Lois Gunden risked her own safety to protect the lives of Jewish children at risk of being killed by the Nazis during World War II.The American Mennonite is now being recognized posthumously by Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, for risking her life for the benefit of others.
Gunden has been chosen to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations, those non-Jews who risked their own safety to save Jews from Germany’s genocidal campaign to exterminate them.
Originally from Goshen, Indiana, Gunden — in 1941 at the age of 26 — traveled to southern France to serve with the Mennonite Central Committee.
She was tasked with setting up a children’s home in Canet Plage, located on the Mediterranean coast where refugee children including those from Jewish families who were smuggled in were welcomed, according to Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem explains, “Far from her home, Gunden would show great courage, ingenuity and intuitiveness, as she rescued children of a different nationality, religion and background.”
One morning while the children were out for a walk, a policeman showed up at the children’s home to arrest three Jewish children, Louis, Armand and Monique Landesmann.
Yad Vashem writes that her delaying tactics paid off:
Gunden told the police that the children were out and would not return until noon. At noon the policeman appeared again and ordered her to pack the children’s belongings and prepare them for travel. This time Gunden told him that their clothing was still being laundered and would not be dry until the late afternoon. Gunden testified that throughout that day and evening she prayed for wisdom, guidance, and the safety of the three children. The officer never returned and the children were saved.
Twelve-year-old Ginette (Drucker) Kalish fled with her mother from Paris to the south of France after her father was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. They were captured by police on a train and sent to Rivesaltes, an internment camp near the Mennonite children’s home.
Yad Vashem explains how Gunden rescued the girl:
It was there that Lois Gunden approached Ginette’s mother and pleaded with her to let her take the child out of the camp. While hesitant at first, Gunden managed to convince 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.”
In January 1943, Gunden herself was arrested by the Germans not to be released until the next year in a prisoner exchange.
When she returned to Indiana, she married a widower, Ernest Clemens. She never had children of her own, but gained a stepdaughter through marriage. Gunden who passed away in 2005 is one of four Americans recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The incredible stories of other non-Jews who risked their lives can be seen at this link.