Research

Hewett (Trocme), Nelly

Righteous Gentile
Le Chambon (France)

Nelly Trocme Hewett, the oldest of four children, was born in northern France in 1927. In the early 1930s, her family moved to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a rural community in southern France, at the invitation of the Protestant church: her father, Andre Trocme, was a minister. Once there, his pacifist views made him a bit of a rebel with the church. When he and his wife Magda organized the rescue of several thousand Jewish refugees during World War II, however, the entire community rallied to their leadership. No one will ever know precisely how many people passed through the area, but it is estimated that up to 5,000 Jews found a haven in Le Chambon and the surrounding villages, whether for a night, a month, or the duration of the war.

Ms. Hewett, who was a teenager at the time, says that it wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds. Each resident, she says, reacted to refugees, when they needed help, on an individual basis. Moreover, although most of the community participated in some way or another, people rarely talked – friends living on the same street could be unaware that each was giving someone shelter. In a way, she says, her father had sensitized the community to what was coming, having made no effort to hide his beliefs in obeying his conscience, even if it meant breaking the law of the land. During the Vichy regime of Nazi-occupied France, harboring Jews did mean breaking the law, and Ms. Hewett’s father was arrested once for it – not by the German police but by the French ones, she says, in a measure meant to prevent the Germans from arresting him first. He and two colleagues spent six weeks in an internment camp in southwestern France. There, they attempted to school their inmates in music, literature, philosophy, and the horrors of the Nazi regime. Pressure for their liberation finally came from as far away as England, where the pastors of Le Chambon were familiar figures on the BBC.

Her parents also had a hand in the opening of a secondary school in Le Chambon. Before 1939, city internships where the only way for the area’s brighter children to continue their education and qualify for university enrollment. By the time Ms. Hewett was ready to go into the equivalent of seventh grade, however, a local Protestant preparatory school had been founded. During the war, it swelled to accomodate both refugee children and refugee teachers.

As refugees increased, her father and his friends used funds from the Swiss Red Cross, the American Quakers, and French refugee services to open boarding homes for the incoming refugees and especially for young children. Once the homes were established, they needed directors, and Ms. Hewett’s cousin, Daniel Trocme, became one of them. A professor in search of a humanitarian cause, he learned about the opportunity through correspondence with Andre Trocme. Once in Le Chambon, his responsibilities included ensuring that the children continued their education (whether at the public school, at the secondary school, or with professional training of some kind), comforting the orphaned, and finding enough food for everyone, perhaps the most difficult task of all. Getting food required food coupons, which were only obtainable with valid I.D. cards. To this end, and also to assist refugees into Switzerland, a local doctor used a printing kit to manufacture nearly 5,000 identification cards. It is from this figure that estimates are taken, although some refugees may have had to assume multiple identities.

The only successful Gestapo raid came at the end of the war. Soldiers arrived unannounced, at the second boarding house for which Daniel Trocme had assumed responsibility, and arrested everybody. He and nearly thirty others were taken to Buchenwald, a concentration camp, where Daniel Trocme perished.

It was not the first attempt to infiltrate the area. Somehow, the town had always received notice when there was meant to be a raid – from whom, she isn’t certain, but whenever rumors of police action arose, refugees vanished into the woods. A busload of French police, she recalls, once arrested a man in the area, but were forced to release him when they learned that he was only one-quarter Jewish. To be arrested solely on the basis of being Jewish, one had to be at least half Jewish by birth.

Two German refugees, a Jewish man and woman, lived in the Trocme household for quite a while, where they performed small services for the family – she had a flair for cooking and he for carpentry. The need for funds meant that there were always boarders, usually about four French students, making the number of children in the house eight. Two of the students are still very close friends of hers.

When asked why so many of her neighbors risked their lives in order to help Jews escape Nazi persecution, Ms. Hewett says that as descendents of the Huguenots, a religious minority in Catholic France, they knew what persecution meant. They also knew that Le Chambon, small and remote, was an ideal hiding place. Beyond that, she says, “[t]hey were just decent human beings with a good leader, who happens to be my father...and people like my mother, who are fearless”. If more decent people had stood up and affirmed their beliefs, she thinks more people might have been willing to save lives.
    
In 1990, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel. There exists in Yad Vashem a small garden and a plaque dedicated to its people. Ms. Hewett has lived in Minnesota, where she teaches French, since 1953. She hopes that Holocaust survivors and other victims of persecution will prolong what she calls the “chain of good will” by lending their assistance to modern-day refugees. She firmly believes that bigotry can be fought, but that speech without action is “like talking through the wind. It flows away, and never comes back.”

Date: November 1, 1986.
Length: 48 minutes
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video recording