A Christmas holiday and a universal message.
The chefs, or leaders, of this group were three young men, one of whom doubled as chef-de-cuisine, cook, and two young women who seconded him while keeping an eye on the half-dozen girls who had joined the camp, as we called it, and who of course had their own room apart from the larger room where the rest of us, ten to 14 boys as I recall, bunked. The chefs had their sleeping bags on the straw in the attic, which they accessed through a narrow spiral staircase in the corner of the common room whose two pieces of furniture were a long table and benches made of what must have been oak and a poêle, what we would call a Franklin stove, that ran on fuel oil and was the only source of heat outside the kitchen, which is why we all spent most of our waking time there when we were not out of doors on the mountain.
This was not formally a scout camp but it was a pure emanation of the scout movement as it existed then in France, except for the girls and their young chaperones. The oldest of our chefs was not 24, already had done his service militaire, and his two assistants, close friends actually, were waiting the call-up of their class. The girls had come along this year due to some subtle or not so subtle pressures from parents upon the elders of the church that sponsored the troop to which most of the boys including the older ones belonged, or maybe it was the older boys who pressured their elders or maybe some girls in the church said they wanted in, that it was not fair there should be one winter camp every year and it was only for the boys. But I do not think it was that either, because some of the girls were Catholic and one was Jewish, which actually left just three Protestants plus the two older girls, making five. I think it was just a case of friends; the older boys had invited friends or girl friends whom they knew from the church or more likely from school and the elders or whoever was ultimately responsible said, “After all, why not, there are two rooms in that cabin, aren’t there?” and Jean-Luc, who was the top man and had organized trips to the same place in previous years and was 24 years old and back from Algeria where he had taken a slug in the leg, said, “Of course there are two rooms, you do not think this is an Israeli kibbutz, do you?” He did not say anything about the attic because they did not ask him and he figured what they did not know would not hurt them.
I did not know anything about kibbutzim, nor did anyone in fact, but Jean-Luc was extremely interested in them and though he had not been to Israel he was planning a trip and already had the contacts with Mapam friends and others he knew. He was very big on the kibbutz movement because, he said, during one of the grandes discussions into which the evenings around the Franklin stove usually evolved after dinner and a few songs and some board and card games, it represented a fulfillment, or at least a stage on the way to fulfillment, of the message of the Gospel, on which he was keen.
Most of us kids, 11, 12 years old, did not follow very well and anyway we were exhausted by the time les grands, the older ones, got into these big serious bull sessions, having been rousted at dawn to wash up with cold water and get assigned tasks, the most popular of which was to run down the hill with Mathieu, the cook, to the bakery to get the day’s supply of bread. By the time we got back another team had set the long table with big bowls in which you poured either cocoa or coffee and warm milk and plates on which to spread margarine and jam over your bread. Blessing, thanks, as fast as possible, gobble up, half-listen to Jean-Luc’s announcements regarding anything we should know, and off in a rush to the shed where the skis were kept except for the young chaperones who stayed with the cook to clean up — breakfast cleanup being the one task we were excused from due to the ski-school schedule — and caught up with their wards later, not that it really mattered since at that point they would be under the strict eye of the moniteurs, instructors, the tough old mountain men and women whose idea of teaching you how to ski included making you walk up the mountain with skis on the shoulder.
Anyway, there were hardly any ski lifts in those days at the little village of Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, and quite a few people who were not kids mobilized by a hardy gang of evangelical scout leaders carried their skis on their shoulders and made their way up the hills. You learned a lot from those instructors, they kept shifting the order of the class as they took it down the hills to insure that every kid regularly found himself immediately behind the teacher whose terse command was to mimic every move he made, arm, knee, torso. We improved fast, which we knew because in the afternoon when we had free time on the slopes we went faster every day. We thought so, anyway, and we also thought we would be soon joining the alpine troopers whom we sometimes spied in the distance, white clad and carrying full loads of gear including weapons, practicing and drilling out of nearby barracks. If not them, the paras, the paratroopers who, as best we understood the bits of news that registered in our children’s consciousness of the vast world beyond our own small one, had won the war in Algeria and were everyone’s idea of heroes with their smart berets and rolled up sleeves and the short machine guns (as best we guessed) they carried in the pictures and the newsreels.
None of my pals understood that we were learning a few other new things in addition to wintersport skills. I happened to be there, by the way, because I had made some fast friends in my very early childhood in Paris and, with my father posted to another European capital after several years in Washington, they had invited me to this winter camp, and we had stayed in touch by letters — kids were taught to write letters back then — and our mothers all agreed it was a good idea to encourage such charming childhood friendships to continue, as they in fact did.
