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Last updated July 26.

July 22, 2013 issue

Woman ‘righteous’ for saving Jewish children

Former Goshen professor honored for heroism while serving with MCC in France during the Holocaust

By Goshen College

GOSHEN, Ind. — It is still difficult to fully comprehend the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. During this time, many people refused to help or were indifferent to the suffering of an entire people. In 1941, Lois Mary Gunden Clemens was an exception.

Gunden Clemens

Gunden Clemens — Photo by Mennonite Church USA Archives

Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, recently recognized Gunden Clemens, an American Mennonite who helped save Jewish children in France during the Holocaust, as Righteous Among the Nations. She is only the fourth American (of more than 24,800 people throughout the world) to be honored.

Gunden Clemens, who died in 2005, was a 1936 Goshen College graduate and a French professor from 1939 to 1941 and 1944-58.

World War II

In 1941 Gunden Clemens joined Mennonite Central Committee and Secours Mennonite aux Enfants (Mennonite Relief for Children) to establish a children’s home in southern France. The children’s home became a safe haven for Spanish refugees as well as for Jewish children, many of whom were smuggled out of the nearby internment camp of Rivesaltes.

One of the Jewish children sheltered there was Ginette (Drucker) Kalish, who was born in 1930. Her family lived in Paris until July 1942, when the father was deported to Auschwitz. Managing to hide from the police, Ginette and her mother fled to the south of France but were caught on the train and taken to Rivesaltes.

It was there Gunden Clemens approached Ginette’s mother and pleaded with her to let her take the child out of the camp. Gunden Clemens convinced her that Ginette would be safer under her care, and Ginette’s mother decided to part from her child.

“At the time I was 12 years old and certainly scared,” Ginette Kalish told Yad Vashem, “but Lois Gunden was quite kind and passionately determined to take me and these other Jewish children out of Rivesaltes to protect them from harm… .

“I remember Lois Gunden being kind and generous, and she made a special effort to blend us in with the other children. None of the other children were told that we were Jewish.”

Far from her home, Gunden Clemens would show courage, ingenuity and intuitiveness as she rescued children. One morning while the children were out for a walk, a policeman arrived at the center to arrest three of the Jewish children — Louis, Armand and Monique Landesmann. Gunden Clemens told the policeman that the children were out and would not return until noon.

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