Ethics without a warrant: The living witness of the Le Chambon rescuers

[Jewish and Christian children at play in Le Chambon, (Occupied) France.]

[In her 1998 book, Jews and Christians on Time and Eternity: Charles Péguy’s Portrait of Bernard-Lazare, Annette Aronowicz acutely summarizes and comments on the 1979 book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, by Philip P. Hallie.  For those of you who are not familiar with the story – and I was not until I read Aronowicz’s book – Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a mostly Protestant village in France that sheltered and protected some 5,000 Jews, primarily children, in the years when Germany occupied France during World War II.  It is said that not a single Jew who came to Le Chambon was turned away, or turned in.  Although there are certainly other, usually isolated, examples of Jews being rescued from the Nazis, the case of Le Chambon, and the villages near Le Chambon, is unusual in that essentially the entire population of the region – estimated at 24,000 – assisted, or at least acquiesced, in the rescue effort.  What accounts for this remarkable solidarity, this irruption of goodness, in a place that might otherwise be considered unremarkable?  After he became aware of what happened in Le Chambon, the American scholar and World War II veteran, Philip Paul Hallie (1922-1994), decided to explore this question, and tell this story, in his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, which I read after reading Aronowicz’s account of it.  And I think you should read both his book (it was reprinted in 1994 with a new introduction) and Aronowicz’s.  But because many of you might not read them otherwise, I’m posting Aronowicz’s wonderful and insightful commentary which, although obviously dependent on Hallie’s book, stands very ably on its own.

My value-add, for what it’s worth: In her book Aronowicz adroitly, and appropriately, draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of ethics as embodied, as doing-before-hearing, as committing-before-deliberating.  In this context I also see great explanatory power in the somewhat similar insights of Knud Løgstrup (about whom I have written several times).  What I think Løgstrup adds to our understanding of ethics, that Levinas does not, is an ontological foundation.  For example, Løgstrup would not agree with Aronowicz’s statement, echoing Levinas, that “the Chambonnais understood the priority of ethics over ontology.”  Løgstrup would say that to set ethics in opposition to ontology – where ontology is seen as a kind of intellectual gymnastics far removed from incarnational subject matter – is to miss the fact that ontology, in the form of the sovereign and spontaneous expressions of life, in fact grounds ethics.

Without further ado, here is Annette Aronowicz, from pp. 118-127 of her book…]

The second historical account I would like to juxtapose to Péguy’s portrait of Bernard-Lazare, Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, tells the story of Le Chambon, a Protestant village in the mountains of southern France that became a refuge for several thousand Jews, the safest place for them in Europe, during the Nazi occupation.  The Chambonnais sheltered, fed, hid these Jews, and helped transport some to Switzerland, at great risk to themselves.  In recounting these events, Hallie bumps into what, after reading Péguy, one can recognize as incarnation or embodiment.  It is not the same aspect of embodiment we found in Schatz’s history.  The latter illustrates something akin to Rosenzweig’s emphasis – that is, a secret center manifesting itself in action and word, especially the most spontaneous of them, as in that Yiddish expression in the communist leader’s speech.  The aspect of embodiment detectable in Hallie’s book more closely resembles what Levinas emphasizes: a responsibility toward the other, there before any choice to become responsible has occurred, evoked simply by another person’s face.  This responsibility manifests itself in action, before any reflection.  Such, in fact, was the nature of Bernard-Lazare’s goodness, coexisting with his intelligence but not resulting from it, overflowing, spontaneously responding to suffering.  It is this sort of reaction to others, a doing before hearing, that Hallie singles out in the Chambonnais.

Before he begins their story, though, he notices a similar “doing before hearing” in himself.  Having stumbled upon a brief description of the villagers’ activities during the war, he found himself, to his surprise, crying.  He views these involuntary tears, as he calls them, as an “expression of moral praise, pressed out of my whole personality, like the juice of a grape.”  Moral praise, of course, implies a standard of good and evil.  But, as he explains, he had to write the whole book in order to discover what that standard is.  The intellect follows a choice made without it.  Hallie is a professor of ethics.  It is not as though he had never thought about the subject of good and evil.  Yet, in the confrontation with the Chambonnais’ actions, he found himself praising a goodness he did not yet grasp intellectually.

In focusing on the villagers’ deeds, Hallie is at great pains to point out how unmediated their response to the persecuted people who sought refuge with them was by any theory.  One of his great examples is Magda Grilli Trochmé, the wife of the spiritual leader of the village, its pastor, André Trochmé.  A spiritual leader in her own right, she describes what drove her to give assistance to the numerous helpless people arriving at the presbytery:

I have a kind of principle.  I am not a good Christian at all, but I have things that I really believe in.  . . .  I try not to hunt around to find things to do.  I do not hunt around to find people to help.  But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks something.  This I think is my kind of religion.  When things happen, not things that I plan, but things sent by God or chance, when people come to my door, I feel responsible.

