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This French Town Has Welcomed Refugees for 400 Years

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Michelle Baillot brings Touana (5), Schkourtessa (7) and Erlina Sélimi (10) to France’s World War II Victory Day at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon’s town’s square.  The girls are from a Kosovar refugee family that Baillot has been close to now for ten years. “I tell them that you are not from here, so you are going to have to be better than everyone else.” Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

Michelle Baillot brings Touana (5), Schkourtessa (7) and Erlina Sélimi (10) to France’s World War II Victory Day at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon’s town’s square.  The girls are from a Kosovar refugee family that Baillot has been close to now for ten years. “I tell them that you are not from here, so you are going to have to be better than everyone else.” Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

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(Left) Near the village of Mazet-Saint-Voy Organic farmer Bertrand Cotte says that his Christian faith was the reason he took in Muhammad, a Muslim refugee from West Africa, to live with him for a year. What surprised him was how well they got along, farmed and hunted together, and shared many values, considering their religious differences.  (Right) In the village of Villelonge a monument pays homage to the anonymous farmers of the region who each hid Jews, dissidents, or members of the French resistance. When Pastor André Trocmé, the spiritual leader of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during World War II, was chosen to receive the Medal of the Righteous, he wrote back, “Why me and not all the humble Haut-Loire farmers who did as much and more." Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

(Left) Near the village of Mazet-Saint-Voy Organic farmer Bertrand Cotte says that his Christian faith was the reason he took in Muhammad, a Muslim refugee from West Africa, to live with him for a year. What surprised him was how well they got along, farmed and hunted together, and shared many values, considering their religious differences.  (Right) In the village of Villelonge a monument pays homage to the anonymous farmers of the region who each hid Jews, dissidents, or members of the French resistance. When Pastor André Trocmé, the spiritual leader of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during World War II, was chosen to receive the Medal of the Righteous, he wrote back, “Why me and not all the humble Haut-Loire farmers who did as much and more." Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

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(Left) Inside the train station at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon hangs a photograph of rescued Jewish refugee children along with documents, some faked, to protect them and others.  Many of the region’s 24,000 residents helped rescue about 5,000 people, some 3,500 of them Jews and most of them children, from near-certain death during World War II, where approximately 76,000 Jews were deported from France to concentration camps. (Right) In Le Chambon-sur-Lignon Anisa (7) and Elivja (4) Begilliari, whose family are refugees from Albania, live with some 50 other refugees in a small, downtown apartment building run by CADA, a French government agency that helps asylum seekers in France.  Along with CADA there are other private and church organizations in Le Chambon and the area that help refugees get their papers, locate a place to live, learn French and find work. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

(Left) Inside the train station at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon hangs a photograph of rescued Jewish refugee children along with documents, some faked, to protect them and others.  Many of the region’s 24,000 residents helped rescue about 5,000 people, some 3,500 of them Jews and most of them children, from near-certain death during World War II, where approximately 76,000 Jews were deported from France to concentration camps. (Right) In Le Chambon-sur-Lignon Anisa (7) and Elivja (4) Begilliari, whose family are refugees from Albania, live with some 50 other refugees in a small, downtown apartment building run by CADA, a French government agency that helps asylum seekers in France.  Along with CADA there are other private and church organizations in Le Chambon and the area that help refugees get their papers, locate a place to live, learn French and find work. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

 

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In Mazet-Saint-Voy, 75-year-old Yolande Chabanas tells the story of how her parents hid Jews in holes they dug under the coal piles the family sold. One time, when German soldiers came in to search the house, her mother offered them food and drink in the kitchen where they sat until an officer came by to check up on them. They told him that they had already searched the house and found no one. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

In Mazet-Saint-Voy, 75-year-old Yolande Chabanas tells the story of how her parents hid Jews in holes they dug under the coal piles the family sold. One time, when German soldiers came in to search the house, her mother offered them food and drink in the kitchen where they sat until an officer came by to check up on them. They told him that they had already searched the house and found no one. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

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Family members of Marianne Bouvier-Mermet (far right), were honored for hiding Jewish refugees during World War II. She carries on that tradition by working with refugees including this Syrian family of Ahmed, his pregnant wife, Ibtesam, and their two children, Mohamed-Nour (5) and Abdurrhaman (3).   Bouvier-Mermet has helped them since their arrival last winter, including letting them live in an apartment she owns. After the horror the Syrian family faced in their hometown of Alleppo and spending several years in a Turkish refugee camp, they are happy with their life in Mazet-Saint-Voy, “Everybody here says bonjour to you,” explains Ahmed. For Marianne helping them and other refugee families is part of the history of the Plateau. “For us it is necessary that this past serve the present, and that the reception of the humble inhabitants of the Plateau is an example for now.” She said. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

Family members of Marianne Bouvier-Mermet (far right), were honored for hiding Jewish refugees during World War II. She carries on that tradition by working with refugees including this Syrian family of Ahmed, his pregnant wife, Ibtesam, and their two children, Mohamed-Nour (5) and Abdurrhaman (3).   Bouvier-Mermet has helped them since their arrival last winter, including letting them live in an apartment she owns. After the horror the Syrian family faced in their hometown of Alleppo and spending several years in a Turkish refugee camp, they are happy with their life in Mazet-Saint-Voy, “Everybody here says bonjour to you,” explains Ahmed. For Marianne helping them and other refugee families is part of the history of the Plateau. “For us it is necessary that this past serve the present, and that the reception of the humble inhabitants of the Plateau is an example for now.” She said. Image by Lucian Perkins. France, 2018.

During World War II, the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which lies isolated within imposing forests intermixed with vast farmlands on top of a 3,000-foot plateau in Southern France, did something extraordinary. Ordinary farmers and shopkeepers on the plateau became involved with what was later called a “conspiracy of goodness:” as they risked their lives to rescue nearly 3,500 Jews from the Holocaust in the “largest communal effort of its kind.” A villager interviewed said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because we were a moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do.”

Today, as the world turns its back on refugees from such war-torn places as Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this village is welcoming them.

Read more about this story and see more photos in the July/August issue of Smithsonian Magazine.