Light in a Time of Darkness

OPENING

Elie Wiesel tells an old story, traced to Talmudic sources.

A king heard about a wise man in his kingdom who spoke every language in the world. He understood the songs of the birds and the meaning of the shapes of the clouds. He could also read the thoughts of others. The king brought the wise man to his palace.

The king asked, “Is it true that you know every language?”

“Yes, majesty.”

“Can you really understand the bird songs?”

“Yes, majesty.”

 “And is it true that you can read other people’s thoughts?”

“Yes, majesty.”

The king said, “Behind my back I am holding a bird in my hands. Is it alive, or is it dead?”

The wise man became anxious. He knew the bird was alive, but he also knew the king could kill the bird if the king wanted to prove the wise man wrong after he spoke. The wise man was silent for a long time. Finally, he said: “The answer, your majesty, lies in your hand.”

Elie Wiesel tells his listeners, “You have asked me about the future. The answer lies in our hands.”

READING

On August 30, 1942, just after the horrific roundup of Jews in the Velodrome in Paris, Jules-Gérard Saliѐge, Archbishop of Toulouse, requested that the priests under his jurisdiction read a letter to their congregations on Sunday. The government prohibited the letter. Priests came to the Archbishop’s house to receive guidance. When they arrived, he was already asleep. Awakened and standing in his nightclothes, he called out, “They are to read it. They are to read it.”

In his book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, Philip Hallie provides a translation:

Brethren, There is a Christian morality and a human ethic which impose duties and recognize rights. Both rights and duties are parts of human nature.

The treatment of children, women, fathers, and mothers like a base herd of cattle, the separation of members of a family from one another and their deportation to unknown destinations, are sad spectacles which have been reserved for us to witness in our times… Why are we defeated? Lord, have mercy on us. Our Lady, pray for France. In our own diocese… scenes of horror have taken place. Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. It is just as criminal to use violence against these men and women, these fathers and mothers with families, as it is against anyone else. They too are members of the human race. They are our brothers like so many others. A Christian cannot forget that. France, our beloved country; France, known to all your children for a tradition of respect for human life; chivalrous, generous France…

In spite of the governmental ban, nearly half of the Catholic churches in the diocese of Toulouse read this letter from the pulpit on that Sunday in August, 1942. Change only a few words, and we could read that same letter today.

READING
In Yad Vashem, in Israel, there is a monument to The Righteous Among The Nations, those individuals who, at great risk to themselves and their families, helped Jews survive during the Holocaust. A total of 26,973 names are listed. Though these are only those documented, and many names are lost forever, it is a shockingly small number of people from a population of perhaps six hundred million. Let us try to think of the courage required for these people to stand and hold a light in that hurricane of darkness and evil.

SERMON:  Light in a Time of Darkness
I have written and talked about the Holocaust a number of times, because at this time in our world, we must continue to learn, and relearn, that history. Sometimes, though, the darkness can threaten to overwhelm us.

So, I ask myself, what about the sparks of humanity and goodness, the sometimes fragile and small, but surprisingly bright lights, that shown in one of the darkest nights of human history? Where do we find them? And what can we learn from them?

That massive march of antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia, was directed mainly at the Jews, but also at anyone else who qualified as different. It was attended and reinforced by official propaganda laced with fear and hatred. Does any of this sound familiar? To be honest, even when the details were well known, very few countries had a positive record of opposition to the Holocaust. The United States is not one of those few.

Though there were honorable Church leaders, the Christian Church as an institution was far from noble, and seemed at times to be both blind and deaf when faced with the Holocaust. Many Christian leaders found support for the Holocaust by a perverted reading of their religious texts.

Those not specifically targeted by the Holocaust were overwhelming silent. There was good reason to be afraid. The penalty for even the slightest assistance was death, not just for the individual, but perhaps for the whole family, or the whole village.

During the Second World War, there was, however, a special place, the small village of Le Chambon, in southern France, on a remote plateau, populated by Protestant Huguenots. On that plateau, a bright light pierced the darkness.

In 1685 the civil and legal rights of French Protestants were obliterated, and a thousand of them climbed up to Le Chambon to avoid persecution. This history was still very much alive in the minds of their descendants at the time of the Second World War, over 250 years later. It formed the foundation of a deep conscience of tolerance and assistance to the oppressed. It would govern their actions when the Jews, in their turn, climbed the same plateau in search of sanctuary.

Still, there had to be a spark to start the fire. There had to be a leader to inspire the latent social conscience into purposeful action. In Le Chambon that critical vision and leadership was provided in part by the local, charismatic pastor, André Trocmé, and his wife Magda. Le Chambon became a magnet for the persecuted of France.

How did the rescue mission begin? It began with the armistice signed between France and Germany, and the division of the country into occupied France and free, or Vichy France. Many Jews in occupied France headed south to Vichy France in search of sanctuary, to avoid the German death camps.

One evening, when the Trocmé family had finished their evening dinner, a German Jewish woman came to the door. She was ill prepared for the winter weather. She was wet and cold. She was wearing sandals.

Hanna Schott reports the story in her book, Love in a Time of Hate.

