On Nazis, the Tulsa Race Riot, and the ties that bind
A conspiracy of goodness
Pierre Sauvage in 1990 with rescuers Marie Brottes and Henri Héritier
At Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, there is a tree-lined path leading to the Hall of Remembrance. This path has a name—“The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations”—and it honors those Gentiles who saved Jews during World War II. As then-Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir said at the opening of the complex and during the installation of the first 11 trees, “The Jewish people remember not only the villains, but also every small detail of the rescue attempts.” She compared the path to “drops of love in an ocean of poison,” adding that the people honored there “rescued not only the lives of Jews, but had saved hope and the faith in the human spirit.”
Twenty-seven hundred miles north and west from Jerusalem is Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south-central France, where 70 years ago residents of the area provided 5,000 Jews with refuge from the Nazis. In 1990, Israel recognized the inhabitants of Le Chambon as “righteous among the nations.”
All of them.
Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage was one of those saved. He was born in Le Chambon (he called his birth “singularly lucky”) after his parents arrived from Marseille in 1942, as the rest of his extended family was being murdered in Nazi death camps. In 1987, he wrote, produced, and directed the documentary “Weapons of the Spirit,” a film, he says, celebrating the “conspiracy of goodness” of this mountain community. What made the story remarkable—a story he says he was comfortable telling only because his parents kept from him the details of their struggles and his birth—was the “high-minded Gentiles who risked their lives for Jews.”
It was that story—and the story of the film’s re-release—that brought him to Tulsa on November 9 and 10, during the 79th commemoration Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass,” which refers to a night of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place throughout Germany in 1938). Of those high-minded Christians in Le Chambon, Sauvage says they were not part of an organized resistance.
It was organic.
“Yes, there the peasants and villagers turned no one away, betrayed no one, attempted to convert no one. There was something to be done, and they just did it. No big deal. It was who they were.”
But Sauvage came to Tulsa not just for the film, or Kristallnacht, but also to explore what Tennessee Williams called “the kindness of strangers.” He came, as well, to find out more about Tulsa’s own shame in 1921—The Tulsa Race Riot. Before arriving, Sauvage made contact with Hannibal Johnson, read Johnson’s “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” and was reminded of how familiar he’d been with the inhumanity depicted in the book. In a speech at the Charles Schusterman Jewish Community Center the day after the re-release of the film at Circle Cinema, with Johnson in the audience, Sauvage quoted John Hope Franklin.
“Perhaps the very first thing we need to do as a nation and as individual members of society,” Franklin writes, “is to confront our past and see it for what it is.”
A dinner for Sauvage and Johnson was arranged.
For reasons still not clear, I was invited, as well.
Over lamb-chop lollipops, kale Caesar salads, and warm cider, we bemoaned Trump and the coarsening of America. Johnson brought up the Cherokee Freedmen and affirmative action; Sauvage talked of assimilation
They had never met, but they knew each other.
“It was as though we’d known one another for a long time,” Johnson told me later.
“I visited the remarkable Greenwood Cultural Center and the once-thriving Greenwood District of your city,” Sauvage said at the commemoration. “It is inescapable to recall your own Kristallnacht, what we Jews would call ‘the pogrom’—a horrendous pogrom—that occurred here in 1921 and was then kept out of public consciousness for a very long time, with responsibility for the crime being stubbornly and massively ducked. I know that you don’t need a visitor to recall—but again, I would be remiss, in this context, not to do so—that several hundred blacks were murdered over one night and day, many thousands later persecuted, more than a thousand homes and businesses and churches savagely destroyed, strewing the streets and homes of Greenwood with their own broken glass.”
“One of the things I like about the Sherwin Miller Museum,” Johnson told me, “is that it included a Klan robe and reference to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It’s the connectivity—the shared experiences around hate—that can and should draw us together. I’m a big believer in the King quote, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ African Americans and Jews share a rich civil rights history in America, from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 to the 1960s King era and beyond.”
Sauvage heard those echoes.
