As I write this review, the world is experiencing a refugee crisis unmatched in its history. According to the United Nations, 22.5 million people have been displaced from their homes worldwide; more than half of that number are under 18 years old. In the United States, those escaping poverty and seeking safety are being turned away at the southern border, and in May, a new U.S. policy of separating children from their parents in immigrant holding camps means that countless families will be fractured, and the violence of separation, even if temporarily, will cause life-long trauma.
I couldn’t help but think of this contemporary context while reading Hanna Schott’s Love in a Time of Hate: The Story of Magda and André Trocmé and the Village That Said No to the Nazis. Schott’s extensively researched tale of courage in the face of evil and of the Trocmés’ willingness to harbor Jewish children during World War II is a prescient reminder that Christians are called to reach the least of these, even when doing so means disobeying authorities and their unjust laws.
Schott begins by exploring the early lives of Magda and André Trocmé, whose vastly different upbringings nonetheless informed a strong sense of righteousness and a distinct call to help those in need. Magda Grilli di Cortona was born into Italian aristocracy, although her mother died when she was only four weeks old. Her childhood was marked by loneliness, and the detachment of a grieving father, who remarried when Magda was 10, to a stepmother jealous of her spouse’s first love, and so of his daughter. When Magda graduated from a Catholic boarding school at age 18, she received the unexpected gift of passage to New York, rare at the time because of the First World War.
The decision to travel to a new country to study social work would change Magda’s life. It was there that she met André Trocmé, who grew up in a strict Protestant home characterized by earnest faith but “lacking in mercy — a piety that did not recognize forgiveness or grace.” The Battle of the Somme, fought near André’s home, became a pivotal moment in the young man’s life. Not only did he know people fighting on both sides of the trenches, he also met a German soldier, whose Christian witness and conscientious objection to war touched André deeply. This encounter would change the course of André’s life, and after compulsory military service (for which he refused any military duties), André traveled to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary.
Schott carefully lays the groundwork for what will follow in André’s and Magda’s lives: their awkward yet serendipitous meeting in New York; their decision to marry; God’s provision in unexpected places; and their sense that God was calling them to do important work, especially given their shared desire to reach those in need. Certainly there were roadblocks that stymied their trajectory, including André’s fears that Magda’s health might distract him from the hard labor of mission or pastoral work. André later reflected that “only in the course of time would I recognize the extraordinary love and endless commitment of which Magda was capable.”
That extraordinary love and endless commitment is a crucial characteristic in both André’s and Magda’s lives, especially after they settled in a small town in southern France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where André was called to pastor a Reformed Protestant church. André had been turned down for pastoral positions at several larger congregations, given his pacifist convictions, and the call to Le Chambon — with its long dreary winter, its isolation, its lack of culture — was not wholly alluring to the Trocmés, whose family would grow to four children. Nonetheless, the couple settled in and began their work, not knowing that in a few years their village and congregation would begin a life-saving mission.
The narrative turns toward the horrors of World War II and how a town and its Protestant minister became a haven for refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied France. André Trocmé had already established the theological groundwork for his congregation to welcome refugees, perhaps recognizing that war was imminent. When it became clear France would be embroiled in war, Trocmé turned to his understanding of nonresistance to inform his church about what to do in the face of Nazi aggression.
The congregation — indeed, all of Le Chambon — responded. The final part of Love in a Time of Hate outlines the extraordinary efforts of the Trocmés and the village to rescue Jewish children whose parents are being deported to concentration camps. This work required courage, not only for the Trocmés but for others in their community who resisted Nazi orders.
False identification documents were procured for the children. Families took in children as their own, changing their names. With wartime rationing, more children meant less food for each person in a family. The Trocmés established an extensive communication network requiring that Magda meet with other townspeople in her kitchen (the domestic scene served as a cover for subversive activity). These townspeople dispersed to other kitchens to spread news and strategies for refugee work.
These efforts did not come without costs, which Schott compellingly narrates. Not every young person in Le Chambon escaped deportation to concentration camps, nor did every adult escape the punishment of the German military. André Trocmé also spent some time in prison for his subversion of Nazi policies. And still, because of the work of the Trocmés and many others, the lives of countless Jewish children were spared, their humanity and dignity preserved because, as André Trocmé reflected, “in the end, good will triumph over evil.”
Schott relied extensively on the writings of André and Magda Trocmé to produce Love in a Time of Hate, but was also able to interview the children and grandchildren of those who lived in Le Chambon during the Second World War. Her use of these first-person accounts affords the rare opportunity of seeing history unfold and to understand the thoughts that informed the choices made by the Trocmés and their allies. Fundamentally, Love in a Time of Hate serves not only as a fascinating story but as a call to action for those who believe in working for justice and against evil.
The Trocmés bear witness to what it means to embrace unflinching courage when events demand it and also what it means to practice biblical nonresistance by overcoming evil with good. Given our current political climate, the global refugee crisis and the separation of children from their parents, Love in a Time of Hate points us to the brave work of loving those on the margins, even at great risk.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.