The locality of good

Children sheltered in Le Chambon. This image is part of a media essay provided by the USHMM.

One of the most inspirational stories of resistance to the nationalized hatred and state murders of World War II comes from a small town in southern France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The town, and surrounding communities on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon, provided help and hiding places for refugees from Vichy and then German authorities. Many Jews as well as other opponents of the fascists made their way to and through Le Chambon. In The Plateau, Maggie Paxson tells many of the stories of the work in Le Chambon, especially how children who were victims of the race hatred of the Germans were sheltered and even schooled there.

Early in her book Paxson, an anthropologist and writer, says that she had come often enough shoulder to shoulder with state violence, or its threat. She wanted to find what a place of peace would be like: “What if we began by regarding peace not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning of the end, but in the unfolding; something not of the ether, but of lived grounds and interactions; something not perfect but flawed and rough-grained?” (5) Le Chambon seemed an obvious place to go for such a quest, and even more so when it turned out she had a family connection to Le Chambon. So she goes one spring in the mid 2000s to study and live and to perhaps find answers.

Or, at least, I had thought we might have some answers to her central question. How does peace become so vital a part of the fabric of a place that even violence from the outside does not snuff it out? In her book, Paxson follows the career of her distant cousin, Daniel Trocmé (himself the cousin of the Protestant Pastor André Trocmé, who is the central figure in Le Chambon’s reception of refugees). She follows his early life in northern France, then in the Near East, Italy, and finally his return to France about the time WWII begins. He cannot serve because of a medical condition, but is soon asked to come to Le Chambon to oversee a school for children. He embraces this work with his whole heart, and cannot be separated from his charges even when the Gestapo come for him. Transferred from one camp to another, he ends at Majdanek.

We also read a great deal about Maggie Paxson’s life, her earlier work in Russia, and even more about her work with the local refugee agency in Le Chambon where her language skills become a mainstay of the work Russian and Caucasian refugees. There are reflections here on the insights of social science, on the place of religion in social life and in personal commitments, and even on the mind / body problem. We learn about the Baha’i faith, and we learn about her own family’s history.

But what I don’t find here is much clarity on what seems to me the obvious question about peace. Why here? Why did these people make a commitment to outsiders that could have ended in even more widespread incarceration than what the town experienced, and even more profligate judicial murder. At one point, in an interesting passage on religion, she says that the injunction to love one’s neighbor and also to love strangers comes from every religion. But she also turns aside the idea that religion per se, the Protestant faith of so many of the villagers, was the key to understanding Le Chambon’s role during WWII.

I experienced a similar frustration with Philip Hallie’s book on Le Chambon, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. Hallie places at the center of his exploration the Huguenot Pastor, André Trocmé. Early in his book he recounts the story of Trocmé’s arrest by the Gestapo, being taken under arrest at the parsonage and transferred to a car to be take to prison. Word spread through the village and his parishioners gathered as witness as he was taken away. They began spontaneously to sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as their pastor was driven away. Andre, unlike Daniel, would return from imprisonment, and continue his work, though later in the war he would have to flee again.

André Trocmé was committed to pacifism, and he called upon his parishioners to open their arms to the strangers and the victims of Vichy and Nazi violence. I’m sure that Pastor Trocmé was central and key to the whole movement to resist and to save. Yet he was at the center of a network of families, individuals, and even institutions in the plateau that worked toward the same ends. Paxson is an accomplished social scientist, so she has the ability and the background to identify the key elements of the network and to begin to recognize the ideologies expressed in them. But, while we learn about many of the present day refugees on the plateau, we learn very little about the web of relationships and commitments that set a rural village against the Gestapo.

I have to admit that my frustration with Hallie and Paxson alike is that they will not do history. Paxson, at least, has no excuse. She spends time in archives, she interviews knowledgable contemporaries and even some of those who lived as children during the war. Anthropology has the same eye for relationships as social history (because where else did social history go for those questions and methods?). In the end, we don’t see that dynamic, that unfolding that Paxson seemed to promise in the beginning. The work of the people of Le Chambon remains ineluctable, like the sacraments.

Hallie, Philip Paul. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Paxson, Margaret. The Plateau. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

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