[Listen to this bonus “City of Refuge” episode or read a Q&A version below that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Just as I was about to launch “City of Refuge” last fall, a new book came out on Le Chambon — the French village that was at the center of a remarkable World War II rescue operation. Having just read 10 or so other books on the subject over the past few years, I wasn’t exactly ready to read another. I just couldn’t imagine what new information I would learn at this point.
Then I got an email from Patrick Henry, the author of another book on Le Chambon, “We Only Know Men.” He had just read the new release — which is very simply titled “The Plateau” (a reference to Le Chambon’s remote mountain location) — and he was excited to tell me about it.
“‘The Plateau’ is beautifully written,” Henry said, “and it shows what no other book shows: that the people on the plateau continue to do the same rescue today — as they did in the 16th-century and during the Holocaust.”
This was total news to me. I knew nothing about what this place was like today. My limited travel budget and non-existent French basically narrowed my field of interest to the past. I hadn’t considered what the plateau might be like now — let alone that it might still be continuing its long history of rescue work. So, I knew I would not only need to read “The Plateau,” I would also have to speak with its author Maggie Paxson, who, I quickly learned, had a rather fateful introduction to the place she would spend nearly 10 years researching and writing about.
“My first encounter with the story of Le Chambon,” Paxson told me, “was when this aunt of mine gave me a book called ‘Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed’ by Philip Hallie. And she told me: ‘This has something to do with our family.’”
Paxson shrugged it off at the time, figuring she would check it out eventually. That point didn’t happen until years later, after she had become an anthropologist — living among, and studying, rural people in northern Russia, scarred by years of war and violence. Paxson was looking for something uplifting, some way out of that dark, distant, analytical world she had been dwelling in.
“I remember thinking: ‘What are we doing when we’re asking people these stories about their lives? Are we helping these people? Are we hurting these people?’ I didn’t know. I started thinking really hard about what the point was, and how I might contribute to the betterment of the world.”
She then had a realization: What if, instead of studying war and its effects on a population, she could use her knowledge and skills to study peace and a place that might actually specialize in it?
“I could listen to its stories, and I could try to take those stories as a way of [finding out]: What do they know how to do that the rest of us don’t? What do they know about being good when it’s hard to be good that we don’t know how to do?”
It was around this time that Paxson visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and had another major realization: “I saw this last name, which was Trocmé, featured in an exhibit.”
She recognized it not as the last name of Magda and André Trocmé — the husband and wife who helped lead the rescue operation on the plateau — but as the last name of a distant relative named Suzie, who she had grown up hearing about. Suzie was actually her great grandfather’s second wife, and Paxson’s mother — who is Jewish — had always been keen to note that Suzie’s family had had something to do with the French Resistance during World War II.
“I began to put together this story, that Suzie’s family was part of not only the French Resistance, but a special kind of resistance.”
By this point, Paxson was finally ready to read Philip Hallie’s book and become fully immersed in the story. She found out that Suzie Trocmé was the sister of Daniel Trocmé, André’s young second cousin who ran two refugee children’s homes in Le Chambon, but was tragically arrested and killed by the Nazis.
“I started thinking about Daniel, and I remember writing the line ‘searching for Daniel,’ because he was somebody I thought I understood. He was a young man, he was seeking, he was traveling, he was wrestling with things and he wanted to be good. I started conceiving that this young Daniel went to the plateau and I followed him, and that became my kind of way through the story.”
So, let’s now follow Paxson, as she recounts her experiences on the plateau and what she learned about its ongoing rescue work.
Even 10 years ago, when you made your first trip to the plateau, you noticed pretty quickly upon arriving that it was becoming a place of refuge for some of today’s asylum seekers. Can you describe your first encounters with that?
On this very first trip I was really lucky to meet a teacher who worked at the Collège Cévenol. She invited me over for dinner and said “Well you know we have in town these asylum seekers.” And I was like “Wait, really?” It was amazing to hear and learn that there were these waves of sheltering on the plateau — not just before and during the war, but right now. That meant that I could see what it was like to be a stranger now, and that gave this incredible new dimension [to my work]. Because my [approach] had been: In this place, a very rare amazing thing had happened. Are there any traces socially, now, that could help me understand this rare thing that happened during the Second World War?” But now I was like, “Oh there are asylum seekers. There are people in need now.” I could learn what it would be like now. Just at the level of social science it was amazing.
Could you say more about the organization that was running this refugee center or asylum center?
They’re called Centres D’Accueil Pour Demandeurs D’Asile, or Welcoming Centers for Asylum Seekers. France is divided up into departments, or départements. They’re something like states, and each département will have a number of these little centers. They’re there to help this process happen. If you come into France as an asylum seeker you would be lucky to attach yourself to one of these centers, and some portion of asylum seekers are able to do this. Basically, it’s if you can find one, if you can make it there, then you have access to this. While you are at one of these centers, generally speaking, you have some resources. You have a place to sleep. You have social workers who can help you fill out forms. There are lawyers who are there. So you have a better chance of getting asylum if you can get into one of these centers.
In Le Chambon, which is part of the plateau, there is one of these centers. It so happens that this one is a bit different from the other centers in France. It is made of apartments for each of the families, where they get their own door that they can lock. Most of the time they’re in shared housing, where there’s one kitchen and many families. These families get to have their own space, and many of them have come from areas that have been war-torn and dangerous. In the span of time that I was there, there were people from the North and South Caucasus of Russia, Eastern Europe, Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Guinea and — then later on, by the time I was finishing the research on the book — people who had traveled across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.
You mentioned that it was a teacher from the Collège Cévenol who first pointed this out to you. “City of Refuge” listeners will recognize it as the school that was founded just prior to the war by the Trocmés and the Theises. So it was still operating when you were there?
It was indeed, and I also learned on this first visit that there were students at this school from all over the world. This was another remarkable thing for me because it gave me this window into what it would be like for young people from different countries to be in this really remote place in France and a school whose reason for being was an orientation toward openness, acceptance and the teachings of nonviolence. I thought, “How can I get myself into that school to see what it’s like, to roll up my sleeves and get to know these kids?”
Could you tell us a little bit about the asylum seekers you got to meet and know?
Because I speak Russian and a lot of these families who came from various parts of Russia did not speak French yet, I was able to cast off the social science part of myself and help translate for folks. I got to know a couple of Chechen families. People may or may not recall that there was a very big terrible war in Chechnya, in this one republic of Russia. Without getting into too much detail, it’s the kind of thing where, if you were just a regular person trying to live a regular life, you could get caught up in a lot of trouble. There were religious extremists on one side, mafiosi on the other side, ethnic nationalists on yet another side, and just plain regular old chaos and violence.
There was one family in particular who had lived in a village in Chechnya, and because all my work was in villages both in the north and in the south of Russia, I kind of felt like I knew them. When they fled Chechnya, their lives were being threatened. You gather up all your money and you pay somebody, and that person gets you inside of a truck of some kind, and you have no idea where you are going. You’re paying to be safe. You’re paying to go to Europe. So they didn’t know where they were going to be going, and they landed in France, not speaking a word of French.
At the time, there was a husband and a wife, three children, and the wife was pregnant. I started just realizing what it was like to spend time with a family like this — this beautiful, grounded, sane, family that had been ripped from their lives. I fell in love with them, and the story of falling in love with these refugees, it became very important to me. [I grappled with] how to take this on, how to think about their fate, how to worry about them. What do you do when you start caring about people in this precarious situation?
There was another family, a mother and her children, from Guinea. She fled because her daughter was about to have to go through female circumcision, and she was like “Nope, I’m not going to do it.” She is a wonderful woman, very warm, very loving with her children, very practical and very moral. We’d sit and talk, and she’d cite the Quran and how we are supposed to love one another and how there’s nowhere in the Quran that says we’re supposed to cut women. So, another very balanced family.
There were also families that were obviously shaken, and their children were not in good shape. They were just as lovable, but the winds of pain that are in the world, they create these families that are quite vulnerable.
What did you observe of the people of the plateau that impressed you? How did they interact with the asylum seekers?
It’s a small community. These are villages. [The population in] Le Chambon ranges from summer to winter, but let’s say roughly 3,000-4,000 people, and the whole of the plateau is 20-some thousand that live there year-round. But these [asylum seekers] are people coming in from the outside. In other communities in France, to see people who look different, who dress differently, who speak different languages — it can be quite jarring, especially in times of deficit, where you are worried about resources. Whereas, in the plateau, it’s not that every last person I heard speak about these asylum seekers in their midst spoke in sunny terms. Communities are communities, and people are people. They probably have mixed views at times.
