This is a story of good deeds, in the past — and this year as well. Something we can especially appreciate in this time of divisiveness.

A few years ago I visited an exhibition in Bayside Queens at The Kupferberg Holocaust Center: “Conspiracy of Goodness: How French Protestants Rescued Thousands of Jews During WWII.”

This rescue took place, from 1940-1944. And I wanted to pay respects. So in 2018, my husband and I traveled to Le Chambon sur Lignon, a rural village on a plateau in the western foothills of the French Alps, 75 miles southwest of Lyon.

The heroic story of Le Chambon was all too rare. Within days after Nazi Germany’s invasion of France and the establishment of the Demarcation Line separating Northern Occupied France from unoccupied Vichy France, the pastor of Le Chambon rallied the villagers to action: “We will resist when our enemies demand that we act in ways that go against the teachings of the Gospel. We will resist without fear, without pride, and without hatred.”

The French Huguenots (Calvinists) of this region chose to protect their fellow “people of God” regardless of religious or ethnic background. Perhaps they offered sanctuary and kindness in part because they too had been targets of religious persecution for hundreds of years.

But whatever the incentive, the parishioners welcomed Jewish refugees, many of them children. The villagers took them into their homes, educated them in their public schools and hid them from periodic raids: a rare haven of goodness in a terrible time.

To get to Le Chambon we drove about an hour-and-a-half from Lyon, on multi-laned highway for half the time and then onto narrow, winding roads: cows munched languidly, mountains fringed the plateau, and tiny villages popped up every so often, as if in a travelogue of rural France.

Le Chambon looked much the same as it did in the photos from the 1940s. The 400-year-old Protestant church called The Temple has a Bible verse engraved over the doorway: Aimez-Vous Les Uns Les Autres — “Love One Another.”

Across the road, a small, modern museum exhibits displays and information about Pastors Andre Trocme and Edourd Theis, who led the townspeople of this isolated Haute-Loire region.

Coming here we could more clearly understand the bravery and rarity of how this village saved 3,500 Jews, joining together to conceal, rescue, and provide false documentation at their own peril.

After our visit to the museum we strolled along winding paths to contemplate, and then lunched on chicken in wine and apple tart at a cozy restaurant on the main street. An older man with his dog came by to say hello, and we realized that he would have been a young man during the war time. Perhaps he had been part of the rescue. The picture I took is one of my favorite portraits, of a man and his dog.

My husband and I were the only non-French speakers. The table next to us was occupied by a group of older women who also were probably part of the community in the 1940s. They enjoyed their meal in animated conversation. When we got up to leave they nodded at us. One white-haired woman smiled: “God go with you.”


Recently, a wonderful thing happened. The town’s mayor confirmed that Le Chambon has received about 2 million euros from an Austrian Jewish pharmacist named Eric Schwam, who died last month at age 90. He had lived there as a child refugee in 1943 with his parents and grandparents, fleeing Nazi persecution from their native Vienna.

After the war ended, Mr. Schwam returned to Vienna with his parents but moved to Lyon in 1950 to study pharmacy, met his wife and lived there the remainder of his life. He was a widower with no children, and the town’s mayor says his generous donation will be spent on education and youth facilities.

Good deeds of the past still resonate in Le Chambon, and traveling to this remote village restored our faith in the power of the human spirit. Seeing for ourselves how morality and selflessness remain possible in even the darkest days was the highlight of our entire trip — a gift beyond measure.

And Mr. Schwam’s gift of appreciation to the town — given just the other day, long after the Nazi terrors — makes the experience even more moving.