MCLL Gets Up Close and Personal with Nelly Trocmé

2013-2014 Issue 2

Magda and André Trocmé Resistance FiguresNelly Trocmé-Hewett has a story people are clamouring to hear, and the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning (MCLL) was lucky enough to score a front-row seat.

It’s the story of her parents, Magda and André Trocmé, two residents of France’s remote Plateau Vivarais-Lignon who helped inspire its citizens to protect an estimated 3,500 Jews during the Second World War. Nelly gave five talks on the event in Montreal, one in an intimate classroom setting on McGill campus. Now 87 years old, she has a youthfulness that gives vitality to her family’s story.

Her parents met in New York City at Columbia University; both were very cultured and spoke several languages. Her father, a Protestant minister, was a conscious objector and a pacifist, which earned him a dangerous reputation. As a result he had difficulty finding work, and was only able to find a temporary position through unofficial channels. As a result the family of six settled in Chambon-sur-Lignon, a poor village in the mountains of south-central France. Nelly was seven years old when they arrived, and she would live in France until the age of 19.

Nelly remembers it as a busy time. Her father was busy in church and co-founding a local high school, while her mother housed boarders, taught language classes and aided in refugee emergencies. “The household was a zoo, but it was a normal life for me,” says Nelly.

Behind closed doors, however, all was not what it seemed. While Vichy France conducted mass arrests and deportations, the villagers were providing refuge to Jews. Individuals, couples, children and entire families were taken in by ordinary citizens of all backgrounds. Few questions were asked, and “there are no real examples of betrayal,” said Nelly. “Those who were not participating did not squeal.” Some of those who helped are featured in the 1985 documentary Weapons of the Spirit, which accompanied her talk. Perhaps the most striking aspects of the film are the reflections of Chambon residents, who look back on their historic actions as simply the right thing to do.

Nelly has a similarly matter-of-fact attitude. “My life is nothing like my parents,” she says. “I’ve led a very ordinary life,” immigrating to America as an au-pair, raising a family in Minneapolis-St. Paul and teaching French. She continues to share her parents’ story so more can learn about the other side of the Holocaust. “It is good that they teach it, but they should also teach about those who are saved,” she says. “Some good did happen during the Holocaust.”

Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures, written by Pierre Boismorand and published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, is a compilation of the couple’s writings presented chronologically in their historical context; copies are available at the McGill Bookstore. A 25th-anniversity edition of Weapons of the Spirit, produced by Pierre Sauvage, will be released in 2015.

Part of the McGill School of Continuing Studies, MCLL is for those who want to continue learning for the joy of it. Visit the MCLL website for information on registration and their Winter 2015 Calendar.


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