Something exceptional happened in the small French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in World War II during the mass deportation of Jews during the Holocaust.
Ordinary farmers and shopkeepers engaged in a “conspiracy of goodness”—risking their lives to rescue Jews and others from the Holocaust in the “largest communal effort of its kind.” A villager explained: “We didn’t protect the Jews because we were a moral or heroic people. We helped them because it was the human thing to do.”
Led by Pastor André Trocmé, they saved roughly 5,000 people from Nazi death camps at great risks to their community by hiding families and then sending them out into the forests when German and Vichy security police neared. Trocmé’s cousin and some of his students were arrested and died in Auschwitz, and the Gestapo executed the local doctor.
Why would a remote community band together to help outsiders at their peril? The answer is embedded in their history. French Huguenots, a persecuted, religious minority had settled there in the 17th century, and had in turn sheltered Catholic priests after the French Revolution. Other acts of kindness followed all the way to the present, when residents help refugees from such war-torn homelands as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Balkans, and Syria learn French, get jobs, and apply for French citizenship. When most of the world is building walls and expelling refugees, this village welcomes them. Photographer Lucian Perkins explores this remarkable story in Smithsonian magazine.