon I entertained a romantic vision of this isolated region in France’s Massif Central, settled about 2,500 years ago by the Celtic Arverni. It was a fantasy nurtured by the haunting “Songs of the Auvergne,” collected and orchestrated by the French composer Joseph Canteloube. Reality wasn’t too far off the mark. I found myself in a land of rolling hills connected by pastureland, punctuated by thick forests. From Montfaucon the D-23 climbs to about 3,000 feet through the hills, forests and pastures of “La France Profonde” to Tence and then a few miles farther to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. This is rustic, rugged country, home to sheep, horses and cattle. This also is a land of about 100 extinct volcanoes, and their symmetric cones dot the horizon in every direction.

As if on cue, the sun broke through around noon as I pulled into Le Chambon. It’s a small place, with fewer than 3,000 residents. During the relatively short and busy summer on the Plateau du Velay, Le Chambon is a minor tourist destination for the French, offering mainly outdoor activities such as hiking, birding, fishing and rafting. The few blocks around the Place de la Fontaine, the town square, have pastry and food shops, a couple of bookstores and even a small cinema.

Le Chambon, like most villages in the area, is a Huguenot town. Its history of persecution at the hands of the Catholic majority could explain why about 3,000 people of this village--and many more from the surrounding area--risked their lives to shelter and hide Jewish refugees from German and French authorities. More than one Chambonais was murdered for refusing to give up the secret kept by virtually everyone in town at a time when other French villagers couldn’t turn in their Jewish compatriots fast enough.

I checked into the Hôtel Bel Horizon, a comfortable inn with 20 rooms less than a mile from the square. Its dining room was spacious, and at lunch it appeared that I was the only tourist there. It wasn’t empty, however, as people at a computer conference took up most of the other tables.

The food was simple and reflected local specialties, a presse of sliced potatoes and Lignon trout, like a dense pâté, and a tranche of fricasseed ham--a pork dumpling--on a bed of lentils. But food was a secondary interest. I wanted to learn what I could about Le Chambon’s compelling history.

I walked to the tourist office on the square. The young woman at the desk, Claire, spoke English very well but did not know much about the refugees. A helpful soul, she took me by the hand, walked me across the square to a tiny exposition hall on the corner, and introduced me to Annick Flaud.

Flaud, a retired Paris lawyer who moved to Le Chambon to raise her children, has taken it upon herself to be the public spokeswoman for Le Chambon’s heroic resistance. She spent an hour shepherding me through a small three-room exhibit documenting the work of Protestant pastor André Trocmé, whose family and other villagers organized the rescue operation, which took place from 1940 to 1944.

Flaud, an opinionated personality only partly comfortable with English, was critical of the one well-known account of that period, Philip Hallie’s “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.” “Hallie was a better ethicist than a historian,” she said when I mentioned his book, suggesting that Hallie gave too much credit to Trocmé and understated the role of the community. Not only was Le Chambon a haven for refugees, she pointed out, but a dozen or so of the surrounding villages also followed suit.

The exhibit consisted mainly of photographs and documents from the period, with an English program that enabled me to follow the French captions more easily. Only one or two other people wandered in while I was there, and because Flaud appeared eager to close up the hall, I decided to explore the town on foot.

Le Chambon is a hilly town with winding streets and houses of stone and brick, nestled against the Lignon River. I walked a few blocks from the now-empty railway station to the temple presbytery, once the Trocmés’ home, the same route taken by thousands of Jewish refugees. Stopping before what some refugees called the “poetic gate” outside the pastor’s residence, I imagined those frightened souls in the moments before Magda Trocmé, the pastor’s wife, hustled them inside to food and warmth, and from there to homes and schools throughout the area.

When refugees arrived at the railroad station, they would have been directed to the Protestant presbytery, where, after being comforted and fed, they were bundled off to live with local families. Many refugees were given false identity papers and blended into the mountain communities, working or attending school; some stayed long enough to secure passage to Switzerland.

Though the Germans knew of refugees’ presence, their few raids were mostly unsuccessful, as time after time the villagers refused to identify or give them up. At times the Jews were hidden in remote farmhouses or forests. “We do not know what a Jew is,” the Chambonais said time and again. “We know only men.”

