This is part two of “City of Refuge.” To hear part one, you can go here or subscribe on the platforms listed above. I highly recommend starting from the beginning.
If you did hear part one, you’ll remember that I left off just as I was about to connect with the daughter of Magda and André Trocmé — two of the leading forces in the resistance and rescue operation that was centered in Le Chambon, France, during World War II.
In this episode, I finally meet Nelly Hewett and get the inside story on her parents’ early lives. She explains how World War I shook her father’s privileged views on class and militarism, and how her free-thinking mother chose education and social work over wealth and tradition. By the end, we see how they found each other, as well as their calling to help others.
When you decide to do a podcast about an obscure French World War II story, you kind of assume you’ll be doing it through archival material, through history books and through the voices of scholars. That was certainly what I assumed when I began this project. After all, two of the major characters in this story, André and Magda Trocmé, passed away decades ago.
While they left behind plenty of archival materials for me to work with — namely their memoirs, which have been translated into English — I knew there would be times I’d have questions, where it would be great to turn to someone else who could explain a part of the story.
So, imagine my excitement, when I found out Magda and André Trocmé’s 92-year-old daughter Nelly Hewett was willing to talk to me.
Nelly Hewett: You called me when I was putting my chicken in the oven.
That’s Nelly, about two hours into our first phone conversation in the fall of 2017. By that point, I had learned she was no ordinary 90-year-old. She lives an active life in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she goes to the gym, drives around in the snow, prepares impressive meals for herself, and is always ready to talk to someone interested in learning about her parents.
Nelly Hewett: That’s what I do. I am really a contact maker for people like you and a sort of quality control person.
I felt extremely lucky to have connected with her. But after two hours on the phone, I hadn’t actually gotten to interview her. She was too busy telling me about all the other people I had to talk to and all the books I had to read, if I was going to tell this story properly. So I let the poor woman eat her dinner, and made plans to talk again.
Nelly Hewett: We can talk another time, and I will answer questions.
But the next time I brought up wanting to interview her, she insisted that I come to Saint Paul. She said “Body language and facial expressions are half of the interview.” I certainly saw her point, but I didn’t have much of a budget to make the trip all the way from New York. Then she made an offer I couldn’t turn down, an offer that reminded me of her parents — these people who were always ready to provide shelter. She said, “If needed, I have a guest room and can put you up for the night. No big deal.”
But, to me, it was a big deal! And I knew I had to make it happen. So I bought my plane ticket and headed to Saint Paul in the middle of the winter.
Of course, when my plane landed, it was snowing pretty hard. I called Nelly to tell her I would be taking a cab to her apartment. But she insisted on picking me up. She wouldn’t hear otherwise. And, so, a few minutes later she was outside the airport, waiting for me in her SUV.
Now, I really should have audio of this moment. In fact, I thought I had hit record. But I guess I was too distracted by my excitement of meeting her (and, to be honest, the anxiety of driving into a snowstorm with a 90-year-old behind the wheel) that I didn’t even notice my recording equipment was still on standby. Nelly, however, was unfazed by the situation. She said the snow in Minnesota reminded her of growing up in the French village of Le Chambon, high up in the mountains.
After lunch, a trip to her favorite bakery, and a tour of her apartment, filled with relics from her parents, this energetic 90-year-old finally sat down to answer my questions. It was an exciting moment — I was about to get the inside story on the fascinating and inspiring lives of Magda and André Trocmé.
Bryan Farrell: I’m ready, when you’re ready…
Nelly Hewett: Okay… I am not a historian. I am not an expert on WWII. I am not an expert on pacifism. I was just a high school French teacher, but I am witness to things that happen, which I understood at my level of being a teenager during the war. I was not involved in activities. I was too young to be in the Resistance. But I could witness a lot of stuff, and I lived through the war years as the daughter of these wonderful people called André and Magda Trocmé. So, this is my claim to fame, which is not much of a claim.
