Stories of individuals who went against the odds and risked their lives to save Jews are sprinkled throughout Holocaust history.
But the story of Le Chambon – a town in France with a history of welcoming outsiders that collectively protected and saved almost 3,500 Jews – is unknown to many.
“The Holocaust gets told so many times as dark and horrific, which it was,” said Dan Leshem, executive director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College. “But there were these points of light, there were these rescuers and aid providers that did things at a great risk to themselves simply because that was what was natural to them to do because it was aligned with what they believed.”
The intertwined stories of the refugees and protectors are told at the museum’s exhibit “Conspiracy of Goodness: How French Protestants Rescued Thousands of Jews During WWII,” which will be shown through June.
“We call the exhibit the conspiracy of goodness because it took so many people playing different roles to make this happen,” Leshem said.
The exhibit’s name mirrors the design. It is what Leshem described as a mosaic of people who played a part in the rescue of thousands of children.
As visitors enter the exhibit, they are introduced to a wall of faces that together make up this story of defiance and virtue.
One of those faces is Renée Kann Silver, a Holocaust survivor who was in Le Chambon, and currently lives in Garden City.
Silver’s story is told in her book, “And Yet, I still Loved France,” co-written with Connie Colker Steiner.
Her story was unusual from the start, she said.
“I was born in a place which nobody knows anything about because it no longer exists,” Silver said.
Her family resided in the Saarland, a territory that was independent of Germany and France following decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles.
Silver’s story continued on an atypical path, with her first-hand exposure to a Nazi parade featuring Adolf Hitler himself.
“In 1935 I lived in Saarland and Hitler came to visit and a maid took me to see him, which at 4 I thought was absolutely fabulous,” Silver said.
Silver said everyone was “screaming in delight” and she couldn’t understand why her parents were upset when they found out where she had been.
After Hitler’s visit, Saarland voted to rejoin Germany.
Silver said her parents subsequently fired the maid and left their town for France.
Silver and her family, a group of seven that included extended members along with her sister and parents, relocated to a town further inland.
That was her first exposure to anti-Semitism, she said.
Shortly after relocating, though, Silver said her family was taken to Gurs, a concentration camp in southwestern France.
Here Silver’s experience differs as well, because her family was not put in the camp for being Jewish but because her father was German, she said. They were liberated when France was overrun by Germany, and the Germans didn’t ask who was Jewish among the them.
When they were able to leave, Silver said her grandmother and two cousins left for a port city with papers to go to the United States.
“My family had no desire to come to the United States. We thought of France being our country,” Silver said. “Certainly my sister and I never thought of any other country being our homeland other than France.”
Her family relocated again in France, but Silver said it became increasingly evident that the new French government was not welcoming to them as Jews.
After facing discrimination in school, Silver said her parents made arrangements for her and her sister to go to the mountains.
“I had no idea why were going there… I found it absolutely wonderful and thought we were going for a vacation,” Silver said.
In fact, they were being sent to Le Chambon for safety.
Le Chambon had become a popular vacation spot in the 1900s. The geographic isolation, originally sought out by French Protestants escaping Catholic persecution before King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, started to have the scenic appeal of what Leshem said might be deemed “ecotourism” in modern terms.
While historically a haven for those fleeing persecution, the arrival of a radical new pastor, André Trocmé, in 1934 led the town to its peak of opposition, according to Leshem.
Trocmé was rejected by more cosmopolitan parishes for his political beliefs, but welcomed by the people of Le Chambon, Leshem said.
The day after the French signed an armistice that granted a collaboration between the French and Nazi governments on June 22, 1940, Trocmé delivered a sermon urging his congregation, as Christians, to embrace resistance.
“We face powerful heathen pressures on ourselves and our families, pressures to force us to cave into this totalitarian ideology,” Trocmé said. “… The duty of Christians is to resist the violence directed at our consciences with the weapons of the spirit … we will resist when our enemies demand that we act in ways that go against the teachings of the Gospel. We will resist without fear, without pride, and without hatred.”
Silver said she wasn’t happy with the first family she stayed with at Le Chambon, with a father who she said did not spare her the frightening details of what has happening.
She said she fled, picking up her sister along the way and made it back to where her parents had been in France.
After a bit of help from a neighbor, she said she found her parents, who were hiding with the parents of one of her friends.
Her parents almost immediately decided to send Silver and her sister back to Le Chambon, this time with a new family, where they stayed until arrangements and false papers were made for them to cross the border into Switzerland with their parents, she said.
Upon crossing the border, the Kanns were going to be sent to a concentration camp in Switzerland, but in another twist in the story both girls became violently ill with yellow jaundice. They were deemed too contagious to be sent to a camp, and stayed in Switzerland with their parents and returned together as a family to France at the end of the war.
Crossing to Switzerland was common among the Jewish children hidden in Le Chambon.
A network helped refugees cross the border, which was about 300 kilometers from the town.
The story of another couple who currently reside in Queens, Hanne and Max Liebmann, is also told in the exhibit.
Hanne has also volunteered at the museum for over two decades.
The couple, who met at Gurs, were first reunited in Le Chambon and then again upon crossing over to Switzerland.
Leshem said it is important to share these stories about the past, because of what is happening in the present.
“All of our exhibits, although we discuss things that happen in the past we do it all in order to talk about things happening in our world today,” Leshem said. “And what’s the purpose of all this memory.”
The day before Leshem showed a Blank Slate Media reporter around the exhibit, Poland’s Senate passed a bill that makes it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust.
Countries attempting to rewrite history isn’t the only way the conversation about the Holocaust and the fascist dictators of the World War II era are still relevant.
Silver said when she was speaking to a college class, a student asked her what she thought about President Donald Trump.
She said the question didn’t come from nowhere, “it came from the fact he obviously thought there was another dictator in the making.”
Leshem said he often leaves student visitors with a question: “what’s the threshold it would take for you to welcome into your home?”
“Look around at our society now and who might be the next targeted victim,” Leshem added. “Who is being targeted and what would it take for you to join together with others and welcome them into your home?”
The story of Le Chambon is unique because it was not just one man or woman – not even just one family – but a whole community that shared in an open secret to stand up and resist, he said.
“Part of the reason we do this, the big reason we do this exhibit is that people need to know that although most people didn’t choose to rescue it was an option,” Leshem said.