But, on the whole, what I saw was a community that knew how to activate this sort of orientation toward strangers. Just simple things like volunteers, people who would teach French to non-French speakers, people who were constantly giving stuff like clothes. They would also give their time for [the local soup kitchen]. This started getting a little more dramatic [later on]. When an asylum seeker was refused refugee status, locals would start giving money, help, encouragement, prayers. And then, even more so, I learned that people were taking them into their homes, sight unseen.
It was humbling, amazing and life-affirming to get to see people, in these very simple ways, take in a stranger. And this is what I think is special: When they would see a stranger, they wouldn’t see an identity. They don’t see a religion. They don’t see a race or a country. They see a person. I came to see that as a kind of alchemy, an ability to go from seeing someone as a stranger to seeing that stranger as a friend. How do they do that? I don’t think there are any two ways about it. They live the belief in the essential oneness of humanity. They practice it, and they know how to do it. That doesn’t mean everybody is in a great mood every day and does their best every day. [It also doesn’t mean] everybody in the community is as equal as everyone else, but to get to see an example of a community that knows what that means — that sees that and knows it and does it quietly and humbly — it was extraordinary.
Do you think that this largely stemmed from their awareness of their history, much like it did for those living on the plateau in the war years? Are they still very in touch with their history in this way?
Yes, I would say that has something to do with it. I’ll put my social science hat back on again. Communities can recall things in many ways. They can reproduce what they once did in many ways, and some of the ways of doing that is through stories you tell about the past. So do they tell stories about their past? Yes. Do some embrace that and say “Yeah, this is who we are, we do this”? Yes, I’m sure they do. But I think for me, as a social scientist, what’s even more interesting is what they learn how to do regardless of the past. It’s sort of like you get good at something if you practice it, and they practice this.
To what extent were the asylum seekers aware of the history of this place? Was it something they learned over time? Or was it just sort of there in the background?
I was actually curious about that myself. When I was introduced to families at times, the social worker would say “This is Maggie, and she’s here looking at stuff from before and what it’s like to be a stranger now.” And they would like blank. They’d never heard the story because why would they? That’s all nice and everything, but they’ve got these papers that have to get through the legal system, and if they don’t get the papers they’ll have to be shipped back to some other country. So their very vital concerns are survival, and they mostly didn’t know. Maybe in school they would learn a little something about it, but they’re so humble there. They don’t brag about these things. There’s the museum [the Lieu De Memoire], but they’re not going to necessarily require these folks who are living through really hard things to visit it. They might become aware of it later, but it’s like the stuff in the past too. If you were a Jewish refugee living there during the Second World War, I don’t know what you would know about the place.
You point out in the book that one of the key things you witnessed — in terms of the interaction between asylum seekers and the villagers — was that children were often the bridge between these groups. Can you talk about that a little bit?
There’s a wonderful historian named Gérard Bollon who has written a great deal about the plateau. He’s a local man, and he’s the person who first pointed this out to me. He said, “Pay attention to this because you will notice that it is the children who bridge the families.” So the asylum seeking kids would go to school like everybody else, like the local kids, and they’d meet, and then they’d have a friend, and then their little friend would have a birthday, and then somebody would get invited to the birthday party. The parents, what they’re living oftentimes, was so heavy and so hard. They were really kind of healing from these very traumatic experiences, right? But the children would bring their friend to the house, or get an invitation from the French family to get to go to their house. It was really a very simple social science kind of pattern. Also, this is a reserved community. It takes time to get to know folks [on the plateau]. So some random family moves in, they wouldn’t necessarily invite them over for a party. But through the kids, that’s the way to do it.
Unfortunately one of the big things that happened while you were visiting the plateau involved a pretty horrific tragedy at the Cévenole school. Can you explain what happened there?
The Cévenole school had a small number of local students, but also students from different parts of the country and world. It’s a private school, so you had to pay tuition, and one of its mandates was “We will accept people from all over, young people who are in need.” [This included] kids who were kicked out of other schools or having trouble in other schools. So there was a young man who had trouble with his other school, and people didn’t know the extent of that. He had a friend who was a girl, who was also from another town, and it turned out he was just a very unbalanced young person. The school is surrounded by woods, and one day the two of them went looking for mushrooms. I’d rather not get into the details right now — they’re quite terrible — but he killed the girl. He murdered her. It took a very short amount of time to figure out that he had done it. She went missing, and it’s the kind of a place where people were activated to go find her. It just took a couple of days before they figured out that he was the one who did it. It was just a really wretched moment for everybody.