All that being said, just pick up one of the handful of books about Le Chambon and you’re sure to see Nelly’s name in the acknowledgements section — usually accompanied by a heap of praise and gratitude. That’s because, as a dedicated steward of her parents’ story, she has helped biographers and historians understand not only what her parents did during the war, but why they did it. And the why is really quite important. After all, Magda and André didn’t just fall into resisting the Nazis and participating in this massive rescue operation. Certain things put them on that path.
So, with Nelly’s help, we’re going to spend this episode looking at Magda and André’s early years and the events — both personal and historical — that led them toward each other, as well as one of the greatest resistance and rescue operations of the 20th century. A quick warning, though: The next five minutes feature some graphic descriptions of war. Some people may want to skip ahead.
André Trocmé was born in 1901 into a wealthy Protestant family in Northern France. And since France was almost entirely Catholic, being Protestant meant you were part of a religious minority — one that had experienced serious persecution centuries earlier in France. Adding to his already outsider background was the fact that André was also German, on his mother’s side.
But no marker was more impactful on André’s early life than his class. Since André’s father was a lace manufacturer, he had a very bourgeois upbringing and, consequently, lived a very sheltered life. Up until the age of 10, he was privately tutored, played only with his siblings or pre-approved friends and never left the family’s walled-in yard. His own realization of this privileged lifestyle was a major awakening. It happened one day when he was playing outside with his brother.
Nelly Hewett: It was an enclosed yard in the city, and there was a side door that led onto the street, which the gardener used. And one day the gardener forgot to lock the door, and those two boys heard the door creak open, and they saw this kid come in about their age, sloppy, dirty, with a cap askew on his head. Evidently, the type of person they had never met before.
This story is something André relayed in his memoirs. As I reminder, I’m using actors to read for him and Magda — who you’ll hear in a bit.
André Trocmé: His face was pale and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. He examined us for a long time. Then, with pity, laughed mockingly, and said…
Nelly Hewett: “You pile of sh—,” and then he went. And the two boys knew it was not something nice. They had not heard that term, but they were shattered because they realize that they were very different from other people and other people who didn’t like them.
André Trocmé: That did me a lot of good. He was the one who revealed to me the struggle between social classes, and I am thankful to him.
Not long after this life-altering incident came a far more devastating one: The death of his mother. She was killed in a car crash, which was the result of reckless driving by his father. And like any child experiencing death for the first time, he had a few disturbing revelations.
Nelly Hewett: It made him face the fact of death, that death was final and that it was an unacceptable thing.
He also saw the toll it took on his father who — even though it was an accident — truly believed he had killed his wife. For André, it was a harsh lesson on the unliftable weight that comes with taking a life.
More death and killing were around the corner, though, as WWI approached. Not very long after his mother’s death, André watched German troops roll into Northern France, laying waste to much of the region, taking over his town and actually requisitioning part of his house. Yet, for André, who had close relatives in Germany, the war gave him conflicted emotions.
André Trocmé: I was torn between two impulses. Part of me wanted to fight against the Germans and show them we were not afraid of them. But the other part of me was still the André with happy memories of Germany, who knew, on some level, that the soldier wearing the foreign uniform might be my cousin.
Nelly Hewett: Can you imagine the same family had to fight against each other and justify that kind of killing? It was unacceptable to him.
That sunk in further, as he saw with his own eyes the destruction of human life — still only 15 years old at the time.
André Trocmé: The true horror of the war was revealed to me one day when I met a miserable column of injured Germans making their way from the train station to the hospital. In the first row, I saw three men, all wounded and bandaged. The one in the middle had a ball of bandages instead of a head. He was obviously unable to see, and stumbled and dragged himself along with the help of his comrades. When he got closer, I realized, with horror, that his lower jaw was missing. In its place were bandages from which clots of dried blood hung.
In that moment, André learned what what war looked like, and that the French — just like the Germans — were guilty of brutal murders.
André Trocmé: I could no longer hate this man without a face. I walked back home, disgusted and devastated.
André’s home life wasn’t great either. His father was extremely strict, and kept him on a tight schedule.
