Obituary: Lesley Maber

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The Independent Culture
THE REMOTE village of Chambon-sur-Lignon at the northern end of the Cevennes has become the symbol of everything that was finest in occupied France.

Elsewhere there was betrayal or simple acceptance. But in Le Chambon, as it was called, there was a resistance to the persecution of the Jews that recalled the Huguenots of past times resisting their own persecution. The commune of Chambon was Protestant and its pastor, Andre Trocme, made it into a purposeful force. In 1990 it became the first community to be honoured as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority in Jerusalem.

Lesley Maber, who was English, was one of the heroines of Le Chambon. Women were particularly important in the village. It normally housed a population of about 1,000 people, with perhaps double that number living in surrounding farms and hamlets. Yet some 5,000 Jews were sheltered there, and whilst some could be crammed into cellars and attics, many of them were scattered over a wide area. In the neighbourhood there were also resistance groups, particularly from the beginning of 1943, when young men took to the hills rather than be conscripted for work in Germany.

Therefore there was always a problem of communication. Food and clothes had to be delivered, sometimes medicines and money and messages. This meant that there was continuous movement. For men this was particularly risky. They could be stopped and asked for their papers, whereas a woman carrying food and bundles of clothes was not in itself suspicious.

This was Chambon-sur-Lignon, where Lesley Maber found herself during the war years. She was a long-standing Christian Socialist who had always been attracted to the Continent, particularly to France. Having been a pupil at the North London Collegiate School, she went to university in Switzerland and France, taking a doctorate at the University of Lyons.

She was active in many educational ventures and in September 1939, when war broke out, she had taken a "colonie de vacances" to Le Chambon. She was uncertain what she should do, but she accepted Pastor Trocme's suggestion that she should stay there and help with the school, the College Cevenol, that he had created there. She helped with the teaching and with the boarding of boy pupils in her own "pension".

The school had always had a number of Jewish pupils. After the armistice of 1940 their numbers increased, partly because of Pastor Trocme's reputation of opposition to the Vichy government's early anti-Jewish legislation, partly because it was an ideal place for refuge. Soon organisations for the care of refugees and other Christian and Jewish welfare agencies were establishing lines of escape through the convents of Savoie to crossing points into Switzerland, so that Le Chambon was also part of the process of escape.

Lesley Maber played a full part in the life of this community. As Magda Trocme, the pastor's wife, used her boy scouts in order to keep in touch with everyone, Lesley Maber had her girl guides. She knew the dangers of her situation. She saw the Gestapo arrest Daniel Trocme, cousin of the pastor. He was taken away, to die in Majdanek. She herself was arrested and put on a train to an internment camp. But representations were made to the Prefect of the department, the Haute Loire. When he learned how some years earlier she had adopted two children who had been abandoned by their prostitute mother, he ordered that she should be released. The order was received in time. She left the train before it was diverted to Germany and its passengers sent to a terrible destination.

She returned to Le Chambon and continued to work as a teacher, nurse, distributor of food and false papers, contact with resistance groups and all the other tasks that befell this resolute woman, who after the liberation of France in 1944 rarely spoke of what she had done.

However she was angered by those whom she had helped write about Le Chambon (such as the American academic Philip Hallie and the film-maker Pierre Sauvage) when they suggested that Le Chambon was able to exist because of the benevolent attitude of the local German commander. It was true that some of the French police were particularly understanding. Another of Le Chambon's heroines, Madeline Barot, liked to explain how, when the French gendarmes had to make an arrest, they would stop in the cafe and discuss their intentions in loud voices. Half an hour later they would effect surprise to find that their intended victim had disappeared. But this comedy was not played by the Germans. Lesley Maber sought to put the record straight by writing her own memoirs, but she did not publish them (and she has confided them to her nephew, Dr Richard Maber of Durham University).

After the war she worked in a French factory, then returned to the College Cevenol, where she taught until 1971. Thus there were many generations of French schoolchildren and their parents who had every reason to remember her with affection. She was one of them, with all the qualities of devotion, courage and spirituality that are admired, whether one is French or British.

Douglas Johnson

Gladys Lesley Maber, teacher and wartime resister: born Crediton, Devon 20 July 1906; died Farnborough, Hampshire 6 January 1999.