Author Spotlight: Richard P. Unsworth

Book: A Portrait of Pacifists: Le Chambon, The Holocaust, and the Lives of André and Magda Trocmé

Richard P. Unsworth is a senior fellow at the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith College. He has taught religion at Smith College and Dartmouth College, and served as headmaster and president of Northfield Mount Hermon School. His years of involvement with the Collège Cévenol in France led to a friendship with André and Magda Trocmé. His recent book on the lives of the Trocmés, A Portrait of Pacifists, was published in April 2012 and has received excellent reviews.

Tell us about A Portrait of Pacifists: Le Chambon, the Holocaust, and the Lives of André and Magda Trocmé.

“This stand-alone biography tells the story of a French couple who lived a life of non-violence in the war-saturated twentieth century.  André was a Reformed Church pastor and Magda a well-educated Italian Protestant whose career was in social work. Their childhood saw the Great War in France, the collapse of the German monarchy, the death of the abdicated Russian Tzar and his family, and Italy’s fragile and final monarchy.  They were still young when Benito Mussolini came to power and Adolph Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. When the Trocmés came to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in 1934, they began a saga of non-violent resistance that persisted throughout the years of World War II. Their subsequent career in Versailles and Geneva was marked by their witness to non-violence in the Cold War years, and their determination to teach the practice of peace in North Africa, Japan, Vietnam and the United States.”

When did you first become aware of the story of André and Magda Trocmé and what inspired you to write this book?      

I became aware of the Trocmé story in 1954, when I was asked to join an organization called American Friends of the Collège Cévenol. The members gathered funds for scholarships and invited young Americans to participate in summer programs at the Collège Cévenol, a French lycée-level school the Trocmés and their colleagues founded in 1938 in Le Chambon. We were bound to become friends with the Trocmés as well, since they made visits to our group whenever they could.

In 1961, I became more involved with them when I was appointed as the American Representative of the Collège and was more involved in this unique international project. My visits in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and theirs in New England brought us together in this common enterprise. They were often in our home and I in theirs. Our conversations left me with a haunting necessity to write their biography whenever I might be able to undertake the research and writing.

Another source of inspiration was my contact with Philip Hallie, a professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Wesleyan University. As an ethicist, he gave his every effort to understand evil, especially the evil that was inevitable in war. After all, he himself had killed others in World War II while an artillery gunner who shot into German troops, and he knew evil lay therein. One day he came on a short article about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an article that sent him home weeping that evening. Hallie somehow found that I had a relationship with Le Chambon, and knew some of its unique character. That article and several conversations with me and others like me, prompted him to go to Le Chambon and talk with everyone he could about the way their village was different than most others. His book, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed: the story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there. (Harper and Row, 1979) is still in print.

A further inspiration was a conversation with Magda Trocmé one afternoon in New York’s Riverside Drive. André had died a few months earlier. As we walked, she pointed out the International House, where foreign students could live while studying in New York, and where she and André met. She went on to tell me some of what that relationship had meant throughout her life. I knew, after that conversation, that I would certainly have to write this biography.  The inspiration was still there after Magda died in 1996, and I sought the support of the two remaining Trocmé children, Nelly and Jacques, in my intention to write this book.”

How would you characterize your own relationship with the Trocmés?

“My relationship with these two was a warm one from the day I set foot in Versailles and their home, called the Mill of Peace, or Maison de la Reconciliation. I had taken a “red eye” flight to the Paris airport, so Magda greeted me warmly and practically, saying “you’re an American, so you need bacon and eggs for breakfast.” Once sure that I was adequately fed, André started his plan for the day: to show me the educational difference between typical French schools and the Collège Cévenol.

André put me in his long black pre-war Citroen and drove me into Paris, at illegal speeds, to see three schools, one a public day school, another a typical Catholic school and the third a residential public school.  We then met with a Parisian leader in the Worker Priest movement, an exciting movement that no longer had Papal consent, largely because the worker-priests had close ties with the Communist Party. You can appreciate André’s support however, since he understood their ministry to the community of laborers. He wanted me to know at least one of these radical clergy.

Perhaps that gives the reader a sense of our personal relationship.”

Tell us about the process of writing this book. 

“The process was complex, but then so was the material. A biography is more complex than some other books. The writer wants to be true to the persons, the way they were shaped by others close to them, their critical experiences and aspirations. For me, the key to the process was laying out the potential chapters in a fashion that would give a reader an appetite for knowing the persons and then being sure not to spoil their appetite by buckets of facts.

In the case of the Trocmés, it is not hard to keep an appetite. They were characters who had many sides, and room in their minds and hearts for nearly every sort of person they encountered.

At the end of the war, for example, about 120 German soldiers had been captured and kept by French police as prisoners of war in an old chateau just outside Le Chambon. With the permission of the German Commandant, André went to that semi-prison every Sunday afternoon and conducted a service of worship. He wasn’t there to treat the prisoners with revenge or contempt, but as persons whose human souls and dignity were important. He took with him a basket of as much fruit and bread as he could carry, and preached pretty much the same sermon he had preached that morning in his church.

In short, the process of writing began with key persons being painted with a truthful brush.”

What was your main source of information for research?