Not that the Germans were never successful in capturing some. In the summer of 1943, the Gestapo raided a home for adolescent boys supervised by Daniel Trocmé, the pastor’s cousin. Along with 11 boys, Daniel was arrested, and he died in 1944 at Majdanek extermination camp in Poland.

I stopped at Trocmé's unimposing stone church near the river, and the cemetery where he is buried beneath a simple stone that identifies him only as “Pastor.”

Characteristically, aside from a placard on the school opposite the church commemorating in Hebrew and French the heroism of the war years, Le Chambon displays no references to its shining moment. The people of the village always diverted attention from their heroic act, saying they did no more than their creed demanded.

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The next morning I rose with the sun at about 7. Already in the middle of September it was cold, with the smell of wood fires thick in the air. I spent most of that day driving the back roads of the Auvergne visiting a few of the neighboring villages.

The D-103 was tranquil, weaving through undulating spruce forests and pasturelands punctuated by the occasional cornfield and dozens of domelike hills and ridgelines in the background. Fattened geese waddled outside the stone farmhouses and barns, along with the cattle and horses. There wasn’t much traffic, and I took it all in slowly, like a Sunday driver.

At the village of Tence, I got out and explored the town, which I had visited a few years earlier.

I wandered past the pleasant, vine-covered Hostellerie Placide. Flaud had told me that one refugee spent the entire war playing bridge in its lobby.

Not ready to leave that perfect fall day behind, I continued driving into the Ardèche for another hour before heeding the pangs of hunger and returning to Hôtel Bel Horizon for dinner.

The following morning I left for Paris, where I had arranged to meet my cousin Ralph Jacob, a Holocaust survivor whose father was murdered at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

I decided to take a long, slow route back north to fit in a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, another village with a war connection. I drove a northwesterly course through the heart of the Puy-de-Dôme region, studded with volcanoes and foliage-covered rock domes. The leaves were starting to change color, and I passed through one gem of a town after another.

My route took me west toward Limoges. I turned northwest onto tiny departmental roads and followed them for 12 miles to Oradour. If Le Chambon is a symbol of the triumph of life, Oradour is its dark opposite.

An unremarkable market town, Oradour achieved grim immortality on June 10, 1944, just four days after the Normandy invasion.

The German army surrounded the village early that morning and destroyed it, executing its 642 inhabitants, including children, and demolishing its 328 buildings. The reason for the massacre is unclear even today, though many believe it was probably in retaliation for Resistance activities in the area.

The village is almost as the Germans left it, and it is a sobering sight. Accessible through a modern visitors center, Oradour is a ghostly collection of jagged ruins, with the detritus of daily life--pots and pans, appliances, eyeglasses, a baby carriage--strewn among the rubble of dead shops and houses. Wrecked cars occupy their final parking spots. Electric wires hang powerless over the silent streets. No one is home.

An hour or two wandering through Oradour is enough to conjure up a little of the horror the villagers faced in 1944.

There are a few signs and placards identifying the buildings and pointing out places of execution, but the desolation speaks for itself.

The Centre de la Mémoire, a modern multimedia center, had a bookstore, photo exhibits, a library and a small theater, and the multilingual staff was pleased to answer questions about the memorial. Quite a few French visitors took the walk with me that day.

I left by way of the new village of Oradour, rebuilt after the war within sight of the old, and headed north.

I stopped at a pâtisserie in the village of Pontarion to buy a mille-feuille. At a rest stop outside town, looking out over the hills of Limousin, I savored this perfect pastry. Some might think it disconcerting to enjoy such simple pleasures on a journey that had taken me into the depths of evil at Oradour and the height of human decency at Le Chambon. Horror would always be with us in one form or another, as Sept. 11 had demonstrated so stunningly only a few days earlier. But, while paying homage to the heroes and victims of World War II, I had learned that light can shine through even the darkest moments of history.

Sitting by the roadside, I recalled the words of a mother of three kids who were saved in Le Chambon: “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.”

James Dannenberg is a writer and judge living in Kailua, Hawaii.