“I prefer to be as blunt as I can about the past and let the possible analogies waft into people's consciousness. But, yes, the challenge to us will always be to be mindful of the past’s relevance to us.”
From Johnson’s “Black Wall Street”:
It was a sorry sight indeed: Black Tulsans, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, streaming out of the ruins of their community—a community known nationwide as a model of and center for African-American industry, commerce, and collaboration. They marched involuntarily, heads bowed low, not in humility but in humiliation. They marched involuntarily, hands held high, not in salutation but in surrender. Among the ‘Negro’ masses, class no longer existed. Black was black—doctor, lawyer, laborer, or thief—it simply no longer mattered … Almost one half of Tulsa’s African-American citizens found themselves held captive, and under armed guard. They were the defeated prisoners of a civil war, the enemy by virtue of skin color.
And from Sauvage at the commemoration:
“I am a 73-year-old European-born Jew, and that means that at the time of my birth, much of my family was humiliated, tortured, and murdered while the world watched. Those facts, far from receding in importance with every passing year, somehow seem to me to loom ever larger in my consciousness.”
The brotherhood of captivity and humiliation, of Jews and African-Americans, of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Greenwood.
“What surprised me,” Sauvage said of those who took in his family, “is that far from being ‘selfless’—a misleading term I never use—the people of Le Chambon derived great strength from having a strong and clear sense of self. Wouldn’t that be the opposite of ‘selflessness’?”
Johnson, too, wrote of Tulsans during the riot who “exhibited empathy and compassion for their defeated African-American brothers and sisters,” like Tulsans Sam and Rose Zarrow, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, who sheltered fleeing blacks.
“The common denominator is a sense of shared humanity,” Johnson said.
Sauvage says the dynamic in Le Chambon was often inexplicable.
“When I was researching the story, I was struck that even the apparent ‘bad guys’ acted better than they should have. I couldn’t help wondering if that meant that there could be conspiracies of goodness, just as there are the evil kinds.
“It reminds me of Anne Frank’s line,” I said to him, “the sweetly naive, ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.’”
“I think this is different from Anne Frank's somewhat puzzling commitment to the goodness of people,” Sauvage said. “My own feeling is that there is at least a little goodness in all of us; the challenge to us is to identify it and cultivate it. But I think that’s different from believing that people are fundamentally good.”
Within the people of Le Chambon, he found that goodness. More specifically, he found the Christ in Christianity.
“I shaped portraits of the Christians of Le Chambon that, while accurate, I think (and nobody has contested them, including the people themselves), were influenced by my desire to stress aspects of Christian belief that resonate the most to me. Thus there is relatively little ‘Jesus talk,’ because what interested me is what these people did.”
Something else was at work. After Germany invaded and bisected France, the Nazis knew there were Jews in Le Chambon. Why were they saved when so many weren’t?
Was it Providence? Luck?
“It may have been good luck that the German officer responsible for that area of France was not a committed anti-Semite who might have done great harm,” said Sauvage. “On the other hand, it may also have been that he was influenced by the fact that Le Chambon was, for the most part, acting nonviolently. While luck unquestionably plays a role in people’s lives—Holocaust survivors frequently invoke it to explain their survival—my own inclination is to think that its importance is exaggerated.”
So what did we learn, not just from the horrors perpetuated by Nazis, but by those who burned down Black Wall Street?
When asked what the Holocaust taught the world, Elie Wiesel answered, “You can get away with it.”
For Sauvage, the answers—the few he has—came only after he found his identity.
“Before turning 18, I was not Jewish, I was not Christian. Nothing.”
Even now, even after renegotiating his faith, he doesn’t dwell on the questions of how a just God could allow such a thing.
“I’m not religious, so the issue of God and the Holocaust is not a pressing one for me.”
But it was for other members in his family.
“When my son was four, he turned to me one morning during breakfast and asked me—I vividly remember this exchange—whether God helped during the Holocaust. I didn’t know how to answer and thought he would be satisfied with a somewhat dismissive response. ‘Well, he didn't do very much,’ I said. My son did not relent: ‘But did he help a little?’ he persisted.
“I agreed—and still do.”