Pierre Sauvage was 18 years old when he discovered that he was Jewish and that he had been born in Vichy France on the Vivarais Plateau in 1944—a place, he would later say, that was “uniquely committed to my survival.” The residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding villages nestled in the craggy hills of south-central France had given refuge to five thousand Jews between 1940 and 1945—including Sauvage and his parents. Sauvage later set out to document the villagers' extraordinary story. The result was the powerful 1987 documentary film Weapons of the Spirit, which has just been remastered for the 30th anniversary re-release. It tells the tale of an unprecedented “conspiracy of goodness.”
The rescue effort was led in part by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, his wife Magda, and his assistant pastor Édouard Theis. The residents of the Plateau, Sauvage said in Weapons of the Spirit, were primed to assist refugees due to their own history of persecution as a religious minority. “Everything they did,” he observed, “was an echo of their forefather’s faith. The village was prepared by its Huguenot past.” Most Protestants on the plateau viewed the Nazis with contempt and the beleaguered Jews as God’s chosen people. They reacted accordingly and without fanfare.
The title of Sauvage’s film comes from one of Trocmé’s sermons, written after news of the mass roundup of Jews in Paris at the Vélodrome d'Hiver. In it, Trocmé called on Christians to repent of their cowardice after. “It is the duty of Christians to resist the violence brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the Spirit,” he declared. The pastor was a pacificist, but also a resister. His congregation—and many others on the Plateau—heeded his call.
It took years for Sauvage to understand why so many had risked so much to hide and save strangers, and making the film was a struggle. “It was a very challenging thing for me to do,” he told me. “I come from a very anti-religious background, and here I was making a documentary about religious people. I found all of my prejudices falling by the wayside. I honestly thought there was something dimwitted about religious people. And yet here were these people who were among the smartest people I’ve come to know in my life.”
When he began interviewing the Plateau folk for the film, Sauvage did not understand them. “There was something different about Le Chambon,” he said. “That kinship they felt with those who, for many of these Protestants, were the People of the Book. There are moving testimonies where the Jews talk about their rescuers not only being willing to provide shelter, but eager—experiencing it as a privilege to take in these people. That is a very particular mindset.”
For obvious reasons, Sauvage became particularly attached to the old couple who helped his parents and whose daughter took care of him as an infant. When he began conducting interviews for Weapons of the Spirit, he approached them first. He asked them if they knew their actions had been dangerous, and they told him they had. Then why? Sauvage asked. The old woman shrugged. “We were used to it.”
That, Sauvage told me, sums up the rescuers of Le Chambon and the Vivarais Plateau. “I love that expression: We were used to it,” he said. “Good conduct is something that one has to get used to. Judaism places a great stress on what you do, because as you do it, you’ll get used to doing it, and you’ll do it more and more. These people were just the salt of the earth. I had the notion that good people might be plowing under the weight of being good. I came to realize that good people are happy; they live fulfilled long lives, and they often die surrounded by their loved ones at a ripe old age.”
Exploring these stories led Sauvage to conclude that in addition to faith, these attitudes were, in part, shaped by the forbidding landscape that surrounded the villagers. “As a city guy, I had a very common prejudice that we city people have towards people in rural areas,” he told me. “In fact, I’ve come to believe that people who live close to the elements, above all else, have a sense of what it is natural more than we do in the cities . . . They were used to duress, used to hardship. So that didn’t faze them.”
Over the past several decades, Sauvage has become one of Le Chambon’s fiercest defenders. When historian Caroline Moorehead published the 2014 book Village of Secrets, which questioned the primacy of the role of faith in the story, Sauvage dismantled her claims in a review (as did Nelly Trocmé Hewett, André’s daughter).“There are people who write books who are attracted to the story, but don’t want to acknowledge the religious dimension,” Sauvage told me. “That, to me, is ridiculous. That was part and parcel what made Le Chambon.”
It is a story that deserves to be remembered, and Sauvage’s magnificent film is worthy viewing for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a complex story in some ways; but fundamentally, it is all rooted in a simple teaching carved above the doorway of the old stone church at Le Chambon: “Love One Another.”
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.
Photo by O'lhommartsam via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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