We probably did not even think about this until many years later, nor did it occur to us to consider the singular happenstance of these friends of mine being the sons of families belonging to one of the few but also one of the most influential Protestant congregations in France. But though we would have laughed at the notion had it been suggested at the time, in fact we were enjoying, or should I say taking an interest in, what was going on in the cabin almost as much as on those hills in the Savoie, somewhere — I must look it up on the map — between Italy and the great Mont Blanc, highest peak in Europe. We might doze off, but we did not giggle or snicker or mimic when les grands, the big guys, got into their heated political discussions or when we caught a hint, a hint we scarcely comprehended even as we sensed its meaning, of something going on in that attic that we also sensed was not to be talked about and never, at all, mentioned to parents when we got home and told them what a great adventure it had been and how much progress we had made in the downhill and the slalom.
On the contrary, we tacitly and silently agreed among ourselves that even if we did not know what we were learning it was something we needed to learn and in its own good time its meaning would become clear.
Jean-Luc never missed a chance to bring his fascination with the kibbutz movement into whatever was at issue. Someone in the heat of debate complained that the left had to find a way out of the Scylla and Charibdis of “l’Otan [NATO] ou les Soviets,” he was ready with the escape hatch provided by “le socialisme sioniste” which offered a model of “communauté d’ésprit” as well as “progrès social.” Someone brought up — someone always brought up — the fighting in Algeria, he was quick to explain that the recent Suez affair (whatever that was) proved “un gouvernement de gauche” could devise a successful military campaign and not find itself forced to surrender power to a military authoritarian of the right, as had happened here — and, he added, “their generals, their politicians, are from the kibbutz movement.”
The brief Biblical exegesis that followed dinner did not ordinarily set the theme for these arguments about French politics and international affairs (which the older members of our group always kept civil), but one time it did. It had been Jean-Luc’s turn and he had discussed the miracle of the loaves. He concluded: “This means when it is necessary to do something, you do something. This,” he added with Calvinist severity, “does not do anything for you, dont le salut depend uniquement de la foi [“for your salvation comes only by faith”], but you do it anyway. Moreover, I want to give you an example, because tomorrow is Christmas.” He mentioned that the few Catholics among us were going to Mass at midnight and of course everyone was invited. “The one who came to save us, after all, first had to be protected. So let me tell you about Le Chambon.”
“You all know, he said, that in late 1942, the German army put an end to the fiction of a ‘free zone’ and occupied the southern part of France.” The relative safety of the territory under the Vichy government’s control evaporated. Well, there was a village in Auvergne called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, on a plateau [he meant a topographical elevation] that had been for two centuries a Protestant enclave. The whole area was viscerally anti-fascist and became a sanctuary for the Resistance. “In particular,” Jean-Luc went on, “the pastors organized a continual flight toward Switzerland of Jewish children, as well as British pilots and Gaullist agents who had accomplished a mission and needed to get out.”
The pastors he referred to were two extraordinary men, André Trocmé and Edouard Theis. Both became pacifists and anti-fascists during the years of totalitarianism’s rise between the world wars, but they were anything but passive. Admitting the failure of pacifism to stop the Nazis, they in effect joined those who believed the fight had to continue. The village and the surrounding neighborhoods became the most important hiding place and escape hatch for French Jews (as well as anti-Nazis on the run).
“There were five thousand people in Le Chambon and the nearby hamlets, perhaps four times that many on the plateau, most of whom were of our Reformed tradition,” Jean-Luc said, with a gesture that everyone understood showed he was not excluding anyone or making any thing special of the denomination to which the église de la rue Madame, of which his family was a pillar, belonged. As a practical matter, he said, they all resisted. (“En fait, ils passerent tous à la Résistance.”) “Trocmé had been preaching for years that those the fascists persecuted were our brothers,” and here Jean-Luc paused just a moment to let his eyes meet those of his little band here who had not grown up in his church. “Three, four thousand Jews, mainly children. Thousands of others: English pilots, maquisards (underground fighters), Communists. Trocmé did not doubt they were his brothers in Christ. When they arrested him and Theis and many others, his wife Magda took over the leadership, continued the lifeline. The Vichy police dragged its feet, was lax. Many of them warned the villagers when a raid was coming. Were they converted, or at least convinced? I do not know. But they sensed the villagers had something — a weapon stronger than their authority.
“You see, a village can be made of simple people, that is not the point.” (Most of these villagers were farmers.) “The point is that they had faith. They had what Andre Trocmé called the weapons of the spirit. But you see, the real point is that they knew they had to do this for no other reason than that it had to be done.
“If you ask them,” Jean-Luc concluded, “and I have talked to people who were there, if you ask them why they did this, why they risked their lives and, many times, gave them, and often under torture, they do not understand your question. They felt blessed to have had this opportunity, but they did not for a moment think it did anything for their souls or earned them any credit.
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