Magda warmed the leftovers and sat her visitor at the table. She took the woman’s sandals off her feet and placed them close to the fire. The woman was exhausted. She could go no further. Magda went upstairs to prepare a bed for the night, but when she returned, she smelled something burning. It was the sandals. In her exhaustion, the visitor had been completely unaware of the small catastrophe.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Magda said. “Those sandals weren’t good for this weather in any case. Tomorrow I’ll make sure that you get a new pair of shoes.”

With the shortages in the town, the promise was not easy to fulfill, but eventually Magda found the needed shoes. But what to do with her guest? The Trocmé’s had little to spare, but they could put her up and feed her for a while. But rations were strict, and this could not go on for long.

“So, in all innocence,” Magda recalled, “I went to the courthouse and told my story to the representative of the mayor, since the mayor himself, Mr. Guillon, was gone at the moment.”

“I thought that he could help me. But instead he became upset. This would be completely impossible; there were already more than enough French Jews, and I really should not bother myself now with German Jews, since that brought the entire village into danger. He wanted me to send this woman away. Imagine that! Send her away! Where to? I was desperate.”

“So, I continued on my way to another important person — a French Jewish woman who was in Le Chambon because the cities had become too dangerous for Jews. I explained to her that I had a Jewish woman in my home… that I needed her help. And, as in the Mayor’s office, I was not only rebuffed, but I had to listen to yet another scolding: the flood of foreign Jews was only further endangering French Jews.”

“I was completely demoralized. We had to think of something. And so we finally ended up resorting to the underground, with false papers, false photos, false names … with lies.”

For the wife of the pastor, for the pastor himself, for the congregation of his church, this was not an easy decision.

But again, Hanna Schott reports that André Trocmé had been thinking about this choice for a long time. Earlier in 1939, with a prescient understanding of the implications of the rise of the National Socialist ideology in neighboring countries, he quoted Deuteronomy 10:19:

Therefore, you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

He spoke to the Huguenot’s history of persecution. What he said next speaks as loudly and directly to us today as it did to his church in 1939.

“Now once again people are being persecuted in the most horrific ways: hundreds of thousands of Christians [and] Jews… are trying to escape oppression and violence. Yet only a small portion of the persecuted even have the possibility of fleeing, since many of them have no possessions whatsoever and the free countries are barely cracking open their doors. We deny work permits to the majority who are seeking refuge here; we condemn them to idleness and often to homelessness. Some of them find themselves in prison right now because of a clear and repugnant crime; they no longer wished to beg and go hungry and therefore are guilty of working. Others, despairing, have indeed been misled into criminality or the insanity of suicide.”

“In the midst of the brutality and the indifference of our context, we as Christians are now being asked if we will hear the voice of the Master and Savior: ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in.’”

Let us reflect for a moment that eighty years later we are in exactly the same place.

So as Magda said, they turned to the Underground. Some of them became expert forgers. No one who came to the town seeking a refuge, a sanctuary, was turned away. They hid their desperate visitors on the farms, in the schools, in outlying homes. They became experts in intelligence, and when the Vichy officers arrived, the Jews and the undocumented workers had already disappeared.

Philip Hallie, in his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, reports that when Vichy sent busses to round up the Jews, André Trocmé and the citizens of Le Chambon refused to identify any. The Vichy officers did manage to find one Austrian Jew, and they put him on one of the busses. They searched the town. They searched the outlying farms. They found no other Jews. As the one Jew sat on the bus, quite alone, the townspeople passed by his open window and gave him… food. At that time of hunger, they gave him the most precious gift they could manage, and when he left, the pile of food was nearly as large as he was.

When the officials came for André Trocmé, the question was whispered in his ear by one of his parishioners, “Quel mal avez-vous fait?” What harm, or evil, have you done? The answer to that question was simple.

We know that the laws of Vichy and the Nazis have been broken by you and by us, but we have done no evil because we have done no harm to anyone; in fact, we have tried to help those whom the law was designed to hurt.

Le Chambon was a sanctuary village. The Huguenots saved thousands of Jews, and others, from arrest, forced labor, and murder. Our little Society is a sanctuary society. We have not saved thousands. But as a congregation, after lengthy discussion and consideration of valid and differing viewpoints and opinions; we have stood; we have spoken; we have taken action. Today begins the second year… the second year that Irida has been with us in sanctuary. Think on that.

Turn to each other now. Ask each other, “Quel mal avez-vous fait?” What harm have you done? What evil have you done? In this issue of sanctuary, we have done no evil, and we have done no harm. We have taken a tiny… a tiny but consequential step to do what is right. May we continue to do our best… to do what is right… to light a candle… in the present darkness… 

CLOSING

In closing, let us paraphrase for our times, the letter from Archbishop Saliѐge, 77 years ago:

The treatment of children, women, fathers, and mothers like a base herd of cattle, the separation of members of a family from one another and their deportation… are sad spectacles which have been reserved for us to witness in our times… Why are we defeated? Lord, have mercy on us… scenes of horror have taken place… Foreigners are men and women… They are our brothers and sisters like so many others… The United States, our beloved country; the United States, known … for a tradition of respect for human life; chivalrous, generous, welcoming…

May it be so, once again.