Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Through my CIIS Travel Grant I was able to travel to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France and learn more about the areas amazing actions during World War II. I wanted to visit this relatively unknown place because it is such a genuine representation of the pure kindness that humans are capable of when willing to help one another.
Le Chambon is part of a small collection of largely Protestant towns in a region referred to as La Montagne Protestante in the lower-central mountains of France. The region is known for harsh winters which is why it was chosen by Protestant refugees seeking to escape persecution from a Catholic France several hundreds of years before World War II. Because of their history and their faith, the citizens of La Montagne Protestante had a strong belief in tolerance, freedom and an equally powerful sense of right and wrong. So when the first persecution of Jews in World War II began they jumped at the chance to save all the lives that they could. By hiding adults, children and sometimes whole families throughout the region they were able to save the lives of thousands of Jews as well as other groups being persecuted by the Nazi powers. Le Chambon alone is estimated to have saved over 5,000 Jews, mostly children. In 1988 Yad Vashem, Israel's museum of the Holocaust, awarded all of the inhabitants of Le Chambon the medal of "Righteous Among Nations" which is the highest honor given to non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews in World War II. It was the first time the award had been given to a group, not an individual.
Ever since I had first read about La Montagne Protestante in my high school's Holocaust and Human Behavior class I have been fascinated by it. When I found out I would be spending a semester in France I knew it was my opportunity to finally visit this incredible place. I chose a weekend in February to do my research and I contacted the authors of the book I had read in high school called Hidden on the Mountain. They provided me with some information about where to go once I reached Le Chambon. I left Rouen on a Friday afternoon and took three trains to Saint Etienne Chateaucreux. The next morning I caught the only bus to Le Chambon and the surrounding towns. With the enormous support of the St. Lawrence France semester's director, Dr. Joan Dargan, I was able to work with the tourism office in Le Chambon and they were incredibly helpful in my research. They provided me with a map of the town and the locations of places like the Protestant Church where Pastor André Trocmé preached tolerance and compassion with Aimez-vous les uns les autres (Love one another) carved above the entrance. I also toured several of the boarding homes that had been used to hide children seeking to escape the war and saw the plaque marking the town as "Righteous Among Nations."
After a full day of research I knew I had been able to see all that I could possibly see in such a short amount of time but not nearly everything that the town had to offer. The next morning I took the same bus back to Saint Etienne Chateaucreux with some questions answered, but even more that had developed during my travels and of course, an even greater fascination with the region of La Montagne Protetante.
This brief history and description of the region does not come close to doing the area justice. Just to be standing in the streets of the town that I had read so much about and that had accomplished such amazing things was an overwhelmingly fascinating and extraordinary experience that I am incredibly grateful for.