The Sunday Times Magazine, UK


A haven from Hitler

The French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon played an extraordinarily courageous role in the second world war, providing sanctuary for thousands of Jews. So why are the locals so reluctant to talk about it? Tim Carroll investigates

The Massif Central in the Auvergne region of France has in recent years become a magnet for mountaineers, walkers and cyclists. Except for one village, whose occupants, for the past 60 years or so, have preferred to maintain a studious distance from outsiders.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a haven of tranquillity, clinging to the edges of a plateau where the Haute-Loire meets the Ardèche. Perched 1,000 metres above the magnificent Rhône valley, Le Chambon’s community is remote and insular.

The municipal elders do their best to promote Le Chambon. But the locals – descendants of generations of hardy hill farmers – are indifferent to the financial benefits that the tourist trade might offer.

The centre of their village is a little run-down, with a few gnarled old cafes and restaurants. Not so unusual for a French provincial town. But Le Chambon is different. It has its own secret.

In a building at the crossroads of the village I am met by Pierre Sauvage, who was born here. This is the headquarters of his organisation, Amis du Chambon, which is dedicated to commemorating the town’s unique role in the second world war.

It has the feeling of an old schoolroom. Notice boards are covered with photographs of students: happy faces of youths swimming in the Lignon, playing games in the fields, studying in their bright, airy classrooms. This was Le Chambon during the Nazi occupation. And the young, smiling faces mostly belong to Jews, sheltered there throughout the war. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is the village that said “nonâ€? to the Nazis and the Vichy regime set up in the wake of the fall of France. In 1940, when the French capitulated, the village, and a dozen or so of its near neighbours, was home to 5,000 people. By the end of the war those stout, country souls had saved the lives of 5,000?Jews. Virtually everybody on “the plateauâ€? took part in the rescue effort. But Le Chambon is now acknowledged as the nucleus of this communal act of defiance, a beacon of hope and courage in the dark years of Vichy. In 1988, Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institute, hailed the wartime population of Le Chambon as among the “Righteousâ€?. It is the only place in France to have been accorded such an honour.