Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a Huguenot village with a remarkable history. During World War II, the 2,800 residents saved 5,000 refugees, mainly European Jews, through nonviolent resistance. The rescue effort by local villagers was inspired by two pastors, the Rev. André Trocmé, and his friend, the Rev. Edouard Théis, who, in 1938, founded Le Collège Cévenol. At first the school sheltered those fleeing the Spanish Civil War. When the Nazis invaded France, Trocmé and others decided that they would resist the fascists not with guns but with "weapons of the spirit." Jewish teachers taught and Jewish refugee children studied at this school. Today, the work continues and the school houses a national center for 52 refugees who have applied to the French government for asylum.
At the work camp, we fixed a road, knocked down a broken garage, sanded graffiti off a bus stop, stuccoed and painted a cracked wall, mended tennis fencing, chipped millions of branches, and planted gardens at the homes of the elderly. We also took cuisine classes, biked to an apiary, hiked up a volcano, and watched Lance Armstrong win the Tour. We interviewed residents and wrote a cookbook containing their recipes. Afterward, we made a DVD telling the story of our experiences with work and the refugees.
We were surrounded by welcoming Chambonnais, eager to share their history. Mme. Gaby Barraud told us about transporting counterfeit IDs for Jewish children during World War II. One day she was on a train and the only other passenger in her car was a German soldier. She was 16 and feared for her life. Yet, she recounted this story as if she were talking about a trip to the market. To her, as with other Chambonnais I encountered, rescuing the persecuted was not a heroic act but a duty. They saw a person in need and thought not of his religion or nationality but of how to help him.
In the evenings, we played with refugee children from Kosovo and Chechnya. In the mornings, they assisted our work by collecting cinderblocks as we knocked down a broken garage. They jumped in the ditches we dug and helped us paint a mural. We were touched by their wide smiles, yet saddened by their rotting teeth. I reminded myself that they were the lucky ones; they had escaped. But I was disheartened to watch a boy running in a girl's broken pink shoes. On our last day, the refugees invited us over for a picnic of ethnic dishes. I especially enjoyed a cake baked by a Chechen woman and chicken doughnuts cooked by a Ghanaian.
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon has been honored by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is the subject of a book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie, and a documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, a French Jew born in the village in 1944.
The American Friends of Collège Cévenol is sponsoring a gala celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at the West End Wine Bar, 450 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. There will be a wine tasting, a silent auction, gourmet food and music, and a presentation on the work-study program. Tickets are $25 and will pay for scholarships to the camp. Questions? E-mail Craige at email@example.com or visit www.cevenolfriends.org.