History of the Village
The Plateau of Vivarais-Lignon is a thinly populated area 3,300 feet above sea level, in the hilly section of the French department of the Haute-Loire. The Plateau centers around the village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, with a population spread around other villages such as Tence, Le Mazet-Saint-Voy. It also includes St Agrève, just across the departmental border in the Ardeche, plus numerous tiny villages and hamlets in both departments.
Far away from the main lines of communication, the people of the Plateau lived a near normal life, away from the troubles of the times and far from the war itself. In this Protestant enclave, the ideas of Social Christianity contributed to the development of the villages of the Plateau. In 1902 the arrival of the departmental railway opened the territory to the outside world, and helped the rural economy flourish. The mountain climate provided an ideal break for the children of factory workers from larger cities, so the main villages turned into hospitality centers during the summer months when tourism was highest.
The first refugees began arriving on the Plateau at the end of the 1930s: Spanish republicans, then anti-Nazi Germans and Austrians. During World War II, the tradition of hospitality expanded, coming to the rescue of numerous refugees including Jews, escapees from the Service de Travail Obligatoire (the Vichy forced labor laws), and Belgians, Dutch, and French fleeing from the advancing German Army.
With occasional help from rescue organizations like Comité Inter-mouvements auprès des évacués (the largely Protestant Inter-denominational Committee for Evacuees), and Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (the Child Rescue Service), the Plateau became a center of refuge and welcome. Farmers’ families regularly took in children, acting as child-care centers and guesthouses for them, while continuing with their regular farm work.
From the first days of the Nazi Occupation, the people of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon took part in a form of resistance inspired by pacifist pastors.
Assisting the Children
The refugee children were enrolled in the New Cévenole School, which had opened in 1938, and in the various public schools in villages spread across the Plateau. The accommodation on the Plateau came in three forms: family hotels and guesthouses, farms and other individual households, and various children’s homes.
At the suggestion of pastors André Trocmé and Édouard Theis, activist organizations like the Quakers, the Cimade, and the Swiss Red Cross opened rescue centers on the Plateau, mostly for young children and teenagers.
In the summer of 1941, many children’s homes were built and opened their doors to young students, most of whom were released from internment camps while awaiting deportation. La Guespy (“The Wasps’ Nest”) was opened by the Swiss Red Cross Child Rescue Service, Le Coteau fleuri (“The Flowery Hill”) was opened by the Cimade, the guest house Les Grillons (“The Crickets”) was opened by the international pacifist organization MIR (Movement International de la Reconciliation) and La Maison des Roches (“The House of Rocks”) was opened by the European Fund for Students to act as a university-level college.
In Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Alexandre Grothendieck, 1966 Fields Medal, attended the Collège Cévenol (formerly known as Le Collège-Lycée Cévenol International), a unique secondary school founded in 1938 by local Protestant pacifists and anti-war activists. Many of the refugee children hidden in Chambon attended Cévenol, and it was at this school that Grothendieck apparently first became fascinated with mathematics.
Alexandre Grothendieck at Collège Cévenol
(Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, 1942-1944)
A slap in the face for the Vichy…
Pastor André Trocmé, with the help of his colleague Édouard Theis, organized a direct protest aimed at the Vichy government on August 10, 1942. Georges Lamirand, the Minister for Youth, visited the Plateau accompanied by the Prefect of the Haute-Loire, Robert Bach. At the end of a Protestant church service attended by Lamirand and Bach, Trocmé arranged for a group of students from the New Cévenole School to read a letter to the Minister denouncing the notorious Winter Velodrome roundup of thousands of Jews, conducted by the Vichy authorities in Paris July 16, 1942.
The students made it clear that there were Jews living amongst them. Fifteen days later, the alert was given to hide foreign Jews because the prefectures were organizing raids in the Unoccupied Zone. The gendarmes summoned André Trocmé and ordered him to give the names and whereabouts of the fugitives. He responded:
“We don’t know which are Jews. We only know men.”
This was the beginning of the “underground pipeline” to Switzerland, set up by Madeleine Barot of the Cimade and aided by Mireille Philip in Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon.
An Example to the rest of France
Between 1942 and 1944, a civil resistance, both organized and spontaneous, took hold across the Plateau. Everyone in the Plateau took part in fostering a safe retreat for refugees. Pastors, civil servants, teachers, farmers, railway employees, doctors, merchants, hotel and guesthouse owners, and police officers of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon became an outstanding example of civil resistance in France.
After the war ended, numerous people from Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon received recognition for their bravery. On January 5th 1971, Yad Vashem conferred the title of “Righteous” on Pastor André Trocmé. His wife wife, Magda, received the same award in 1986. On September 5th 1988, the entire population of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon and the surrounding communes received the collective distinction of “Righteous among the Nations”, by an exceptional waiver on the part of the Israeli state. This title is the highest civil honor conferred by the Jewish State, awarded to those non-Jewish people who, at risk to their lives, helped Jews persecuted by the occupying Nazis.
Thanks to the work of rescue organizations and the dedication of individuals throughout France, three-quarters of the 330,000 French Jews were able to survive persecution during World War II.
Association for Preserving the Memory of the Hidden Children and the Righteous
The Association for the Memory of the Hidden Children and the Righteous (L’Association pour la Mémoire des Enfants Caches et des Justes —AMECJ) was founded in Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon in May 2010, at the initiative of Prosper Amouyal. Founding members included children of former members of the Resistance, children of the Righteous, and children of the Hidden Children themselves. Its goal was to create a memorial dedicated to the history of the refugees hidden on the Plateau during the Second World War, the majority of them Jews. The Association was supported from the beginning by Simone Veil, concentration camp survivor and first president of the European Parliament. Madame Veil became the Association’s Honorary President.
The Association offered its support to the municipality for the creation of a memorial museum, including a history trail, as well as supporting publications and educational projects associated with the refugee story. Between 2011 and 2013 the AMECJ committed close to €215,000 to support the Lieu de Mémoire.
Since the opening of the Lieu de Mémoire in June 2013, the AMECJ has continued its commitment to the commune of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, owner and manager of the Lieu de Mémoire. The Association’s aim is simply to promote the Memorial. Each year, in accordance with its Articles of Association and in support of its historical and educational mission, the Association proposes a cultural and scientific programme for the Memorial.