On Sunday June 23 1940, a day after France surrendered to Germany, the French Protestant pastor André Trocmé delivered a sermon in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. “We will resist,” he told his congregation, “whenever our adversaries try to force us to act against the Gospel’s commands.” During the war, local people sheltered and saved hundreds or thousands of Jews, recounts Maggie Paxson in her 2019 book The Plateau. As French Protestants, they knew what it was like to be persecuted.
In the week of Victory in Europe Day, which falls on May 8, it’s worth examining these rare cases of collective heroism. “What makes a Resistance hero?” asks Rutger Bregman in the title of his new Dutch e-book. Why did a very few Europeans risk their lives to save others?
No obvious psychological traits seem to explain it. The “Altruistic Personality” project, a large-scale study of saviours conducted by Holocaust survivor Samuel Oliner, is today thought to have produced disappointingly few insights, writes Bregman. Saviours appeared to share only one characteristic: they had been raised by loving parents to follow their consciences rather than obey authority.
The American psychologist Eva Fogelman, who interviewed more than 300 people who had saved Jews and who attended many postwar ceremonies in their honour in Israel, said that each time those being honoured looked like a randomly assorted bunch of people, as if they were train passengers who happened to be sharing a compartment.
What does differentiate the saviours? Research by Federico Varese and Meir Yaish found that one condition was crucial. If it was met, writes Bregman, 96 per cent of people agreed to help save Jews. That condition: they had to be asked. Of course, Jews or other resisters tended to ask for help from people who had already shown their sympathy through smaller gestures — making anti-Nazi remarks, say.
But there also had to be influencers who did the asking. In pious wartime Europe, those people were often clergymen such as Trocmé. In Denmark, where a mass operation smuggled 7,300 of the country’s 7,800 Jews to safety in Sweden, it has been estimated that 90 per cent of Lutheran ministers joined the rescue and resistance efforts.
Personal networks mattered, too. People were more likely to help if they saw someone they knew get involved. During the war, Jorgen Kieler shared a small apartment in central Copenhagen with his two sisters and brother. The siblings had disagreed about taking up sabotage — his sisters said it was irreligious. “But,” Kieler told me in 2004, “in October 1943 they were asked, ‘Will you bear arms to prevent the deportation of Jews?’, and their answer was yes.” The siblings turned into a network. (Kieler went on to become Denmark’s leading cancer researcher and died in 2017, aged 97.)
Certain people acted as “superspreaders” of salvation, “infecting” others by example, writes Bregman. The Danes even influenced locally stationed German officials to sabotage the deportations. Sometimes it’s a group that acts, not just individuals, writes Paxson.
Today, Europeans can save people fleeing persecution without even risking their own lives. Yet now as in wartime, very few do it. When you talk to this tiny minority, parallels with the second world war emerge at once.
Sara Nathan, who co-founded the UK charity Refugees At Home, which finds spare rooms for asylum-seekers and refugees, sees a legacy of the Kindertransport — the project that brought thousands of Jewish child refugees to Britain in 1938-39. “A lot of our hosts are descendants of people who were either hosts of the Kindertransport, like my family, or were on it,” she says. Her hosts include disproportionate numbers of Jewish people, Quakers, LGBT+ people and religious ministers.
Networks still matter, says Nathan: “Word of mouth is incredibly important.” Influencers matter too, though nowadays they tend to be celebrities rather than pastors: after the ex-footballer and TV presenter Gary Lineker applied to host a refugee, Nathan’s charity received more than 100 applications from would-be volunteers.
Many hosts are people who can look at refugees and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The French Huguenot Constance Nash lives in the English town of Dorking, where she set up a network of locals who have taken refugees in. She was inspired by family stories of Protestants fleeing persecution in France, by her grandfather’s wartime work in providing Jews with false passports and by André Trocmé.
“I modelled it on Le Chambon-sur-Lignon,” she says. “It reassured me that Trocmé took so much time to get everyone on board. Once the network was there, it didn’t need a boss. It was about making the most of the small scale of a town where everyone knows somebody.”
She began holding public meetings and parties in Dorking for would-be hosts. When people saw neighbours and friends taking in “guests”, some followed. Hosting spread like a virus, she agrees.
She is anxious to downplay her work. Hosts today, she notes, “aren’t even risking our rations”. Yet there are certain continuities: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is again sheltering refugees.
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