It’s hard to be a private school in France and especially such a unique one in a remote area. After that it didn’t take long before the school had to close [due to financial issues]. It became a big news story all through France, and parents didn’t want to send their kids there anymore. It was devastating in a million different ways, and it caused me, in my own reflections, to think: “OK, so, this is real. These risks of taking in people are real.” This one dear friend was saying to me, “Look this doesn’t happen. We’re not ready for this.” And I said to her, “It could have happened anywhere,” and she said, “Maybe, but we’re not ready for that. We don’t know the world yet.”
Sadly, you detail another tragedy that occurred while you were doing your research: the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Explain what that meant for France and what kind of reactions you were seeing on the plateau.
You could see, in Europe, pressure from different waves of immigration, but really a context of insecurity taking hold and what happens to countries when they’re pressed. There was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, and the mood towards people of this faith was darkened seriously. People thought terrorism was around the corner. They were suspicious all over the country. So it was a context where the views toward asylum seekers, or towards any outsider, were hardening in many parts of the country. That was a concern for these individual families who had nothing to do with any of this, but had come to France in hopes of refuge. Of course, the pressures have only increased in many ways.
You mentioned observing a sermon by the current pastor of Le Chambon and how what he was saying was actually kind of reminiscent of what André Trocmé was saying during the war.
That was a lovely sermon, and I can’t remember the details of it at this point, but it was really wonderful for me to get to sit in that church and hear these really simple, fundamental messages about, frankly, loving one another. And you feel like if you’re in a church that says “Aimez-vous les uns les autres,” “love one another,” as the church in Le Chambon says, that’s the best church to be in. No matter what your religion, go to that one.
The book comes to an end as the plateau is starting to take on a new wave of refugees. Have you followed what’s happened in the years since then and does the plateau remain a place of refuge?
I stay in fairly regular contact with my closest people there. There’s a woman who does a lot of work — not just with asylum seekers, but migrants in need — and she kind of gives me regular updates and photographs.
[One thing I’ve come to learn is that] the area will activate itself in times of stress, like right now, where there’s worry about strangers or foreigners or whatever, and they will activate themselves and sort of say “This is a place of welcome.” And they’ll stand outside the church, and they’ll make sure that they get that message out as they can. So the origins of the various refugees do change over time, but as far as I know that does continue. All those people giving their time, and all those people giving their heart, and all those people helping with logistics — that continues.
Can you say what your biggest takeaways were from your time spent in Le Chambon and the wider plateau?
It seems like there are two ways to get where this community got and that is to sort of grow up in that world, where people know how to do this stuff. They know how to see a stranger as a future friend. They know how to not see people as a list of identities, but as a fellow member of humanity. They learn those technologies, and they practice them. If you’re not like that, if your instincts are other, the community helps guide you toward them. So, it’s very lucky to be born in that kind of community.
The other thing I learned comes from Daniel Trocmé, who was an outsider to the community. He was raised very well also. He learned great, wonderful values from his family, but I think he learned another thing in Le Chambon, which is that, when seeking his purpose in life, he fell in love. He fell in love with these children in need and that changed his heart. It galvanized him. So, if you can’t be born in a place where you know how to do these things, you can be galvanized by falling in love. For Daniel, I think it was irresistible to fall in love with these children whose lives he had intertwined with.
Lastly, we’re in the midst of this global pandemic, and it’s impossible not to see things through this lens. Have you had any thoughts in recent weeks about what the plateau can teach us about dealing with this crisis?
I think about it all the time, or some version of that question all the time. I think I started “The Plateau” with having this sense that when we are living in important times we don’t necessarily know it. The people who lived through the Second World War didn’t know, to a large extent, until it was right in their face, that they were living in a huge moment of time — a time in which the future was going to judge their actions. It’s not like there’s a sign in the sky that says, “Beware because the future will judge you now.” We have to figure that out in our hearts.
In the plateau, people without the benefit of that sign in the air, were able — because of the internal workings of their hearts and minds and actions — to resist this sort of violent, terrible swirl. Other people in that same time, in other villages all over France, all over Europe, were not behaving like they were behaving. They had an internal mechanism that allowed them to understand the importance of the moment.
There’s something about right now in this moment — this strange frightening tragic, sad, world-encompassing moment — where it’s like we’re being asked to right ourselves. And something about the solitude that we’re all experiencing is giving us this chance. I also think it is an invitation that we are all connected. There are such things as countries, but the unit of humanity is not the country. The unit is humanity, all of us together, and we are in this together. And again [the people of the plateau] understood that already. They didn’t need a pandemic. So hopefully we’ll take this time and learn.