Pastor Pierre-Charles Toureille (1900-1976)

The pastor Pierre-Charles Toureille (1900-1976), was greatly marked by the first World War and the creation of Czechoslovakia, campaigned for friendship between the nations. When the Second World War erupted he committed himself to the french organization for international help for war refugees, who were the more often than not Jewish. For this engagement he received the „Médal of Justice“ in 1973.

The discovery of the Slav world

  • Pierre-Charles Toureille (1900-1976) © Collection privée

Pierre-Charles Toureille was born in Nimes on the 5th of May 1900. His father was the director of the city excise and duties office. His mother, born Léonie Bastide, is known during the first world war for  helping and taking car of injured persons, particularly the Slav soldiers who arrived in Nimes. At 15 years, Pierre-Charles worked also as a voluntary in the military hospital : this was his first determining contact with the Slav world and the beginning of his fascination for Slav languages. From this moment he decided to become a pastor.

He went to the faculty of theology in 1919 in Montpellier and two years later in Strasbourg, in the State university where he improved in Czech language and literature. He passed a study year in Prague in 1920-21 payed by a grant he received from the  Czech government where he translated into French the works of Thomas Mazaryk, who was the first Czech président of this young republic. 1924 he stayed one year at the Bratislava university and presented his theses in Strasbourg about Jan Hus, the Czech forerunner of the reformation.

The foreign protestant chaplain

  • The Toureille family in Crest in 1939-40
    The Toureille family in Crest in 1939-40 © Collection privée

P.-C. Toureille became a pastor in Bourdeaux (Drôme) and in Congénies (Gard). As he was part of the generation which suffered greatly of the Great War, he became an active peace militant. In 1931 he was designated head of the youth commitee in the universal alliance for international friendship by the churches, which is an association founded in 1914 just before the First World War. As he secretary of the organization in France and South America, he traveled often. In 1932  met the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

When the Second World War started, Toureille was enlisted in an ammunitions factory and then in December 39, he became military chaplain for a group of soldiers of the foreign legion and for the protestant members of the International Brigade returned from Spain. After the defeat of 1940 the Ecumenical Church Council in Geneva and the Protestant Federation of France named him general chaplain for foreign protestants in France. His superior in Geneva was the pastor Adolph Freudenberg; Toureille also worked with the CIMADE who worked actively in the refugee camps in France. The scope of his chaplaincy work was vast: all of the south of France, from Nice to the Pyrenees and North Africa. Nearly twelve thousand parishioners were under his responsibility.

P.-C. Toureille established his family and his office in Lunel (Hérault) to be  beyond the reach of the insistant monitoring of the Vichy regime’s secret service . His presence in Lunel was discret and he didn’t take on any local responsibility . He was surrounded by volunteers so that from 1941 he had at least two partners who were theological students in Montpellier. Itheir task was to organise urgent assistance, to recover the members of dispersed families, to give supplies and to send money to those who had lost everything… The subsidies come from Switzerland, the USA and France and the funds needed to be managed on a daily basis.

Help for Jewish

  • Pastor Toureille at his office at the Chaplaincy of Lunel in 1943 © Collection privée

In theory, all the beneficiaries were protestant refugees, they came from Germany, Austria or Central Europe. But this charitable work was soon transformed into a rescue operations for foreign Jews threatened by the French police.

The clandestine activities of Toureille are the hidden side of his official activities. Toureille often went to Vichy, to ask for support and subsidiaries of from the French government. The clandestine work consisted in helping prisoners who escaped the camps to disappear into the nature with false identity papers  and false baptismal certificates, to escort them to a frontier or through smuggling networks who escorted them to Spain or Switzerland.

Several Gestapo perquisitions took place in Toureille’s office but to his exceptional memory, Toureille didn’t leave any materiel traces of his clandestine activities. The whole unofficial management of his Jewish parishioners was  committed to memory. In 1943, Toureille contacted Herbert Steinschneider (alias Seguy), a bilingual French-German theological student. Toureille asked him to visit German Jews in Lyon and Grenoble in his university holidays and to escort them to the Swiss frontier. For these activities, Toureille received  a number of medals:

  • The medal FFL (French Free Forces), given by Antoine Rybak, head ofthe French-Czech resistant network and the medal of the French resistance
  • La Vokenska Medaila za Zasluhui ( military medal of merit) of the Czech government and the White Lion presented by President Benes
  • In 1969, the big „Verdienstkreuz“ proposed by the Chancellor Willy Brandt (which is the highest german civil decoration that can be given to a foreigner).
  • Finally, in 1973 he received the title Righteous among the nations.

After the war

At the Libération of Paris, Toureille was 45 years old. The chaplaincy of foreigners was dissolved, Toureille decided to go to Czechoslovakia, that he called his second homeland. The shame of the Munich agreements in tracks him : he asks for the Czech nation’s forgiveness as a Frenchman and as a christian for giving in face to Hitler. He obtains his doctorate in theology of the Bratislava University in 1947. The jewish community of Bratislava honoured him for helping and saving a lot of Jews.

Worried about the future of Czechoslovakia and Soviet influence, he left the country and became, in 1947,  pastor of the French protestant church of Washington (USA). In 1955, he and his family received American nationality. Toureille then left for the Congo, in the name of the American presbyterian church . But in 1960, the decolonisation put an end to his mission. Toureille came back to Europe where he taught French, History and Geography in  various French and Swiss Colleges. From 1964 to 1973, he moved to Morges (Switzerland), and became the secretary for Europe of the Leprosy Mission.

In 1973, Toureille retired to Anduze (Gard), where he died on October the 31st, 1976.


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    Associated notes