The other day a friend mentioned Wiemar Germany* in a post about Pride, prejudice and progress. I shivered. It's precisely this time in Germany that has me so fearful for our own time.
Today a friend is attending a lecture by a Holocaust survivor. I told him about the profound impact visiting Dachau concentration camp had on me. I'm not one for "ghosts" and "haunted" places, but the weight of the evil done there was physical, I felt myself being pressed into the ground by it. I'll never forget walking the grounds with hundreds of other people and the only sound we heard was quiet sobbing.
But after crying tonight I remembered "Weapons of the Spirit" and the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It is the true story of 5,000 villagers in France who took in and hid nearly 5,000 Jews hiding from the Gestapo and and the Vichy police.
I'll quote the 1990 review of the documentary from the Washington Post in full because it says everything I was thinking:
"Weapons of the Spirit," Pierre Sauvage's documentary about the extraordinary French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Nazi rule in World War II, is like a murder mystery in reverse. It's an examination of crimes that didn't take place, of atrocities averted, and in such a way that history itself seems to have been subverted by their absence. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/weaponsofthespiritnrhinson_a0a92f.htm
The movie is presented as a kind of spiritual quest, "a return to hallowed ground," by its director, who was born among the villagers during the time of their resistance. The question at the heart of this modest, compelling film is this: How in the middle of great evil did a great good take place? Granted, the question is probably unanswerable, requiring not only an understanding of good but an equal knowledge of evil as well. And Sauvage gets no closer than conjecture. But the circumstances themselves are so provocative, and the acts of the townspeople so remarkable, that explanations aren't actually necessary. All that's needed are the facts.
They are simply this: that 5,000 French Christians, against seemingly insuperable odds, provided food and refuge for nearly 5,000 Jews. Initially only a trickle of Jewish families made their way to Le Chambon. But as the Vichy government increased efforts to collaborate with the Nazis in their solution of the "Jewish problem" and word of the Chambonnais spread, the flow increased until there were nearly as many refugees as villagers.
Sauvage's return to his birthplace is timely, because so many of the townspeople are still alive and eager to talk. When confronted with their heroism, though, they're unanimously unimpressed with themselves -- the way they see it, they made the only choice available to them: "For us, all that mattered is that they were people."
Fiercely devout, the Chambonnais responded to the plight of the Jews as a test of faith. As one woman explains, "God was sending us these hardships so that we may be in contact with his chosen people." To this, another man adds that the source of their affection for the Jews is their common tie to the Old Testament. "The Old Testament prophets," he says, "nourish our faith."
Sauvage, however, sees the seeds of the town's heroism in the early hardships of the Huguenots as the first Protestants in Catholic France. In the struggles of the Jews, he says, the villagers heard "an echo of their forefathers' struggle." Though a high moral conscience seemed second nature to these poor farmers, they were led in their resistance by pastor Andre Trocme, an impassioned pacifist who in his response to the French armistice with Germany urged his flock to arm itself with the "weapons of the spirit" against the Nazis.
Out of this courageous tolerance and faith, the Chambonnais forged what Sauvage calls "a conspiracy of goodness" that manifested itself in an underground railway to smuggle refugees across the border into Switzerland and turned the city into France's leading center of the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit documents.
Most astounding, though, is the fact that all this activity seemed to take place under the noses of the Germans, who appeared either not to notice or not to care. Still, though everything that Sauvage uncovers leads us to believe that it would have been nearly impossible for the Germans not to have known, he finds nothing to explain their failure to respond. The best he can offer as an explanation is to suggest that whenever goodness is afoot, its influence is spread in unpredictable ways. In its ruminations, "Weapons of the Spirit" is more personal than it is exhaustive; it doesn't press for its answers. It contemplates the mystery at its center but leaves it essentially intact.
*For more on Wiemar Germany I commend to you: "Cabaret" and Stephen Spender's loosely fictional memoir "The Temple."