Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chambon-sur-Lignon, France

Friends: No French community was more defiant towards the Nazis during WWII than the citizens of Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small village in the Massif Central. Led by the local priest André Trocmé, who had been exiled by the Catholic church to this isolated town for his arch pacifist views, he involved the entire community in providing safe passage and refuge for Jews, many of them children.

A handful of books have been written about the heroics of this community, known as a "conspiracy of goodness," and Trocmé was enshrined in the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the ultimate Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. There are museums to the Resistance scattered all over France. France being a nation of museums, I fully expected a significant museum in Chambon-sur-Lignon recounting the town's role in saving hundreds of Jews.

I remembered the huge museum and memorial complex in Oradour-sur-Glane on the other side of the Massif Central I visited several years ago to honor the more than six hundred residents who were incinerated in the town's cathedral in retaliation for the killing of a couple of Gestapo officers by the local Resistance. It was a most moving experience walking about the former town and reliving its horror. I hoped for another moving experience, but of a higher order, visiting Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Curiously there was no museum in Chambon-sur-Lignon, nor even a statue or memorial to Trocmé, just a plaque on a ski hut across from the town's church put up in 1979 recognizing the town for standing up to the "crimes of the Nazis." The tourist office had a small brochure only in French with a map showing several of the homes where Trocmé had lived and places where he had provided refuge to the Jews in the village and also in its surrounding countryside.

The tourist office also had on display several of the books written on the town's valiant and brave stand against the Nazis, putting the town at great risk. The Nazis had a suspicion of what was going on, but could never catch the citizens by surprise. When they made their periodic raids, all the Jews fled to the forest. Trocmé was finally arrested in 1943 and held for a couple of weeks before being released. Rather than returning to Chambon-sur-Lignon, he went into hiding, but continued to orchestrate its efforts.

Rather than having a museum to attract tourists, Chambon-sur-Lignon has an 18 hole golf course, quite a rarity in France. I've passed more nuclear plants in the past week than golf courses. The French know better than to sacrifice good agricultural land to the silly pursuit of putting a ball in a hole, considered "a good walk spoiled" by even those who play it. Why a golf course ended up here is a story that Graham Robb ought to include in his next book on France, and why the French choose to pay greater homage to a town of martyrs rather than to a town of idealists and great moralists. Maybe Chambon-sur-Lignon's rare nobility is an affront to all other French communities.

I allowed myself a little extra time this year on my now annual annual ride from Paris to Cannes to take a less than direct route so I could search out a few places such as Chambon-sur-Lignon that I have missed over the years. Going to Chambon-sur-Lignon allowed me to pass through Puy-en-Velay, one of my favorite cities in France with its pair of volcanic spires in the middle of the city, one with a seventy-foot high statue of Notre Dame de France holding a young child built in 1860 with the metal of 213 cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War. On the other spire towering over the city is a stunning cathedral built in 961 by the local bishop after returning from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It makes Puy-en-Velay the most spectacular starting point in France for present day pilgrims. I always see a few preparing to embark, always a heartening site knowing how they will be transformed and uplifted over the couple months of their hike, having encountered many of them further along the way in Spain.

It was thirty miles from Puy-en-Velay to Chambon-sur-Lignon, up a better than ten-mile climb, one of quite a few that have tested my legs during my several days on the Massif Central, far from the easiest route to Cannes. I also passed by the Puy de Dome, one of the most storied climbs in Tour de France history, a small enough mountain that the climb actually corkscrews its way around the mountain rather than using the more traditional switchback method. It is part of a volcanic park of some eighty mini-volcanoes spread over a twenty mile stretch, a truly other-worldly sight.

Half a day south of Puy de Dome I took another slight detour to see Le Viaduc de Garabit, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1880, built to carry trains over the gorge of the river Truyére. It is considered Eiffel's other masterpiece, and another example of why he was known as "the magician of iron." At the time it was the highest bridge ever built, some 400 feet high. It took four years to complete. I was able to bicycle under the magnificent red arched structure. Though it has long ago been superseded as the world's highest bridge, the French still hold the honor of having the highest, the road bridge of Millau held up by pillars that are taller than the Eiffel Tower.

I also took a slight detour to visit a lesser Eiffel viaduct north of Clermont-Ferrand. One of these years the route planners of The Tour de France ought to design a course that goes by all the Eiffel structures in France, perhaps a year that commemorates his birth or death or other significant event of his life.

Later, George


Stuart said...

I doubt anyone will see this comment, but I wanted to get something off my chest about the movie "Inglorious Bastards." I hated that movie for being entirely unbelievable and couldn't watch it to the finish. Where do I begin? If you remember, it opens with a scene where German officers are approaching in a car to investigate whether a French family was harboring any Jewish refugees. Even though their house is only a hop, skip and a jump from the edge of a forest, the Jewish refugees are being hidden under the floorboards of the house. "Why don't the refugees hide in the forest?" I asked myself and now I find out from George that is what refugees really do. Then we are treated to the German officers shooting with machine guns through the floorboards to kill the Jews. This is absolutely ridiculous: Germans would never waste ammunition like that! I guess this scene enabled the movie-makers to get the audience in a sufficiently German-hating mood to glorify the sadistic killing of German POWs that followed a bit later. The Nazis are then portrayed as oh so perplexed that they can't catch these clever American partisans. I took the DVD out of the machine at that point. Well, thanks to George's above historical account, we now know how the Nazis dealt with partisans: they retaliated by stuffing 600 villagers into a church and burning them alive.

george christensen said...

Stuart: Great to hear from you. I've been eager to hear how things are in Japan for you. Let me know directly if you wish via