It would appear from her words that she did act according to some theory, since she herself begins by saying she has a kind of principle.  But this principle boiled down to responding to someone who knocked at her door.  “Come in, and come in” was her standard reply.  The face of another person in need evoked responsibility from her, and her principle was to affirm this responsibility.  Her statement makes clear that in so doing she was not enacting a religious belief in the customary sense.  That is, it was not because she believed in God that she felt responsible to vulnerable human beings.  Their very appearance called her responsibility into play.

Hallie tried at various points to get Magda Trochmé to explain why she felt responsible for these strangers.  Invariably, she was impatient with this sort of question and at a loss as to how to answer it.  After hearing what he interpreted as a lame reply, intended to brush the question aside, Hallie concludes: “We had reached the bedrock in her thinking; there was no way to go deeper; the spade had turned.”  In other words, Magda had no theory for why she was responsible.  Her reaction to others’ needs was so primary that there was nothing underneath to explain it.

Magda Trochmé’s understanding of responsibility as something too basic to require explanation characterized the community of Le Chambon as a whole.  Often Hallie mentions how reluctant the surviving Chambonnais he interviewed were to label their actions good or unusual.  Their reluctance did not stem from a desire to appear humble but from the sheer taken-for-grantedness, in their own eyes, of what they did.  What else could they have done? they asked.  Who else was there to do it?  In replying with such questions, they were thinking of the people knocking at their doors.  In the help they extended, they were responding not to political ideologies but to human faces.

It might be tempting for the reader to speculate that the villagers’ unwillingness to explain why they responded to the fleeing Jews in their midst was really due to a lack of sophistication.  After all, these were not intellectuals.  They may have been incapable of theorizing about responsibility.  While most of the villagers were indeed not intellectuals, some were highly educated, the Trochmés among them.  But for Hallie, lack of intellectual sophistication is not at all the issue.  Rather, he accounts for their unwillingness to theorize about their gestures of help by resorting to a philosophical category, “life-and-death ethics.”

Life-and-death ethics did not come into play immediately in Le Chambon.  During the early stage of the Vichy government, before the refugees started pouring in, the Chambonnais resisted, but on the basis of ideological opposition to the regime.  André Trochmé led the villagers in not saluting the Vichy flag.  He refused to ring the bells of the church at the command of the Vichy authorities.  Hallie points out, however, that “it is one thing to resist a government and its National Revolution; it is another to face a shivering, terrified Jew on your doorstep.”  Life-and-death ethics always has to do with the latter situation, confronting a concrete, flesh-and-blood human being.  Good in this ethics is helping this human being.  Evil is harming him or her.  The help and the harm are also very concrete.  Most often they involve either extending or withholding food and shelter.

In the early stages of the Occupation, then, the Chambonnais were not facing actual people standing before them.  They were resisting government policies.  In the later stages, although their help to the Jews was a very powerful form of resistance to Vichy, it was such resistance only as a by-product.  Their behavior did not originate to counter decrees but to feed the human beings before them.  It is this latter motivation that constitutes life-and-death ethics.  Thus, the Chambonnais’ reluctance to theorize about what they did does not indicate an intellectual lack but the fact that the compulsion to protect the vulnerable did not arise from anything else but that compulsion itself.  To put it in Levinas’s terms, the Chambonnais understood the priority of ethics over ontology.

Hallie is quite aware that the Chambonnais’ succor of the Jews occurred within a tradition.  They were a Protestant community that had suffered over 400 years of persecution by the French government.  This history of persecution had habituated them to look askance at the authority of the state, of officialdom.  They were practiced at distinguishing spiritual authority from that which imposes itself by force.  In the years of the Occupation, it made them what Burns Chalmers, a Quaker who knew them, called a sturdy people, not easily confused by the high-sounding abstractions the Vichy government attached to its policies.

For this Huguenot community, true authority always derived from the Bible.  Faced with the increasing stream of refugees to the village, the two pastors, André Trochmé and Edouard Théis, emphasized the story of the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount as keys to the imitation of Christ.  A small group of Chambonnais, the Darbystes, did not accept the institution of pastors.  They saw no need for mediation in what they perceived as literal truth.  The way one Darbyste welcomed a Jewish woman into her home reveals the way the Bible functioned in their midst:

Once, early in the Occupation, a German Jewish refugee came to a Darbyste farm to buy some eggs on the unrationed “gray” market of the distant farms.  She was invited into the kitchen.  Quietly the woman who invited her in asked with the light of interest in her eyes,  “You – you are Jewish?”

