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Secret history of French buildings - November 2018

From Huguenots to Jews, the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon has a centuries-old record of aiding the oppressed, writes Jane Hanks

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Haute-Loire is the only village in France to have received the honorary title ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ from the state of Israel, which gives the title to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

From 1939–1944, the 20,000 inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and other surrounding villages, hamlets and farms on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon hid and looked after a total of around 3,500 refugees, of which about a thousand were Jews. There is no record of anyone ever denouncing a neighbour in what has been called le miracle de silence.

The area has a long history of sheltering persecuted communities. The Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, half in the Haute-Loire and half in the Ardèche departments, is at 1,000m and is an isolated, sparsely populated, mountainous area with plenty of woodland and has always been a good place to hide.

In the 16th century, priests from Switzerland came to the area with their new Protestant beliefs and a strong Huguenot community developed. The remote area was spared many of the worst massacres and the Protestants remained strong, even after the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which outlawed their religion. Huguenots fleeing from other areas were welcomed there.

To this day the region is still referred to as La Montagne Protestante, there are several protestant churches and nearby Le Mazet-Saint-Voy has been called the most protestant village in France.

This spirit of resistance and welcome continued throughout the centuries. In 1902, the train arrived and with it tourists and also poor children from the cities, who were sent by charities such as Oeuvre des Enfants à la Montagne for holidays where they could breathe the fresh air and enjoy the open spaces.

When the war began, the local priests urged the residents to take in refugees. There were not only Jews, but also Germans and Austrians fleeing the Nazi regime, Spaniards escaping civil war and French opponents to the Vichy regime.

In particular, two protestant priests, Edouard Theis and André Trocmé and his wife Magda who were all pacifists, made a stand against anti-Semitism and rallied local people to hide refugees in attics, barns, hotels and cellars across the plateau. It is thought the collective memory of religious persecution during the Huguenot period made them particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.

The local population took in people who came to them through word of mouth, or who were sent by humanitarian organisations.

After liberation, most of the refugees went back to their homes, though some still come to the village to thank the locals for what they did to save them.There is now a Lieu de Mémoire (inset) which was opened in 2013 and which has a growing number of visitors, keen to hear the stories of this brave community.

Nathan Roumezi from the museum says it took a long time for the village to recognise this extraordinary courage: “At the end of the war the local people did not speak much about it. They were simple folk and for them what they did was a natural action, and not extraordinary.”

He says the tradition of welcome continues to this day: “There are around 25 refugee families living on the plateau, mostly from Eritrea and the Congo.”   

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