Anthropologist Maggie Paxson sets out to explore the question of whether there are existing “communities that are somehow resistant to violence, persistent in decency?” Her search for a peaceful community leads her to an isolated plateau in southern France, called Le Chambon Vivarias-Lignon.
This remote enclave, inhabited originally by Huguenot farmers and sheepherders, developed the practice of demonstrating compassion to strangers. The hospitality of these French Protestants reached its summit during World War II when the citizens risked their lives to provide refuge to hundreds of people, many of them Jewish children, seeking asylum from the cruelty and death of the Nazi genocides.
Paxson learns that a relative of hers, André Trocmé, was Le Chambon’s much-loved pastor and civic leader, who with his wife, Magda, preached, taught and modeled nonviolent measures that saved thousands of lives. André’s cousin, 30-year-old Daniel Trocmé took charge of local group homes for children during the war. His kindness toward displaced, frightened children is an example of the community’s decency. His model of care attracted help from others.
Paxson writes: “In the business of sheltering children, there were many jobs to be done….There were those who retrieved children from the train station; those who took care of their daily needs; those who passed on messages or forged documents. There were those who inspired at the pulpit—not just André, but a dozen other pastors— and others who inspired in the classroom or the town square; and those assigned to the psychological well-being of the kinds of children who were so seized by fear and sorrow that they had night terrors ad wet their beds.”
Although she began her research as a social scientist, Paxon has proven to be a deft writer as well. She lyrically describes life for the escapees and the residents as they feel the brutal winds of a French winter storm or smell the putrid odor of a boxcar full of prisoners of war headed to the German concentration camp at Majdanek.
In pursuing an answer to her original question, she interviews many rescuers’ descendants to discover how a community standard of “uncommon decency” survives in our often cruel and deadly world.
Through her conversations with primary sources she is impressed that “even powerless seeming people can find ways to resist the will of a violent state.” Then she reflects, in memoir style, on how her anthropological research leads her to examine her own life and how she contributes to decency and peace.
Paxson studies current asylees—those seeking political asylum—from Chechnya, Congo and Rwanda and elsewhere, who now find refuge in the villages of The Plateau. Her study of the culture clashes between natives and exiles today is described in vivid, but tender ways.
She asks, “How are the values of courage and kindness found on The Plateau maintained without the kind of moral leadership that inspired the people during World War II? What inspires generation after generation to engage in this effort? Would work with asylees continue if the risks were as weighty as they were during the Nazi occupation?” Paxson gives no answers to these queries, but her stories and questions challenge readers to examine their own values and aspirations.
The book is not blatantly political, but today’s headlines come to mind as she talks about children being separated from their parents because of jingoistic thinking: “No country is made of a pure kind of human; no border—however, high or however intimidating the barbed wire wrapped around it—surrounds a real thing. It’s a fairy tale to think it does.”
Paxson poignantly claims that peace enclaves are still possible and that new doors of kindness and peace can yet be open. This contemplative, serious and uplifting study, concludes with the words etched into a Plateau church entrance, AIMEZ-VOUS LES UNS LEAS AUTRES, Love one another.