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Wednesday
Jan262011

Lest Innocent Blood be Shed

 

Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there.

 By Philip P. Hallie

New York: Harper and Row, 1979

 

What causes people to do the right thing, even at immense cost and risk to their own lives? Philosopher Philip Hallie’s answer to this question is to explore, in depth, a striking case of an entire French village, which during World War II sheltered and escorted thousands of Jews to freedom, at the peril of its inhabitants' own lives. Hallie’s story could have been written more as a novel, heightening the tension and the suspense, but it is not. The story-telling is anecdotal, filled with quotations and material from interviews with the villagers, years after the war and after some of the main characters had died. It reads tediously at times, but the underlying message is so remarkable that, as a reader I was unable to put the book down.

Hallie focuses most upon the story of one man – Andre Trocme  - the pastor of the small protestant church in Le Chambon. It was Trocme – and his wife’s – strong leadership and iron will that led the villagers to do what they did. Andre Trocme was a complicated man. A tempestuous man, he was non-violent by force of will and by faith. He was “a violent man conquered by God,” in the words of people who knew him. Perhaps because he witnessed his mother’s death following a car crash that was due to his own father’s impulsiveness and angry temper or perhaps because of a chance encounter with a German soldier who had become a conscientious objector and refused to carry arms, Trocme dedicated his life to non-violence. When he arrived in Le Chambon he began a school to teach non-violence. His own and his wife’s generosity to everyone in the village won him converts and sympathizers. When the war came, he extended that generosity to escaping Jews and the villagers followed.

Hallie’s book gives us glimpses of some of the other leaders of the Le Chambon resistance: Andre Trocme’s wife, Magda, who was basically non-religious but with an overwhelmingly generous heart and boundless energy, Pastor Edouard Theis, Trocme’s partner and leader of his school, Roger Darcissac, the headmaster of the town’s other school, which took in Jewish children and hid them, Daniel Trocme, Andre’s cousin who came to Le Chambon to help refugees and lost his life after being arrested and sent, along with the children he was helping, to a German death camp, and many more. The number of families who hid refugees was countless. Thousands of Jewish men, women and children were saved. Trocme himself formed a union with the Quakers who were ministering to Jews in the French deportation camps and took the children from the camps and into Le Chambon for safety.

The people of Le Chambon were doing something dangerous. Several of them, including Trocme himself at one point, as well as Theis and Darcissac, were arrested. Some Le Chambonnais lost their lives. Trocme refused to lie, because of his religious beliefs, so he admitted that the village took in Jews, but he refused to disclose where they were hiding, even when he was sent to jail because of his refusal. He regarded dying and even his family dying as an acceptable sacrifice for doing the right thing. So did many of the other villagers of Le Chambon. When Hallie interviewed them, to a person they did not regard themselves as heroic, but only  as people who had done what was necessary. When a person in need presented him or herself to them, they felt they had no choice but to offer help. The risk to themselves was inconsequential.

Hallie tries to examine what made the difference in Le Chambon. Certainly it was related to the leadership of a small group of people such as Trocme, his wife and Edouard Theis who believed in pacifism and self-sacrifice for one’s ideals and who resided in and were leaders in the town. Nearby villages did not emulate Le Chambon. The pacifists within Le Chambon were assailed by not just the occupying Germans, but by the soldiers of the Vichy French (it was illegal to be a pacifist in France at that time), and even by the local Free French Army fighters and the Maquis,  the guerillas, many of whom came from the same area and despised those who would not fight against the Germans and the Vichy. The townspeople risked their lives courageously and were threatened because of their actions by the participants on both sides of the violence that was going on around them.

One cannot read Lest Innocent Blood be Shed without wondering whether one would have the courage to do what the people of Le Chambon did. They were protestant, but they regarded all human beings, regardless of religion, as brothers and sisters. Some were deeply religious, some were barely religious at all. Hallie himself is a Jew. He raises the issue of what it takes to do what Trocme and the others did at the end of the book. He points out that if the Nazis had won the war, Trocme would be regarded as a villain not a hero and that the Nazi argument, which excluded Jews from consideration as fellow human beings, would never have been overcome by Trocme’s religious or philosophical arguments. In the end it came down to  a stance by the Le Chambonnais that affirmed the brotherhood of all people and categorically refused to use violence as a means for anything.

The Nazis lost the war and Andre Trocme was a hero, celebrated in France, in America and in Israel. What happened in his village was a testament to what good humans are capable of doing and is an argument against the cynicism that says a stance such as their's is impractical and doomed to failure. This is a book that should be read by everyone.

                                                                                                            Casey Dorman

 

 



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