Nelly Hewett: There was not any playfulness. And the thing is that for a child like my father, who was a very creative curious child, who wanted to explore, who wanted to be loved, who wanted to discover things, there was no room in that kind of schedule for a little fellow like him.
He found relief in a rather progressive Protestant youth group that was comprised mostly of the children of laborers. It was an adjustment at first, as André felt out of place — again, ashamed of his upper-class background. But the group helped him loosen up, and through it he discovered the power of solidarity.
At one point, the group decided to bring food and other supplies to the suffering Russian prisoners of war. Such an action was forbidden and punishable by the occupying Germans, but they found a sympathetic German guard who looked the other way.
Despite all these experiences leading him toward a hatred of war, violence, and oppression, André was still a confused teenager. The path toward a different kind of life, one that was in sync with his beliefs had not yet emerged. The incident that would change all that was a run-in with a different kind of German soldier, who was stationed on the top floor of his house.
André Trocmé: He stopped, looked at me kindly and asked “Are you hungry?”
Nelly Hewett: He offered Dad some black German bread.
It was stamped with the letters “K K” to mark that it was military issued.
Nelly Hewett: But in French it is kaka. And Dad said, “I don’t want your kaka bread!”
André Trocmé: “No,” I answered. “I’m not hungry, and even if I were I wouldn’t take your bread because you are an enemy.”
It was at that point André realized the soldier wasn’t carrying a gun. So he asked him “Why don’t you wear a weapon?” The soldier explained that he was a Christian pacifist and that he would serve his country without baring arms.
Nelly Hewett: Oh! That just lit a light in my young father’s curiosity and mind.
André Trocmé: “But how do you manage that, if you’re a soldier” I asked.
The man said that he was a telegraph operator — a dangerous position because it involved being on the front lines, but one that also didn’t require a weapon.
André Trocmé: In that brief meeting, my nationalism and my respect for the military collapsed. I saw the war for what it was: a frightful chaos in which belligerent men, alternately criminals and victims, disobeyed God and took what they claimed was justice into their own hands.
André felt he had met a true Christian, or at least what a true Christian should be, in its simplest form.
André Trocmé: Of course he refused to shoot! That was what the Gospels of Jesus Christ said to do, and anything men add of their own accord is a corruption of His teaching.
The war continued to rage on, and by early 1917, André’s family was forced to evacuate their demolished city, along with the rest of the entire civilian population.
Nelly Hewett: And so they were deported to Belgium. They were refugees and taken in by very very poor farmers
André Trocmé: The poorest people in the area were the ones who fed us free of charge, without being asked.
Thinking back on it, André said these experiences helped him shed his bourgeois attitude and habits.
André Trocmé: It was like a purifying bath, a dive into the working class world where I was just like everyone else because my silver lining had vanished.
Nelly Hewett: They built up to make him a humanitarian, who thought of human rights and knew there were good people in all walks of life, and who decided that war was not the solution.
After two years in Belgium, the war finally ended, and the Trocmés were able to return to France. So much had been destroyed, including most of their city and home. While rebuilding efforts were underway, the family moved to Paris, where André finished high school and started his theology studies at the Sorbonne. During his first and second years there, he came into contact with more young people opposed to war. In fact, much of the world was opposed to war, having just witnessed the horrors of WWI — in which 18 million people had died, including 6 million civilians.
There were popular antiwar poems, books like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and songs.
[Hear the 1914 song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” sung by the Peerless Quartet.]
Despite all this antiwar fervor, refusing to serve in the military was still illegal and seen not only as cowardice but as a form of treason. In France, military service remained compulsory for all eligible young men. The people who tended to refuse were usually communists and other radical leftists, who saw war as strictly for the benefit of capitalists and imperialists. But there were also extremely principled Christians. These were people who believed “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love thy enemy” were truths to live and resist by.
Although André agreed with this sentiment and watched a few of his friends and classmates refuse military service, he wasn’t ready to take such a public stand. Not only was conscientious objection was a criminal offense in France, both the Catholic and Protestant churches supported the state in its prosecution of such offenses. So André decided to get his required service time out of the way and enlisted in the army. While it angered his friends, he had a certain rationale beyond self preservation.
