This French village conspired to save the Jews during the Holocaust

There were people in every country who risked their lives and the lives of their families to act righteously and protect the Jews.

  The center of Dieulefit in southeastern France. (photo credit: J-Jacques JOLY/Wikipedia)
The center of Dieulefit in southeastern France.
(photo credit: J-Jacques JOLY/Wikipedia)

A 2010 French documentary titled Dieulefit, le village des Justes spotlights a village of 3,000 citizens in France named Dieulefit (God Made It), where every single villager conspired to protect the Jews of the village and every Jew who came from elsewhere in France seeking refuge during World War II. The name of the village could not be more appropriate.

Dieulefit was known as the home of poets, artists, and intellectuals but also of farmers and manual laborers in a largely Protestant part of France. Jews were not hidden; their children were enrolled in the schools and the adults worked, thanks to documents forged by two women who were the inspiration and prime movers. 

There are many fascinating aspects of this mostly untold story. 

The village that conspired against the Nazis to save Jews

Not one Jew was arrested in four years. No questions were ever asked; it was a haven of peace and tolerance, and not a single villager was ever betrayed. In the documentary, available in French on and on YouTube, the villagers refused any credit or honor. They thought of their actions as natural, a form of civil resistance, a rejection of all government propaganda by the collaborationist government that was virulently antisemitic. Even the mayor, publicly supportive of the government and trusted by the Nazis, cooperated with the villagers by turning a blind eye to all their activities.

It was, in the words of the documentary, a chain of solidarity with no weak link. 

 The iconic photo of a Hanukkah menorah with Nazi flags waving across the road, taken by Rachel Posner, wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner, in Kiel, Germany, 1931.  (credit: YAD VASHEM)
The iconic photo of a Hanukkah menorah with Nazi flags waving across the road, taken by Rachel Posner, wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner, in Kiel, Germany, 1931. (credit: YAD VASHEM)

The great French Jewish writer Romain Rolland said that there are people who are “grand par le coeur,” for which there is no equivalent English phrase: perhaps “people who are all heart” or “real greatness resides in the heart.” 

The villagers of Dieulefit were a perfect example of that expression. It should be pointed out that more than two hundred thousand of France’s wartime population of three hundred thousand Jews survived, thanks to individual efforts throughout France.

That exemplary humanity was not the norm in the rest of Europe, but neither was it the only example. Far from it, as Martin Gilbert’s book The Righteous meticulously documents. 

When gentiles stand up against antisemitism in the public eye

A video produced by Aish HaTorah, Standing Up to Antisemitism, focuses on five people, during and after World War II, who represent the finest humanity has to offer:

Jackie Robinson, the famous African-American baseball player and civil rights activist who broke the color barrier in baseball, stood up to the Black community against antisemitism. When a Jewish businessman wanted to open a restaurant in Harlem that would compete with a Black-owned one, mobs marched, shouting antisemitic slogans against the Jewish owner. Robinson stood his ground, with support from Martin Luther King, and the protest subsided.

When a Philadelphia Eagles football player posted an antisemitic message, Zack Banner, who is not Jewish, took a stand against his teammate, pledged a Jewish fraternity, posted messages about misconceptions about Jews, and became involved with programs that combat antisemitism. He was honored with an award from the New York City Museum of the Courageous.

During World War II, Polish writer and poet Czeslaw Milosz witnessed a Jewish friend’s murder by an antisemitic mob. He joined the resistance movement and helped Jews escape the Vilna Ghetto. After the war, his poetry portrayed the horrors of the ghettos and the willful blindness of his fellow Poles. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. 

Derek Black’s father was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and his godfather was David Duke. Matthew Stephenson, an Orthodox Jew, had occasion to meet him and ended up inviting him for Shabbat dinner. Black had never met a Jew. That Shabbat began a lifelong friendship, and Black renounced his hatred and prejudices.

Finally, a terror attack at a café in Denmark by a 22-year-old gunman sparked fear for Jews in Scandinavia, especially the small group of Jews of Norway. The citizens, prominently including the Muslim community, created a “ring of peace” around the synagogue in Oslo on February 21, 2015, which inspired other expressions of support.

Whether as a group, as in Dieulefit and Oslo, or as individuals identified by Aish and Martin Gilbert, decency did not disappear, and hatred did not win everyone over. 

To suggest that incredible acts of bravery and the highest form of humanity existed in the darkest moments of history is not to deny the dreadful horror of people’s conduct. Nor is it to suggest that rising antisemitism today in the form of the resurrection of ancient conspiracy theories and the demonizing of the nation state of the Jewish people is not of the greatest concern and urgency.

Rather, it is a call to acknowledge that the reason there were Holocaust survivors at all and the reason that the State of Israel was reborn, albeit at great cost, was due to the sacrifice of countless people, Jews and non-Jews, who never gave up on the belief in the dignity of every person and the ultimate victory of love over hatred.

There is a famous photo of a Hanukkah menorah on a windowsill in Kiel, Germany, opposite a Nazi flag on the other side of the street. The granddaughter of the owners of the menorah now possesses it, and she lights it every year.

In 2022, she received an invitation to go to Kiel to light the hanukkiah with the president of Germany. She went to Germany with her brother, who lit the hanukkiah in the presence of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Büdenbender. The German president said that after the crimes against humanity that were committed on his soil, he regarded it as a privilege to host the descendants of Holocaust survivors kindling light that dispels the darkness of antisemitism. 

When the photograph was taken in 1931, her grandmother wrote on the back: “The [Nazi] flag says, ‘Yehuda will die.’ The Hanukkah light says, ‘Yehuda will live forever.’”

Dieulefit was an island of sanity in a world gone mad. Martin Gilbert’s book The Righteous demonstrates that there were people in every country who risked their lives and the lives of their families to act righteously. They reacted from their hearts and kept the flame alive. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God left you to complete; but if you only see what is wrong and ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.” 

The art of life is the ability to sustain contradictions: on the one hand, to recognize the staggering wickedness of so many throughout history, including our “enlightened” modernity; and on the other, the demonstrated capacity for empathy, self-sacrifice, and generosity of spirit. The hopeful among us try to focus on the positive part of that equation.  ■

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.