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.
Mary A. Hood is a professor emerita at the University of West Florida, a poet, as well as a talented writer. She is the author of The Strangler Fig and Other Tales: Field Notes of a Conservationist and Rivertime: Ecotravel on the World’s Rivers. In addition to books, she has published several collections of poetry, general articles on conservation and the environment, and scientific articles in the field of microbial ecology. Her newest book, Walking Seasonal Roads, was published in May and has received glowing reviews.
“With a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s heart, Mary Hood re-animates a sense of place in Walking Seasonal Roads.”—Edward A. Dougherty
Has writing Walking Seasonal Roads helped to shape your own identity?
“At my age, I imagine my identity is already pretty-much shaped, but writing “Walking Seasonal Roads” has not only helped clarify my ideas on the value of Place and Home, but has given me a sense of gratitude for the beauty of this area. Having traveled the world (logging in at 45 countries) I would claim this region as probably the most beautiful I have ever experienced.”
How have roads led you to reflect on your personal life?
“We all know that walking is good for both body and soul. Meditative walking has long been a valuable spiritual practice and a worthy activity for reflective thought. To walk and experience the natural world seasonal roads offer seems the ideal process for examining and reflecting on life in general and on one’s own life, in particular.”
What is your favorite road?
“My favorite seasonal roads are probably those in the Pulteney highlands because they run through such diverse landscapes, forests, ponds, fallow fields, pastureland and crop fields.”
Writing about a subject matter such as roads may seem simple yet complex in all actuality. What were your biggest challenges in your experiences and research for this book?
“The biggest challenge to writing this book was to make it work on multiple levels, to make it work as descriptive nature writing, as a history of other nature writers, as a little bit of a personal narrative and memoir, and as a calling forth of our responsibility to sustain our natural world.”
Were you inspired by any other author or novelist to write this book?
“There are so many fine and crafted writers today that it’s hard to say who has been the most inspiring. Our own New York writers, Diane Ackerman, Robin Kimmerer, and Linda Underhill have to be counted. And others, Barbara Hurd, Mary Swander, to list a few, have certainly influenced my writing.”
What have you learned while writing Walking Seasonal Roads?
“Probably the most interesting thing I learned while writing about seasonal roads is how differently we treat our land; the spectrum ranges from grass roots efforts at conservation by such folks as private landowners and the Finger Lakes Land Trust to loggers to corporate gas drilling via hydrofracking.”
If you’re interested in joining Mary Hood on her dirt road travels, Walking Seasonal Roads is available for purchase on the Syracuse University Press website.
Using a narrative style, best-selling novelist Laila Halaby passionately promotes poetry as a means for change. In my name on his tongue, Halaby, who was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother, processes the world through her words and stories. She transforms her personal experiences into moving poems which reflect her insights on peace, war, family, and hope for change.
The title, my name on his tongue, is very intriguing and piques curiosity among those who pick up your book. Why did you choose this specific title, echoed by unconventional orthography? (e. e. Cummings)
“when we were trying to come up for a title for my second novel, once in a promised land, I remember my editor telling me that I needed to look within the book, that the title was already there. I did exactly that with my name on his tongue, as it originally had a title that didn’t work well (I can’t remember what it was) and in retrospect it seems as though it was always sitting there waiting for me.”
Displacement seems to be the strongest theme of the book. Are there multiple intended audiences other than people who are torn between two cultures?
“I have never written with my audience in mind. I write what I write and whoever finds it interesting reads it. I don’t like the idea that only people who have experienced two cultures would want to pick this up. rather, I’d like to think that anyone would find it accessible.”
What are the most important attributes in creating such a raw, personal , and witty composition of poems?
Does the front cover illustration on “my name on his tongue” represent you in any way?
“no. not at all.”
“I have traveled off and on over the years and some of that wanders into the poems. pretty much everything wanders into poems.”
Which poem was the easiest to write? The hardest?
“I’m not sure I can break it down quite so simply. there were some poems that took more effort to get the words just right (I am thinking ‘taking a moment to thank our sponsors’) and there were others that took more structural effort (‘the journey’ was originally a talk that I gave). these poems span about twenty years and how I approach poetry, writing in general, has probably changed some over that time.”