Nelly Hewett: He wanted to do it because he could see how the military people lived, what soldiers were like, what were their thoughts.
His upper class background was still weighing him down. He knew, if he was to become the kind of minister that served working-class communities, he would have to better relate to them. Of course, as much as he was studying other soldiers, they were studying him. They saw this very upright Protestant with — again, courtesy of his upbringing — an almost puritanical set of morals that looked down on drinking and anything that might lead to sex.
Nelly Hewett: And, again in his memoirs, there’s a description of the barracks, of the vulgarity of the men who were trying to get him drunk, who were trying to get him to go to the brothel. And he drank tea and he became a sort of odd ball.
Then there was the whole “no gun” thing. Following in the footsteps of that young German soldier he had met, André decided he would never carry a gun. So, he kept his army issued rifle and ammunition locked away in the armory — without ever really telling anyone. This only became a real problem when he was sent on an actual mission in Morocco. His commanding officer had no idea his soldier was without a weapon and was furious upon finding out, telling him that he could be courtmartialed and even executed for such behavior. At the same time, the officer was understanding.
André Trocmé: “Your scruples are honorable and demand respect,” he told me. “I tell you what. I will ignore your case for the time being. But if we are attacked and you cannot execute my orders to fire in self-defense, you will be court-martialed and only God knows what will happen to you after that.”
Fortunately for André, the officer never had to make that call. André was eventually sent back to France and discharged. The whole experience, though, had opened his eyes.
André Trocmé: Facts that I have realized, little by little, about the behavior of colonists and especially of the military, leave me transfixed with horror. What a monstrous debt of sin the French are accumulating in North Africa.
He realized, he couldn’t ever serve in the military again and call himself both a pacifist and a Christian. There was no reconciling these beliefs. It was time to choose a path and accept the responsibilities that came with it.
André Trocmé: From then on, it was all or nothing. Either I had to take on an officer’s conscience and do everything I was ordered to do whether in times of peace or in times of war and renounce my belief in Jesus Christ. Or else I had to give everything to Jesus Christ and obey His commandments to the letter without further thought, even “Thou shalt not kill” and forgiveness. I chose the second path. That I did is nothing to brag about. It was my vocation, and it was all powerful.
When André returned to his studies, he met more pacifists. Many young theologians were moving in that direction, having witnessed the destruction of WWI. He joined a group of them that was particularly interested in social issues.
André Trocmé: What attracted us was the workers’ world with its communists, its idealism, its rebellion against the Church.
They wanted to find common ground, and maybe even win over some of the leftists who rejected religion and any kind of principled belief in pacifism. While those efforts met with mixed results, perhaps not surprisingly, they provided André with a community of like minds, where he could test out and develop his ideas. Then came an opportunity to study abroad, in America. It was a scholarship to Union Theological Seminary, which had become the center of a progressive Christian movement known as the Social Gospel — just the kind of thing André wanted to study.
Nelly Hewett: So he decided to come to New York to escape and discover something else than this rigid box in which he had grown up.
Among his greatest discoveries, though, would be Magda Grilli di Cortana, another young, idealistic international student. We’ll get to that in just a moment.
First, I’d like to say a few words about Waging Nonviolence — the publication behind this podcast. If you’re not familiar with our work, we’re a non-profit media platform dedicated to providing original reporting and expert analysis on social movements around the world. We like to say that “people power” is our beat and that we try to take people inside movements and explain how they work.
This year, in particular, has been an exciting one for us. Not only are we celebrating our 10th anniversary as a publication, but we also launched a new website in the Spring. It’s beautifully designed and has helped us take our work to a new level. In particular, we now have a Community section with pages run by historic peace and justice organizations — like the Fellowship of Reconciliation — and university programs that focus on civil resistance.
