French Nonviolent Resistance during World War II

by Magda Trocmé

Editor’s Preface: Magda Grilli (1901-1996) was born in Italy of an Italian mother and a Russian father. She married André Trocmé in 1926. They had 4 children. She has been much honored from her nonviolent resistance to the German occupation during WWII, and especially for her role in saving an estimated 3500 Jews, mostly children, by both housing them in her home and helping to smuggle them over the border into Switzerland.  The two were named Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific granted by Israel for those non-Jews who played a role in saving Jews from the Holocaust. Lesser known is her work in Morocco during the Algerian War for independence against France, during which she helped start, with the Mennonites, Eirene, a counseling center for conscientious objectors. JG

Trocmé family, c. 1939; courtesy

Moral responsibility during the war was a terrible thing for the state officials. My youngest son came back from Italy August 27, 1951, many years after the war, and still a gendarme looking at his passport at the border said, “Trocmé? Are you the son of Pasteur Trocmé?”

“Yes,” said Daniel, very surprised.

“I was told during the war when I was at Le Chambon to go and arrest your father, but I managed not to do it because it was a dirty job.”

Yes, it was a dirty job, and that man managed not to do it; but how many others had to do dirty jobs because they were officials? Some of them believed that the government was right and that they had to obey even if the government was wrong, as a soldier obeys even when he feels that war is wrong. We had two interesting experiences of this kind with M. Bach, Prefect of the Haute Loire and with the captain of the gendarmerie in Le Puy. Both of them have been the executors of an unjust law and both of them asked for help later on when the situation had changed, when those who had been arrested had become powerful and free.

It was February 13th, 1943, around 7 o’clock in the evening when two gendarmes knocked at the door of the old presbytery in Chambon-sur-Lignon. They asked whether Pastor Trocmé were there. I answered that he had a meeting and would be back later, but that I could answer all their questions because I knew all about my husband’s work. They said that it was something very personal and they would prefer waiting. I took them to my husband’s office and forgot all about them; we had so much work to do and so little time to waste!

When my husband returned, he rushed as usual to his office, found himself face to face with the gendarmes and was told that he was arrested. Why arrested? At that time nobody even dared ask why such things happened.

André went to the attic where a German Jew was hidden and told him not to worry; it was not he the gendarmes were looking for; and I went to the cellar to tell the old German Jewish woman there not to be frightened, and to stop putting her head into the kitchen all the time since it was dangerous for her and for us.

I asked the gendarmes if I could prepare André’s clothes, and they said that I could have all the time I needed, but that no friends or neighbours could be aware of what was happening.

A few days before, needing clothes, I had unpacked the “prison suitcase” I had prepared months before. André had been menaced by prison so many times before that I had a special suitcase for this purpose, but clothes had become so scarce.

Mlle Reynier and I started to prepare everything and André and the children had supper with the gendarmes, who were so bewildered by the invitation that they could not eat, and the conversation was rather uninteresting!

That evening, André and I had been invited for supper by a church counsellor, M. Gibert, and as we often forgot the invitations we received since we had too much work and responsibility, he sent his daughter to remind us of her father’s birthday. She came, saw the police, ran away, told everyone what was happening in the parsonage, and a few minutes later the people of the village started a kind of procession to say goodbye and to bring presents. Queer presents and things not seen for years, put aside as precious specimens for very special days, such as soap, sardines, sausage, toilet paper, eau de cologne, and candles; but at the end we discovered that we had no matches and the captain of the gendarmes gave us his own, saying that he would make a report of the manner in which events had proceeded that evening, how every one had been calm, the population friendly and full of love.

Later we discovered that the police had been frightened. They had imagined that there would be a kind of revolt. Many police cars had arrived and the telephone and telegraph had been cut off! At the same time, M. Theis, the headmaster of College Cevenol, and M. Darcissac, the headmaster of the elementary school, were also arrested,

Later, in the concentration camp, my husband discovered that here and there, among the toilet paper something was written on certain leaves. He looked closer and read verses of the Bible written in great haste; and he felt very grateful to read those words, chosen from among the many passages,

André had the honor of being arrested by the captain of the gendarmes himself. In Le Puy, the prisoners were put to sleep with sheets, but with the door locked, and the next morning they had no more private car to transport them, on the “salad basket”, the special car for prisoners. At the station they were obliged to walk between the gendarmes and they were taken to the concentration camp of Saint Paul d’Eyjeaux, without any more consideration at all.

Next morning, and here comes the conflict of conscience, two gendarmes of Tence, and the next small town, came to see me and to tell me that they wanted to apologise for what had happened the evening before. They knew perfectly well that my husband was a fine man, but they had to execute the orders from above. The evening before, when we were all singing Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as my husband left the house, the captain had told me that never in his life had he been obliged to accomplish such a job, and that it was against his own will because he admired and respected the man he was to arrest.

Years went by, the liberation came; everything was changed. M. Laval was executed and M. Pétain was arrested. The crowds who used to proclaim Pétain turned against him, and completely forgot that once they had admired him. André preached against the public opinion current, saying that the Pétain trial was the trial of almost the whole nation.

M. Bach, the prefect, who had sent the order to arrest André, was put in prison, and the captain of the gendarmes found himself in difficulty. Mme Bach wrote André asking him to be a witness for her husband at the trial, and the captain asked for a letter describing how kind he had been the day of André’s arrest. Yes, we could do it, because both of them had obeyed their government, being only human, and with right and wrong judged by men so difficult to establish.

If Hitler had won the war, Pétain would have been a great man, and M. Bach and the captain would have surely had promotions and honours instead of prison, trials, and difficulties.

When the time of M. Bach’s trial came, André was in Sweden and I went to court and spoke about Chambon, of the mysterious telephone calls telling us that the police would come or simply advising us to be careful. I told them how M. Bach had offered to help me while André was in the concentration camp. I told them that if M. Bach had really wanted to obey completely the orders of the government, the work of Chambon would have been completely stopped.

Mme Bach sat next to me during the trial and she cried almost all of the time. I told her that I was sure that her husband would be freed, that the trial was turning in his favour, but she still was in despair, thinking that M. Bach would lose his French army rank, his decorations, and perhaps even his French nationality!

I was amazed. Yes, it was a French soldier who was being judged and that same French soldier had obeyed Pétain, the hero of Verdun, and in so doing he had had the intention of doing the right thing. Freedom would mean nothing to him if his loyalty to France were not recognized.

My husband too had acted as he thought a French citizen should have acted, and both the men had been arrested for their convictions, history condemning one of these men at a certain time, and the other later at another phase of history. Right and wrong are not always clear and easy to understand. This is the great problem of mankind, the great problem of human conscience.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 148: Folder 1, Subfolder 7.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With thanks to WRI/London for their generous permission making our WRI Project possible, and especially to their director Christine Schweitzer.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi