It’s easy to drive through the main street of the unremarkable French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and miss the small modern, glass museum.
That would be a mistake, because the building, opened earlier this month, contains an intriguing wartime story of courage and subterfuge which took place on this sparsely populated plateau of the Auvergne.
The first floor of the free museum, shows how this region, with its mountain climate, good food and space, provided an ideal break in the 1920s for the city children of factory workers. Farmers’ families regularly took in youngsters and, subsequently, children’s homes and guesthouses opened. At the end of the 1930s, the first adult refugees began arriving, looking to escape the advancing Germans.
Then, in 1941, the place became a real sanctuary. Youngsters whose only crime was that they were Jewish were sent here to avoid the internment camps opening all over Europe.
A year later, the same children were in danger of being rounded up by the Vichy government. A considerable number of the indigenous residents were originally Huguenots, themselves victims of past persecution. Led by Pastor André Trocmé and the Reverend Edouard Theis, they decided to risk their own lives and hide the Jewish children. Famously, when asked to give the names and whereabouts of the fugitives by government officials, Trocmé answered: “ We don’t know which are Jews. We only know men.”
It is still not clear how many were saved, but Floriane Barbier, a museum guide, said: “Because it is here, more witnesses are now coming forward and giving their stories.”
Legend has it that the 5,000 inhabitants of the plateau saved 5,000 Jews. What is certain is that from 1942-1944 the area became a revolving door for refugees. They arrived, were given false papers and moved on. So it is no surprise that one of the first exhibits is a silhouette of adults and children on a train.
I spoke to Eliane Wauquiez-Motte, the elegant Mayor of Chambon, who helped to found the museum. She explained: “The men and women of the area simply did what they saw as their duty. The award by Yad Vashem of a Diploma of Honour to the local people in 1990 was a powerful acknowledgement of their efforts. Happily, we still regularly welcome back the ‘children’ returning as adults.”
The stream of schoolchildren, walking around the museum and assiduously making notes, is a reminder of its purpose: to keep the story alive and be an important part of the modern French history syllabus.