A Westmont history professor examines the complex story of French villagers who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II
When the horror of the Holocaust overran their region, the French people of Plateau Vivarais-Lignon took a stand. They quietly shielded thousands of Jews from the Nazis, especially children. In France, 75 percent of the Jewish residents — and 80 percent of the children — survived.
The actions of these remarkable people have inspired many books and movies — and a controversy. Why did they act so selflessly? Who deserves the credit? Why did this happen in Plateau Vivarais-Lignon? Was it only Protestants who participated? How do you decide between different accounts of the same event?
These questions fascinate Professor Marianne Ruel Robins, and she is doing historical research in her native France to explore how collective memory functions. Two personal facts connect her to the story. Her father’s family comes from the Lignon River region, and she is Huguenot like many of the local people.
Marianne’s work challenges the accuracy of a film and a book popular in the United States. In “Weapons of the Spirit,” a 1989 documentary, Pierre Sauvage focuses on one village (Le Chambon) and its pacifist pastor, Andre Trocmé, who encouraged his congregation to overcome violence. The film created controversy by presenting Trocmé as the movement’s leader and describing the local resistance as non-violent and Protestant. Sauvage portrays the Huguenots as persecuted people whose theology and experience led them to protect a fellow minority.
A book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie, also makes these arguments, highlighting Trocmé’s pacifism and the region’s Huguenot heritage. Hallie relies heavily on Trocmé’s memoirs in his work. “This book angers people in the Vivarais-Lignon region,” Marianne says. “They were also involved in armed resistance, and Trocmé’s pacifism wasn’t widely shared.” Marianne hopes to present a broader view of these events to Americans whose knowledge of the region comes primarily from Sauvage and Hallie.
In a series of articles she plans to submit to a journal, Marianne will explore how people remember complicated events. “You have to be careful how you talk about history because it involves people’s lives and memories,” she says. “There are wounds of memory, especially in Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, where people who lived through the war still survive. I want to provide missing historical context and point out the complexity of the situation as a departure from the iconic story of the documentary. You can’t reduce it to a moralistic axiom.”
Based on her research, Marianne asserts that Catholics and Jews also assisted in the rescue and that resistance wasn’t always non-violent.The region had hosted summer camps for children for years, and the residents were accustomed to welcoming youngsters to their community. “It was part of the economic make-up of the region,” Marianne says. “Taking in Jewish children fit into the culture. They had facilities for this purpose.”
Cultural factors like these hold important weight in Marianne’s opinion because peasants had little theological training or understanding. “I don’t want to take away from the courage of these people,” she says. “They risked their lives to help Jews.”
The residents of Plateau Vivarais-Lignon didn’t talk about their dangerous activities, and this silence allowed public officials to look the other way. Even today, surviving villagers are reluctant to discuss it, fearful of being boastful.
This spring Marianne spent time in France co-leading the European part of the college’s Mediterranean Semester with her husband, Jon Lemmond. Based in Montpellier, they taught history classes for four weeks and traveled with 20 students throughout France and to Italy and Spain. The students lived with local families, took intensive language classes and made good progress with their French. Midway through the semester, the group in France switched places with 20 students studying with Professor Bruce Fisk and touring throughout the Middle East.
“We connected our lectures closely to the sites we visited,” Marianne says. “For example, we went to the Holocaust Memorial in Paris and spoke of the place of Jews in French society. It was great for students to see what we were discussing. They gained a deep understanding of French culture.”