The last thing I’ll say before we return to the story is that Waging Nonviolence needs your support to continue producing in-depth storytelling like this podcast. We don’t have any big grants and so our funding comes mainly from people like you. If you enjoy what you’re hearing, or have read the site with any regularity over the years — we need you to help out. Sign up to become a sustaining member. Starting at just $3 per month you can even receive a gift of your choice. Head over to WagingNonviolence.org/support and you can see all the different books we have on offer. You can also send us a one-time donation if you prefer. Whatever you can do to support our work will make a big difference. Thank you. Now, let’s get back to the story.
Magda Grilli had grown up in Florence, Italy, and — like André — her family was quite privileged. Her father was an engineer and colonel in the Italian army, and her mother was of Russian descent. Notably, this Russian side of Magda’s family had quite a revolutionary streak. They had participated in the Decemberist revolt of 1815, which sought to overthrow the tsar and free the serfs. Those who were not executed — like Magda’a ancestors — were banished to Siberia for life. Magda came to know their history well, though not through her mother, because she died shortly after Magda was born. Instead, it was Magda’s grandmother, Varya, who gave Magda the value system that inspired her throughout her life.
Nelly Hewett: Varya was at the root of what was good and interesting in mother’s life and she infused my mother with all those ideas of human worth.
Sadly, Magda’s father couldn’t bring himself to spend time with her because she reminded him of the wife he had loved and lost.
Nelly Hewett: So my mother grew up in a home which was not a warm home.
Eventually a stepmother entered the scene, but she too resented Magda.
Nelly Hewett: The step mother said Magda should go to a Catholic convent, which was a finishing school for girls from good families getting ready to marry rich men in Florence.
Magda had no real religious identity at this point, and the idea of belonging to something sounded appealing.
Nelly Hewett: But she found it was a “bunch of junk.” She really did.
The idea that she and her friends had to routinely confess their sins seemed absurd to Magda. What sins could they have even committed while being locked up in a convent? So, Magda told the priest in charge that she would no longer be coming to confession.
Nelly Hewett: She was very rebellious at age 14-15.
But for Magda, rebellion meant pouring herself into education and studying to go on to university.
Nelly Hewett: The other girls were not preparing for anything. They would be socialites and marry rich men.
Ultimately, Magda passed her final exams with honors — the only one in the convent to do that — and went on to study literature at one of the most competitive universities in Italy. She also started to engage with social work and, after graduating, she received a scholarship to continue her studies at the New York School of Social Work. It was the perfect opportunity for someone who wanted to escape a dysfunctional family and be in a more open society.
Around six months into her new program she came into contact with André. She was living at the International House on the Columbia University campus in Upper Manhattan. And André had joined the student activities there, though he wasn’t at all looking to meet any women. After all, he had been too conditioned by his very strict Calvinist father.
But one day, a friend — who seemed to know André could use a little encouragement —introduced Magda to him in the cafeteria. As you’d expect, they had some awkward small talk. Fireworks clearly weren’t going off:
André Trocmé: I don’t remember whether she was pretty, but I found her to be understanding, straight, simple and intelligent.
Then, a few days later, he spotted her among a group of women at a party and, well, this time there were fireworks:
André Trocmé: Her face was harmonious, her forehead luminous and her eyes were dark and magnificent. She laughed and the sound of her laughter rang marvelously in my ears.
This kind of natural beauty really meant something to André.
Nelly: The girls he met through school were very vain. This flapper society in 1925. So, there was a girl who was a foreigner, who was very beautiful, who was totally natural, no make-up, no nothing, working like a dog in the school of social work, involved with the Italian immigrants because that was part of her project. And he said she had this old hat with a hole in it, and she didn’t even know.
André and Magda soon found themselves on a university trip to Washington, D.C. And just before leaving…
André Trocmé: A friend of mine came outside wearing a thin suit. It was chilly, and Magda, immediately told him…
Magda Trocmé: Hurry and get a sweater!
André Trocmé: I thought, “Now there’s a girl who looks out for others. She’s not interested in turning heads; she sees them as they are, and cares.”
Nelly Hewett: She was a social worker at heart, always helping the ones who needed it.