The woman, who had been tortured for her Jewishness, stepped back trembling, and she became even more frightened when the farm woman ran to the steps leading upstairs and called up, “Husband, children, come down, come down.”

But her fright disappeared when the woman added, while her family was coming down the steps, “Look, look, my family!  We have in our house now a representative of the Chosen People.”

This Darbyste woman viewed the persecuted stranger at her door through a prism totally different from that of the Vichy government.  The help she extended to the Jews was not to counter that government but to obey another authority.  This was the case with the Huguenots of Le Chambon as a whole.

It seems difficult to reconcile this reliance on the biblical text with the claim, presented above, that in sheltering the Jews, the Chambonnais were not applying any theories, were merely responding to human faces.  Was there not, after all, some prior ideology, be it, as in the case of the Darbystes, about the People of God?  In addition, André Trochmé, the great pastor of the village, was a pacifist committed to nonviolent resistance.  Is there a contradiction, then, between Hallie’s emphasis on the Chambonnais’ response as unmediated by any theory and his emphasis on the Protestant framework that informed their actions?

One way to reconcile this contradiction is to understand tradition as precisely that which shapes a people to act without the mediation of any theory.  The New Testament passages on the Good Samaritan, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Old Testament history of the Jews’ relation to God influenced people through constant exposure, over generations.  Such familiarity molds not just reason, but the entire person, making possible spontaneity of behavior.  For instance, the enactment of responsibility toward the vulnerable could become something that went without saying precisely because it had been said so often and enacted so often in the turbulent history of the Huguenots in France.

Hallie points to this untheoretical nature of religious tradition when he describes André Trochmé’s frequent meetings with the thirteen leaders of the village, the responsables, who would in turn meet in small study groups with other parishioners.  During these sessions, people prayed, studied the texts, and discussed the problems of the refugees.  Describing these meetings, Trochmé stressed the fluidity of the relation between the biblical text and daily life.  “It was there, not elsewhere, that we received from God solutions to complex problems, problems we had to solve in order to shelter and hide the Jews.  . . .  Nonviolence was not a theory superimposed upon reality; it was an itinerary that we explored day after day in communal prayer and in obedience to the commands of the Spirit.”  In other words, the Bible did not contain an ideology everyone knew beforehand.  It released its meaning at particular moments and in the context of particular activities.  In that way, its authority did not function as a system to be enforced but as a series of illuminations, available only in particular circumstances.

It is true that Trochmé referred to nonviolence as something he and his responsables had already decided upon, describing it as “help to the unjustly persecuted innocents around me.”  Earlier, Hallie speaks of Trochmé’s nonviolence as an attitude toward people, not a carefully argued theological position.  That is, it was remarkably similar to his wife’s feeling of responsibility when someone in need stood at her door: a reaction to preserve the life of a specific person, vulnerable and oppressed.  Was this reaction primary or was it, in fact, mediated by the texts of the Bible?  Trochmé’s reminiscence about the meetings with the responsables seems to suggest that such a question is impossible to answer.  The Chambonnais were already helping the refugees when they turned to the texts.  But would they have started without those texts?  By the time they resorted to the tradition, they were already in it.

In recognizing the influence of the Protestant tradition on the Chambonnais, Hallie therefore wants to present it, not as a series of dogmas, but as something at once more elusive and more all encompassing.  It resembles Rosenzweig’s way of speaking of Judaism not as a series of ideas or activities but as a secret center informing both thought and behavior in an unplanned way.  It also resembles Péguy’s description of the republican tradition informing not only politics but marriage, literature, education, all of life, in fact, operating at the level of an idea behind the head rather than of an argument – a mystique, in short.

In any case, Hallie is adamant about one thing.  The Chambonnais’ responsibility toward the Jews did not arise out of a logical sequence of ideas of which it was a conclusion.  They simply accepted that they were responsible.  This did not prevent them from deliberating about a great many details involving how to carry this responsibility out.  But the fact of their responsibility remained outside these deliberations.  This responsibility, there of itself, is key to understanding the significance of what happened in Le Chambon during World War II.  The simplicity of its presence, rather than being the idiosyncrasy of peasant folk, is one of the signs of our humanity.

