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From Le Chambon, to Oradour and Ighil Hammad


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From Le Chambon, to Oradour and Ighil Hammad

              During the summer of 2007, I visited le Chambon sur Lignon. Le chabon is one of a dozen villages in, southern france that saved an estimated five thousand people fleeing  the Nazis, including 3500 Jews and many children . Thousand of children were integrated into boarding house, hidden in homes, provided refuge in surrounding forests or adopted into families.

            Yad Vashem, the holocaust martyr’s and Heroe’s Remembrance Authority in Israel, honoured le Chambon at the fist town to be recognized among the “Righteous gentiles “ who risked or gave their lives saving Jews during the Holocaust .

             Le Chambon is a frensh protestant village with a history of dissent and tight-knit community. Many years later,  however,  interviews with those rescued revealed that the people who participated in the widespread rescue effort during world war II included those from all walks of life, farmers and merchants and every profession, different faith  community and those with secular worldviews and people of every age .  There were no reports of any villager reporting on their neighbour’s activities to the Nazis or their French collaborators.

            Hanne Hirsh-Liebmann, whose life was saved, stated simply, “if to day we are not bitter    like most survivors are, it is only due to the fact we met like people Trocmé. Theist, Mrs Philip, and the people of Le Chambon who simply    showed us that life could be different. They were people who believed we must all live together and even risk our lives for our fellow beings. “One commentator seized on Hannah Arendt’s famous description of the “banality of evil” during the Nazi-era, remarking that the people of Le Chambon and the surrounding area simply practiced the “banality of goodness.

            On the same trip, I also visited Oradour-sur-Glane, a village that commemorates the horrors   of Nazis occupation of France.

            During the final year of the war in Europe, French resistance fighters escalated attacks on German occupying forces. A German officer reportedly was captured by resistance forces in Oradour and threatened with public execution. An SS panzers Division was sent to take hostages for a prison exchange. Instead, early in the morning of June 10, 1944, German forces sealed of the town. They locked the women and children in the church and sit in on fire, shooting those who tried to escape. Male villagers were peremptorily executed. One hundred ninety men, 247women, and 205 children   were killed. The German forces looted the village and then razed it. In war crimes trials following the war and into the 1980s, former German officers defended their acts as necessary measures against “terrorists”.  

            After the war, French president Charles de Gaulle announced that Oradour-sur-Glâne would not be rebuilt. The town was preserved instead as it had been left by the Nazis. Oradour remains today as a stark memorial to the cruelty of Nazi occupation and, according to some, a symbol of the suffering caused by war.

            Rahim Chouane, an Algerian living in France, accompanied my wife Kris, daughter Megan, and me to both Le Chambon and Oradour. Rahim remarked that this Algerian education had provided little information about the Holocaust and even less about the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. He had never heard of either Le chambon or Oradour.

            At one point, I referred to the simple sign at the entrance to Oradour. The sign consisted of two words, “SOUVIENS-TOI” with English translation below “REMEMBER”. As we turned to go back to Our car, Rahim observed  with not a little irony that France apparently had not “remembered” oradour fifteen years later. We ask him to explain. 

            Algeria at the time was considered fully part of France – at least by the French.  The Algerians fought for freedom and called their uprising their “war of independence”. It was “the Algerian war”  to the French. As anti-war student activists during the US on Vietnam we knew it as “the Algerian revolution” and read Frantz fanon’s “the wretched of the hearth”           

            Algeria’s anti-colonial war ran for eight years, from 1954 to 1962. Algerian guerrilla warfare and French efforts to retain their colonial settler   control of the North African country both relied on violence and terrorism against civilians, including the use of torture. There were a million Algerian casualties and the homes of nearly two million Algerians were destroyed before Algeria finally won its independence.

            In 1958, according to rahim’s grandparents, a French forest guard was killed, presumably by the Algerian Mudjahidins or guerrilla fighters. The killing took place near their village Ighil Hammad in the Maillot region of the “Great Kabylie”, the North eastern ‘Berber’ mountains of Algeria. As an act of revenge and part of its campaign of “pacification”, the French army proceeded to kill thirteen villagers and razed Ighil Hammad. The French declared the site forbidden for civilians. The entire population was relocated to what survivors called « the concentration camp “of   Saharidj” , where they and their descendants still live today. (I described to Rahim how American forces  destroyed Vietnamese villages and created “strategic hamlets” in the futile colonial war that we inherited from the French in Indochina.) Several times each years, families still visit their former homes and olives trees.

            Notions regularly exhort other to remember the atrocities that they have suffered. They declare that such suffering will happen “Never again”.   

            Too often, however, history demonstrates that the next or the very same generation will employ the same murderous means to the same predictable ends. Victims become executioners, victim hood justifies execution. Executioners portray themselves as victims.

            Thousands of French school children visit Oradour, the “martyr’s villages” each year. The nearby town has well developed tourist’s center and museum. Yet the heroic resistance of Le chambon  and villages like it are relatively unknown. Of course we should not forget or erases the memories  of victim-hood. But we must also uphold the memories of heroes that affirm humanity and nonviolence. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is an example of people who responded directly to their victimization through military occupation with deep humanity and risk, without violence, and by offering a more inspiring memory than simply tragedy. They embodied service in the face of awful inhumanity.

            Visits to  Chambon-sur-Lignon and Oradour-sur-Glâne vividly reminded me of Camus’message that those who would not be victims must also and adamantly refuse to be executioners. This fundamental change of course is necessary if the human race is to get beyond the seemingly endless cycle of victim and executioner. The history of humanity and suffering of war might be better told by upholding those heroes of le Chambon; who refused to be either victims or executioners. This message is tragically too little understood. It is a message that we must carry to Moscow, Beijing, tel aviv, algers, and Washington.

            And it is a message that we must inscribe in our own hearts. 

Scott Kennedy

24 october 2007

United Nations Day



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