So they quickly discovered they had quite a bit in common. At one point, however, they got on the topic of God and religion, a topic André could not have been more passionate about. It seemed to him as though his thoughts were resonating, and he began to think…
André Trocmé: “So, she’s Protestant! … This is the one; she’s the one who will understand me! And she has the same thirst for freedom and adventure as I do, the same hunger for truth. She’s brave and hates conventional rules.”
But as Magda spoke, André only listened with one ear — too consumed by his excitement to notice her explaining her general unease with organized religion.
Nelly Hewett: Mother always said that she really didn’t believe in God — the God that was usually a He and was the head of the world and solving the problems. But she had everything else that made her a Christian. All the qualities, all the generosity.
And that’s ultimately all that mattered to André.
Magda Trocmé: We spoke together only three times before he asked me to get married.
He proposed in late April, just six weeks after they had met in the cafeteria. They were on a picnic in the Palisades, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Magda Trocmé: Immediately we spoke of the difficulties that we would have.
André’s willingness to go to prison for his beliefs and Magda’s issues with religion.
Magda Trocmé: But both of us decided that we could solve these problems.
André liked that she thought and acted differently than him.
André Trocmé: I, who had never liked the past, whose eyes were firmly on the future, now had a helpmate whose acute sense of the present moment and the importance of human beings could fill the gaps in my character.
And Magda liked that he wasn’t going to be any kind of traditional minister. That their life together would be as much social work as religious work.
Magda Trocmé: A kind of revolution rather than fruitless rantings between four walls, a fight against the traditional and the sterile. What a program! And so we considered ourselves engaged to each other.
Their plan was to have a simple wedding in New York after the school year and their programs had ended. Then, like the young peaceful revolutionaries they were, they would sail to India to meet Gandhi and study nonviolence firsthand.
Nelly Hewett: They knew what was happening in the world. They knew about Gandhi. They were not in a closed bubble.
André had already begun saving for the trip. Since arriving in New York in the fall, he had been a French tutor for none other than the two youngest boys of John D. Rockefeller — son of the original oil magnate. It was a bit of a lucky break and needless to say, the job paid quite well. But not enough to cover both his and Magda’s expenses.
Nelly Hewett: The plan was that they would hire themselves out on freight boats, which was done at the time.
After spending enough time in India, they would sail back to France, where Magda would finally meet André’s family. It seemed like the perfect honeymoon for these two, but the only problem was André’s father didn’t approve.
Nelly Hewett: He just lacerated dad. He said “You ran around enough. You are a minister. It’s time you come and take a parish. Northern France needs you badly.”
André was too dutiful to say no to his father and a direct appeal to responsibility. So they had to give up on their plans.
Magda Trocmé: Farewell Gandhi. Farewell Eastern dreams.
Instead, André and Magda went straight to France to get married and start their lives together. It was the summer of 1926. They would have only a few years before storm clouds would once again overtake Europe.
On the next episode:
Catherine Cambessédès: If everything that’s familiar to you is all of a sudden is crumbling, what do you do? What do you tie yourself to? What do you hang on to? You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. You don’t know what anything will bring. And those two men said, well, actually the basic thing from which we live has not changed, and that was very soothing to hear that.
City of Refuge was researched, written and produced by Bryan Farrell.
Theme music and other original songs are by Will Travers.
This episode also featured the following songs:
This episode was mixed by David Tatasciore.
Editorial support was provided by Jasmine Faustino, Jessica Leber and Eric Stoner.
Our logo was designed by Josh Yoder
“A Good Place to Hide” – a 2015 book by Peter Grose
“Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” – a 1979 book by Philip Hallie
“Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures” – a 2014 book edited by Pierre Boismorand and translated by Jo-Anne Elder
“Portrait of Pacifists” – a 2012 book by Richard Unsworth
“Revivalism and Christian Socialism” – a 2013 book by Christophe Chalamet
“Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures” – a 2014 book edited by Pierre Boismorand and translated by Jo-Anne Elder
“Portrait of Pacifists” – a 2012 book by Richard Unsworth