From the above, it becomes possible to glimpse how the notion of embodiment structures Hallie’s history of Le Chambon.  Embodiment in this context is not the making concrete of a previously held abstraction.  It is a responsibility already in action by the time one notices it.  Hallie is thus understandably worried that, in telling the story of Le Chambon, he will be substituting ethical theory for the deeds that took place there.  At the beginning of his book, he already cautions his reader about this problem.  “But I was not going to make Le Chambon an ‘example’ of goodness or moral nobility.  I was not going to use this story to explain some abstract idea of ethics.  Ends are more valuable than means: understanding this story was my end, my goal, and I was going to use the words of philosophical ethics only as a means for achieving this goal.”

He returns to the danger of losing the concreteness of the Chambonnais’ acts in his conclusion as well.  By this point, he has offered many reasons for why Le Chambon became a city of refuge – its location, its current pastors, its history.  But these factors, while they explain many things, do not explain the particularity of the Chambonnais in their actions – a taken-for-granted responsibility, in need of no justification.  To convey this gap between theoretical explanation and something that occurs without the mediation of any theory, he uses the analogy of opening and closing a door.

In physics, the analysis of forces is useful.  For instance, one may break down the various forces at work upon a door and upon the frame in which it is hung in order to hang the door well.  But analysis is not all there is.  There is another aspect to the full reality of the well-hung, opening door.  There is the experience, so ordinary perhaps as to be unnoticed, of simply opening and dosing a door.

Just as no knowledge of physics, no matter how accurate and how extensive, can convey the simplicity of opening a door, no knowledge as to causes of the Chambonnais’ behavior during the Occupation can convey the simplicity of their responsibility.  This simplicity sets the limit for theory.  The most theory can do is to notice that there are areas beyond its jurisdiction.

In order to preserve the nontheoretically derived nature of the Chambonnais’ gestures of help, Hallie makes a decision as to the form of his writing.  He chooses narrative over philosophical exposition.  Still, he occasionally interrupts his narrative to speculate on the philosophical meaning of this or that aspect of the Chambonnais’ behavior.  In the process, we are confronted with the fact of embodiment yet again, but from a different angle.  The philosophical language he employs, like all philosophical language, means to convey a meaning derived from reason alone.  It intends to present the villagers’ standards as normative for human beings in general, as universal.  Yet, when we examine his text, this universal standard seems to be the expression of a particular tradition.

The philosophical category Hallie makes use of most often to highlight the meaning of the Chambonnais’ activities is one we have already encountered – life-and-death ethics.  In one of his concluding chapters, he compares it to the classical ethics of the Western tradition.  Like the latter, life-and-death ethics requires a restraint of the passions, an inner balance.  Unlike them, however, he claims that in life-and-death ethics, this restraint, if it is not directed toward the preservation of the other person’s life, is irrelevant.  The preciousness of human life, manifested in activity to save it, is its heart, as opposed to self-control as such.

In comparing ethical systems, Hallie occasionally intersperses allusions to the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible.  The very title of his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, is a quotation from Deuteronomy 19:10: “I command you to this day to [protect the refugees] lest innocent blood be shed in your land . . . and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.”  This verse refers to the command the Israelites were given to establish three cities of refuge in the land of Israel to protect those who had committed involuntary manslaughter from those who wished to avenge it.  Hallie interprets Le Chambon as offering itself as just such a city of refuge.  The biblical text thus provides him with a model for understanding the Chambonnais’ perceptions of the necessity of their actions.

Biblical references also occur elsewhere, within the body of the book.  He explains, for instance, that life-and-death ethics is guided by both negative and positive commandments.  To illustrate a negative commandment, he points to Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not kill.”  This the Chambonnais certainly refused to do.  But more was involved in their actions than merely refraining from doing something.  They also obeyed positive commandments.  The illustration is once again primarily from the Hebrew Bible, where the prophet Isaiah urges people to “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”  The Chambonnais not only kept from killing but also prevented others from killing by hiding people in their homes.

In the chapter he calls Postlude, Hallie rebukes contemporary intellectuals for being afraid to make ethical judgments.  He comes close to describing what Levinas calls the temptation of temptation, postponing a decision about good and evil until the reasoning process is complete, which itself depends upon amassing endless experience.  Hallie draws a parallel between the urgency facing the Chambonnais, who had no time to deliberate over whether to help or not, the very delay costing lives, and the urgency we all face in declaring such action good.  While no lives are immediately at stake in our case, if we do not recognize goodness when we see people saving innocent people we shall always have time to defer such decision when we ourselves are faced with an urgent situation.  Modern intellectuals are so afraid of being duped that they are not afraid to be left morally adrift.  In his criticism of our unwillingness to let the intellect rest when it must, he quotes the following passage: “We are living in a time, perhaps like every other time, when there are many who, in the words of the prophet Amos ‘turn judgment into wormwood'” (Amos 5:7). Again the paradigm for the wrong relation between intellect and morality derives from the Bible.