Your poems are divided into two chapters: “No matter how much za’atar you eat, you still gotta work to be an Arab/writer/woman” and “My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire…” Both reference female struggles- do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
“I’m not good with labels, so no, I don’t consider myself a feminist. but then I don’t really consider myself an arab-american. I suppose if I need to be labeled then some of those terms apply, but I don’t think of it that way. my view of the first section reference my own struggles. the last section reference struggles in general.”
In your letter to Barack Obama, you wrote “you can see both sides of a situation because you are both sides.” How has navigating between two cultures helped you to view the world differently?
“being from two worlds means you are given two sets of eyes with which to view the world. I think it has given me the tools to step out of myself and be able to see situations more clearly — and not just as they relate to culture.”
Your writing in “my name on his tongue” is very stimulating, sometimes wistful, and passionate. Do you consider yourself to be a painter of words or categorize yourself as something other than a writer?
“a label question. I write. I have high standards for myself and take it seriously, but I don’t categorize myself one way or the other.”
Laila Halaby’s my name on his tongue: poems was published last month (May 22) and is available for purchase on the Syracuse University Press website.
“The book explores the life, times and legacy of the extraordinary playwright and activist Jacob Gordin. Gordin, born in Ukraine in 1953, was a newspaper editor and leader of a utopian community before fleeing to New York in 1891, at the age of 38. Only weeks after his arrival, he began for the first time to write for the theatre and in Yiddish. To the benefit of his greatest collaborator Jacob Adler and other actors of titanic talent, he created 70 or 80 plays and musicals, as well as writing countless short stories, lecturing and founding schools and dramatic societies. By 1900, his plays were being performed around the world, and he had become one of the two most revered men on the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, the other was Abraham Cahan, editor of the “Jewish Daily Forward” and Gordin’s bitter enemy. Cahan launched a vicious vendetta against the playwright in 1908, as Gordin succumbed to cancer. He died a year later, at the age of 56.
Jacob Gordin was the father of 11 children, the eighth of whom, Nadia or Nettie, was my grandmother.”
What motivated you to start writing Finding the Jewish Shakespeare?
“I grew up with a mystery: every summer, when we went from Halifax to New York to visit my father’s family, my grandmother Nettie would speak adoringly of her father. She showed me the Encyclopedia Judaica,whichreported that a quarter of a million people flooded the streets on the day of Gordin’s funeral, to watch his cortege go by.
And yet her first-born son, my scientist father whose name was Jacob Gordin Kaplan, spoke of his grandfather with scorn, and so did his younger brother, Edgar Kaplan, a world bridge champion. I could not understand why these two brilliant men were so disparaging about their famous and beloved ancestor. When I began to look into Gordin’s life, I discovered that though there were chapters dedicated to his fascinating life in books about the era, there was no full-scale biography. I decided to write one, and in so doing, to solve the mystery of my father’s disparagement.”
What was your intended audience for this book?
“Of course, scholars interested in the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture and theatre, and Jewish scholars generally. But also anyone interested in family history and American history, in theatre generally, in history generally. Anyone interested in an enthralling life.”
What do you find most appealing about this book?
“I have to say, the production of the book is stellar; Syracuse University Press did a fantastic job, and the physical object is a thing of beauty. As for what’s inside – well, I hope that the power of the story transports readers to a remarkable time and place, and I hope to have resurrected a monumental man who had been consigned to oblivion. I think there is humour and fluidity in the writing; several of the reviews say the work is “elegant,” which has a nice ring. And, as well as the biographical focus of the book, there is also what I hope is the compelling personal story of my and my family’s connection to the man.”
What do you hope the audience will take out of reading your book?
“I hope they get a taste of the extraordinary early years of the last century, as Eastern European Jews, most of them penniless, flooded into America and within a few years achieved spectacular success. In the middle of that flood was my great-grandfather, a flawed but magnificent man and playwright, a beacon to his people. This was a thrilling era in all ways, but particularly in the Yiddish theatre, which became the vital heart of the Lower East Side. The actors and writers were giant personalities of immense talent and ambition, not just to make good in America, but to create lasting art, and, in my great-grandfather’s case, to change the world.
And in his way, as I hope is clear by the end of the book, he did.”
The paperback edition of Finding the Jewish Shakespeare waspublished thismonth. To learn more about Beth Kaplan, you may visit her website at www.bethkaplan.ca.