THE EPITOME OF THE THIRD SIDE: THE VILLAGE OF LE CHAMBON
In the heart of Nazi-dominated Europe, when millions of Jews were being torn from their communities and dispatched to the death camps, one community of three thousand farmers took it upon themselves to offer sanctuary to Jewish refugees until they could be spirited to safety. For four years, the villagers of Le Chambon risked their lives defending innocent people against the Nazis and their hirelings. The number of refugees protected was not small. Twenty-five hundred Jews, mostly children, were estimated to have been rescued.
Le Chambon's efforts did not escape the notice of the authorities. The village was not far from the French capital of Vichy, whose officials made a number of determined efforts to get the villagers to surrender their guests. They sent policemen and buses but the people of Le Chambon refused to cooperate with the police and hid the refugees. When the Nazis took direct control of the region, the Gestapo conducted a raid and caught a few children, whom they deported, along with their local host, to the death camps. The Gestapo also sentenced Dr. Roger Le Forestier, a local leader, to death as an example to the villagers. But even with their lives and their families' lives under direct threat, the villagers refused to turn in their guests.
Indeed, the villagers' courage helped change the minds and move the hearts of several of their opponents. The Vichy government's efforts to carry out the Nazi directives eventually turned perfunctory. Later, the German military commander of the region, Major Schmehling, moved by Dr. Le Forestier's testimony at his trial, attempted to explain to the Gestapo chief, Colonel Metzger, why it was useless to fight the villagers: "I told Metzger that this kind of resistance had nothing to do with violence, nothing to do with anything we could destroy with violence." Metzger was not persuaded and insisted Schmehling use massive force but Schmehling kept delaying the plans, and eventually France was liberated and the lives of the Jewish refugees were saved.
Why should the villagers have cared about a group of strangers? When asked this question decades later, Roger Darcissac, a local pastor, explained, "It all happened very simply. We didn't ask ourselves why. Because it's the human thing to do. . . . something like that. That's all I can tell you." An elderly peasant echoed his explanation: "Because we were human, that's all."