“Writing this book involved five sources: personal interviews with Trocmé friends and family members in France, Switzerland and the United States; collecting a raft of books that touch the Trocmé story in any significant way; putting together a lengthy collection of Trocmé-related photographs that introduced me more vividly to the personalities involved; collecting documents that represented the mass of material they recorded and saved during their life; and getting permissions for the use of photos and direct quotations.

Personal interviews were fun. Those that took place in the Paris area were gratifying, as were those I interviewed in Geneva and Le Chambon and its surroundings. But there were others interviews scattered around France. Thanks still go to Jacques Trocmé, who drove me through about 20% of southern France in search of the most important interviewees. Collecting the books I needed (and a few that wasted my time) was easy enough, given the libraries I searched and the many librarians who found ways to find what I couldn’t find by myself.

Documents? Since virtually all the Trocmé papers had been placed in the Peace Collection of the Library at Swarthmore College, the archivist, Wendy Chmielewski, was perennially helpful.  I owed most to Nelly Trocmé Hewett, who copied and sent innumerable documents still in the family collection.

Then there were those permissions. Ah, permissions! The editors didn’t tell me about permissions until I started asking for them in several parts of the United States and Europe. Then my immediate editor told me this might be the longest part of the process. She was wrong. The longest part was eliminating parts of the writing that I had thought were worth including, until my wife and/or my editor pointed out the wordy and clumsy parts here and there.  They shrank the book from about 450 pages to 328 pages.”

André and Magda Trocmé were ardent supporters of a nonviolent lifestyle. Do you believe that this pacifist ideal is still relevant and attainable in our modern climate?

“Yes, pacifism is relevant and attainable. But let’s not assume that it is simply a nonviolent stance in the presence of an army of humans gone crazy with their guns. Rather, pacifism is a commitment to weave the fabric of peace day-by-day and item-by-item.

Two key figures in this book, Edouard Theis and André Trocmé, made that clear to me in person. Both these men refused the use of violence; but more to the point, they sought every option that might create peace. I recall to this day a conversation with Theis in which he insisted that pacifism is that kind of daily discipline.

One of the stories in this book recalls the day that Theis and Trocmé were told they could be released from the detention camp at St Paul d’Eyjeaux. They had only to sign a document that required them to swear obedience to the Vichy government and pledge their personal support to Marshal Pétain. They refused. “If we make that pledge and then break it, we make ourselves liars and that is a violation of the ninth commandment. We are forbidden to bear false witness.”  For them, pacifism was relevant and attainable but might have cost them their lives. Next morning, the prison commandant told them to take their gear and leave. He wanted nothing to do with their complicated moral convictions.

For most of us, pacifism is attainable, but we don’t bother to keep that pacifist discipline day-by-day and item-by-item.”

Did you learn anything about yourself through the process of writing this book?  How has this book helped to shape your own identity? 

“I have written lectures, essays, articles and books, but not until I wrote this biography did I really learn the arts of patience and endless inquiry when in search of the persons whose story this is. I learned that empathy, objectivity and accuracy are the imperatives of a biography.

And I learned something else: I am the last one to describe my own identity. Someone else will have to do that. I can only hope they get it right.”

What do you hope the reader gains from this book?

“From the outset, I have said that this book was written for the “general reader.” However, there are only “general readers,” people who see distinct purposes in what they find in the book. I have been made alert to several readers having gained more than an interesting piece of history, but something that asks a response in their present lives.

One reviewer said the book “brings us a little closer to a world without genocide, and that’s the true measure of this book.” Another says “The importance of this book is that it places the Trocmés accurately in context…. Andre and Magda Trocmé are well served by this book, but so are the people of the Plateau.” Yet another says, “A Portrait of Pacifists is as relevant today as when André and Magda lived it. Their finding and living the Truth is pertinent to where we find the World today.” An aged woman, who continues her public protests against war, wrote me a note saying, “reading this book will keep us all aware of the importance of working for peace in Afghanistan, Iraq and so many places in the Middle East.” And several reviewers noted for obvious reasons that this book is of special interest to Jews.

If even a few readers gain responses like these, I will be more than gratified.”

Unsworth’s detailed biography, A Portrait of Pacifists: Le Chambon, The Holocaust, and the Lives of André and Magda Trocmé, can be found at the Syracuse University Press website.

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3 responses

  1. Elizabeth Alexander

    Thank you, Syracuse Press! This interview absolutely reflects the amazing individual, Richard P. Unsworth, whom I first encountered 38 years ago as a student at Smith. In the pulpit of Helen Hills Hills Chapel and by his own example, “the Rev” gently, persistently, and effectively prodded students to confront our prejudices and expand the sphere of our concerns. He was our André Trocmé.

    October 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm

  2. Nancy

    To: Elizabeth Alexander.

    Hello. You write English so well and beautifully. Anything you write I think could captivate an audience. We have had so much bad writing these days, it would be a treat to read good writing through magazines and books especially since we have an influx of Europeans coming in for English literacy.

    Not being a francophile anymore because of heavy reading list which got criticized later, I think it best to give French things to Islamic going there as refugees.

    January 10, 2013 at 12:14 am

  3. Maria

    Much of literary talk and writing is limited to tuition and campuses, and even that is phasing away. But I think good and positive things need to be uttered to a broader audience through mass media like radio and TV to decrease education gaps, especially among females that eventually hurt us later.

    January 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

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