On a wind-scoured plateau in France’s Haute-Loire department stands a village teeming with secrets. Through an extraordinary campaign of nonviolent resistance during World War II, the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved thousands of Jews from deportation and almost certain death. Today, a museum-memorial stands monument to their wartime courage, though many of their stories may never be known.
You may also be interested in:
• The unlikely sausage that saved lives
• How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis
• A Prague church that defied Nazi rule
Chambon lies 88km south-west of Lyon amid the forests and pastures of the Vivarais-Lignon plateau. For many travellers to central France, Chambon isn’t considered a must-see. Forty kilometres west is Le Puy-en-Velay, a jewel of the Auvergne region where volcanic stone pillars dominate the skyline. Some 20km north-east is burgeoning gastronomic destination Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, hometown of triple Michelin-starred chef Régis Marcon. North and south respectively are two dramatically beautiful French regional parks, the Parc Naturel Régional du Pilat and the Monts d’Ardѐche. Surrounded by so much splendour, it’s easy to see how Chambon, today a town of around 2,500 people, is sometimes overlooked by tourists.
But Chambon’s lonely position has served it well. Its inaccessibility made it a refuge for Huguenots, French Protestants escaping religious persecution during the 17th Century. The region is still referred to as ‘La Montagne Protestante’ (the Protestant Mountain). Later, during World War II, when 80,000 Jews were sent from France to concentration camps, its geographic isolation made it possible to save the lives of more than 3,000 Jewish refugees by hiding them in and around the village.
“Without in any way diminishing the courage and sheer decency of the local population, who risked their lives to hide total strangers, there’s no doubt geography was a big factor,” said Peter Grose, who told the town’s story in his book A Good Place To Hide. “It’s totally isolated and surrounded by forest, and villages few and far between. What better place to hide people?”
Nowadays, increasing numbers of visitors are making the journey to Chambon’s Lieu de Mémoire (Place of Memory), which movingly tells the town’s World War II history. Its upper floor gives a vivid timeline of Chambon’s past, while on the lower floor, history is spoken aloud through eyewitness accounts displayed at TV screens and listening posts.
Crisp, monochrome and minimalist, the museum is an understated homage to an incredible history. Design features like ghostly silver birch trees evoke the desolate Haute-Loire winter, a source of great peril for the refugees who made their way to Chambon at the mercy of the snow and la burle, the bitter wind that howls across the plateau.
Poring over the museum displays and listening to testimonies of the Chambonnais, the question that hangs in the air is ‘why here?’. As well as the secluded location providing an ideal cover, it’s thought that the history of Huguenot persecution was still fresh in the memory of Chambon’s largely Protestant population, who empathised with the worsening conditions enforced on Jews by France’s collaborationist Vichy regime. Intense persecution had caused Protestant numbers to drop sharply in France after the 17th Century, and today they are only a tiny proportion of France’s population. Many of the Chambonnais felt a sense of duty to help, which some historians have linked to their ability to empathise with persecuted minorities.
But the main driving force behind Chambon’s resistance effort was its spiritual leader, pastor André Trocmé, and his wife, Magda. The Trocmés rallied locals, starting with their own congregation, in a bold plan to hide Jewish refugees in attics, barns, hotels and cellars across Chambon. Conditions for Jews had rapidly worsened after the collaborationist Vichy government set in motion the Statut des Juifs in 1940, which demanded that Jews declare themselves and imposed heavy restrictions on their ability to work and travel. By law, all foreign refugees were to be surrendered.
It’s totally isolated and surrounded by forest, and villages few and far between. What better place to hide people?
Many refugees learned about Chambon through word of mouth, making their own way to the village on foot to seek refuge. In interviews, Magda Trocmé would vividly recall the night in 1940 when a German Jewish woman arrived half-frozen at the Presbytery door, having fled Nazi Germany and travelled through occupied France until she heard about Chambon.
Organised efforts by humanitarian organisations brought many others to the village. André Trocmé approached a Quaker organisation, the American Friends Service Committee, who planned to smuggle children to safety but needed a hiding place. Trocmé volunteered remote Chambon as their place of refuge.
From Chambon, many refugees were smuggled illegally across the mountains into Switzerland, where they would be met by other resistors in the tight-knit Protestant network. The resistance movement soon grew beyond the Protestant communities – not only in Chambon but neighbouring villages like Tence and Fay-sur-Lignon – and even succeeded in recruiting police assigned by the Vichy government to seek out Jews in Chambon.
Not a soul in the village gave the secrets away, despite the risks: the punishment for helping Jews to escape was deportation or death. The pastor’s cousin, Daniel Trocmé, himself part of the resistance, was deported to Majdanek concentration camp in 1943 where he was later killed.
Against this highly guarded backdrop, piecing together Chambon’s history has proved a formidable challenge.
“Firstly we had the issue of the number of testimonies,” explained Aziza Gril-Mariotte, who designed the museum experience together with a scenography team. “Counting up the people who welcomed others, those who saved and those who were saved... why preference one above another, why not conserve everything?”
For Gril-Mariotte, the Lieu de Mémoire has a responsibility to educate – and its message resonates through to the present day.
“It has a mission to communicate to younger generations, who will certainly notice a parallel with what is happening today with the refugee crisis,” Gril-Mariotte said.
Beyond the Lieu de Mémoire, Chambon has a restful, private atmosphere. In contrast to so many labyrinthine French villages, Chambon has an orderly quality with tile-roofed stone houses dotted along its main road. Glimpses of forest are visible in almost every direction. Ten kilometres south-west in Les Vastres begins a chain of menhirs and dolmens dating to the prehistoric past. Visitors plying the circuit découverte (discovery trail) that links these ancient stones can experience the Haute-Loire’s wildness and profound silence, the landscape’s talent for concealment that proved so vital in wartime.
The village holds other traces of its World War II history: opposite the Lieu de Mémoire is the broad, granite Temple Protestant (Protestant Church), built in 1821 over the ruin of an earlier sanctuary that was burned to the ground. Appropriately for this town of refuge, an inscription over the entryway reads ‘Aimez-vous les uns les autres’; that is, ‘love one another’, or ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. A plaque was unveiled here in 1979 to commemorate the bravery of the Protestant community, who are recognised as the backbone of Chambon’s resistance movement.
A corresponding plaque can be found in Jerusalem’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem. About 40 people in the village of Chambon – including André and Magda Trocmé – were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations, the designation awarded by Yad Vashem to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In 1972, Magda Trocmé would travel to Yad Vashem to plant a tree in honour of her husband, who died the previous year. Despite the village’s remarkable number of honourees, Chambon’s community remains modest, even tight-lipped, about the World War II resistance effort.
Grose, who interviewed Chambon’s residents for his book, explains: “Like farming communities around the world, they’re not exactly a chatty lot. They’re still a bit inclined to ask you what the fuss is all about.”
But over time, stories of the plateau’s everyday heroes have been aired. Today, schoolchildren from around France arrive by the busload to learn about Chambon’s history. Foreigners rambling the plateau are no longer an unusual sight. The Lieu de Mémoire logged 11,280 visitors in 2017, a steady rise since it opened in 2013.
For Eliane Wauquiez-Motte, Chambon’s mayor, the simple presentation of the Lieu de Mémoire perfectly reflects the humility of its people.
“We tried to create the museum in accordance with the modesty of the population, their desire to carry this history not pridefully but discreetly,” she explained. “To tell this story and show the younger generations that it was possible – whatever happens, and whatever the historical circumstances – to be true to yourself.”
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.