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Obituary: Magda Trocme

There was once a president of the Republic who described the years of defeat and German occupation as a time when the French did not like each other. This was an odd way of describing a period when some 80,000 Jews were deported from France to the Nazi death camps. Only 3,000 ever returned.

It is true that well over half of them were Jews of foreign origin, so perhaps they did not count. But this was not simply a period of raids and round-ups, the forceful separation of mothers from their children, the organisation of trains and transit camps. It was also a time when many people devoted themselves to saving the Jews in spite of the personal dangers involved. Such a heroine, as she deserves to be called, was Magda Trocme, who has died at the age of 94.

Magda Grilli came from Italy but had Russian forbears. It appears that both in Russia and in Italy her family were well known as people who contested the authority of the state. She was with the Italian com- munity in New York when she met fellow Protestant Andre Trocme, who was studying at the Union Theological Seminary. They were married in 1925, and shortly afterwards Andre Trocme became the pastor at Le Chambon-sur- Lignon. It was here that the two of them were to create a haven for Jewish refugees during the war.

Le Chambon, as it was called, was a remote village in the department of the Haute-Loire, some 60 kilometres from Saint-Etienne. Frequently cut off from the outside world by snowdrifts during the winter, the village itself normally had a thousand people living there, but perhaps double that number lived in surrounding farms and hamlets.

As early as the winter of 1940 to 1941 some Jews and other refugees wandered into the village, probably by chance, although it could have been that Andre Trocme's reputation as a pacifist and a preacher against the discrimination of the Vichy government's early social laws attracted them.

By the spring of 1942, as the French police intensified its round-up of the Jews, usually at the bidding of the Germans, Le Chambon became much known as an ideal place of refugees. Some 5,000 Jews found shelter there.

Magda Trocme was particularly active in this work. In February 1943 Trocme and his fellow pastor were arrested for a month, but immediately went into hiding. Magda continued her husband's work and in no small measure contined to save lives.

Although she did not possess the Protestant memory of persecution in the Cevennes, she knew other traditions of resistance. She had worked in the Spanish camps, where refugees from Franco were placed, and in the terrible camp at Gurs, created for those Jews who had been deported from Germany.

In any case, much of the work at Le Chambon had to be done by women. Food and clothes had to be delivered, sometimes medicines and money. False papers had to be procured.

This meant that there was continuous movement. For men this was unwise. They would be stopped and asked for their papers. Women with large bundles were more easily accepted. Women too were often best at persuading those in official positions that a form could be given an official stamp or that a name on a list could be obliterated. Magda Trocme created an army of women helpers as well as organising the Protestant boy scouts of the region.

The outstanding success of this harem can only be explained by the solidarity of the village and the surrounding countryside, a solidarity which was the accomplishment of Andre and Magda Trocme. Andre died in Geneva in 1970.

He and his wife, after the war, had continued to work for the cause of peace and for religious unity. Their memory is kept alive in Israel.

It was Magda who told the story of Le Chambon, mainly to Americans, especially American Quakers. She also helped Pierre Sauvage with his film Weapons of the Spirit, first shown in America in 1989.

Magda Trocme requested that after her death, a service should be held in a French Protestant Church. Then that her ashes should be scattered in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Magda Grilli, humanitarian: born Florence 2 November 1902; married 1925 Andre Trocme (died 1970; one son, one daughter); died Paris 10 October 1996.