The last paragraph of his book is a final explanation of life-and-death ethics.  Ultimately, it is based on an awareness of the preciousness of human life, all human life.  At this point, he quotes a central Jewish prayer, the Shema: “Shema, Israel, Adonoi Elohenu Adonoi Echod” (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One).  He explicates this prayer as follows.

“For me, the word Israel refers to all of our anarchic-hearted human beings and the word God means the object of our undivided attention to the lucid mystery of being alive for others and for ourselves.  When I need commentary on the Shema in order to understand its meaning in practical terms, I recall Rabbi Hillel’s summary of his belief in the preciousness of life:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I care only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?”

These references to the Jewish tradition, more frequent toward the end of the text, should not obscure the fact that Hallie does not present himself as a speaker from within it.  Rather, he speaks as a philosopher.  It is clear from various details strewn throughout the book that he is at some remove from the Jewish tradition, at least in terms of practice.  The quotations I have alluded to should therefore not be interpreted as Hallie’s attempt to establish the authority of what he says.  They are not proof texts.  What, then, is their function?  No doubt, in most instances, they serve as illustrations for concepts elaborated independently of them.  But why turn specifically there for illustrations?  Perhaps independently derived ethics may not be so independently derived after all.

In any case, Hallie’s juxtaposing of his philosophical ethics with biblical language invites a reading of the Bible as expressing a certain ethical norm, of which his book indicates the broad lines.  It also invites us to see his work as a Jewish interpretation of Le Chambon.  Would somebody who did not know the Shema, did not know Hillel, did not read the prophets in a certain light have focused on precisely what Hallie does in his telling of the Chambonnais’ story?  Thus the universal norm he extracts from these events is the expression of a particular tradition.  Something of a Jewish frame, no matter how tenuous, is giving shape to the universal meaning.  This particularity is a fundamental aspect of embodiment.

If embodiment structures Hallie’s history of Le Chambon in several different ways, so does the notion of hope.  Hallie says so explicitly both in his introduction and in his conclusion.  In the former, he relates how he came to write Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.  As already described, while doing other reading, he stumbled upon a short account of the Chambonnais and, to his surprise, found himself crying.  Here it is important to mention what that other reading was.  For a long time, for a projected study of ethics, he had been reading descriptions of the Nazi treatment of children in the concentration camps.  The Chambonnais’ story no doubt came to his attention because they were involved in saving children, having set up two children’s schools for that purpose.  One of them was discovered, and all the children were sent to death camps.

Hallie describes the state into which he had fallen as a result of reading countless accounts of unspeakable cruelty.  It involved the undermining of the possibility of goodness (“Across all these studies, the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself”), accompanied by a sense of being trapped inside himself, unable to experience anything but anger or indifference toward his fellow human beings.  “My study of evil incarnate had become a prison, whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder.  Between the bars and the walls I revolved like a madman.  Reading about the damned, I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as the victims.  Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.”

Reading about the Chambonnais and becoming acquainted with them personally over a period of several years broke through what he himself refers to as his prison.  His sense of estrangement from others disappeared: “Solitude, estrangement from our fellow human beings, is part of our lives, as it is part of all aware people in our time, but it is not the most important part of our lives.”  He could once again affirm an unqualified good, which he calls the awareness of the preciousness of human life, manifested in acts such as those of the Chambonnais.  This awareness was no longer suspect of being a mere pious sentiment; rather, it became what he calls “true north, from which we can take the bearings of our actions and passions.”

His last pages express, in a very moving way, his sense of community with others, centered around that “true north.”  That very sense of community, lost in his confrontation with the horrors of the concentration camps, is a sign of his reborn hope, making it possible, as he says, to teach his children about the preciousness of human life without lying.  The hope here as always involves an affirmation of something invincible in the midst of defeat.

In a very compressed way, this invincibility in the midst of defeat finds expression in Hallie’s reflection on the Shema.  He mentions that, in focusing on the Shema, he is focusing on the very words Jews pronounced on their way to the gas chambers.  The Shema, besides being a very important part of the daily liturgy, is also the prayer that the dying person recites.  At the very least, its words are a proclamation of a reality that death does not conquer.  Hallie, in making the “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” his own is also affirming the reality of something that survived the death camps.  That something is the connection with the vulnerable that those deaths were meant to sever.  Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed was written to attest to the invincibility of that connection in the face of the terrible defeat it suffered.

[Pastor André Trochmé, Magda Trochmé, and their four children.]

This entry was posted in Aronowicz, Annette, Ethics, Hallie, Philip, Løgstrup, K. E., Religion (uncategorized), Scandinavian creation theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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