During World War II, in a French Mediterranean town far from her home in Goshen, Ind., Lois Mary Gunden Clemens risked her own safety by helping save the lives of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
In 1941, during World War II, Gunden Clemens left her job as a professor of French at Goshen College and joined Mennonite Central Committee and the Secours Mennonite aux Enfants to establish a children’s home in southern France near the Mediterranean. 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 Ginette’s 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 eventually taken to Rivesaltes.
It was there that Gunden Clemens approached Ginette’s mother and pleaded with her to let her take the child out of the camp. While hesitant at first, Gunden Clemens 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 recalled, “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 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 arrived at the center in order to arrest three of the Jewish children, Louis, Armand and Monique Landesmann. Gunden Clemens 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 Clemens told him that their clothing was still being laundered and would not be dry until the late afternoon. Gunden Clemens 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 uncle of the children was able to come to take them away two days later.
As Gunden wrote in her diary,
“when I heard of how they were finally snatched from the fate hanging over them, I felt as if God must have had a hand in preventing anyone from coming after them during these two days interrupted by calls and telegrams concerning them; had they been taken to camp, likely all efforts would have arrived too late for any good.”
In November 1942, the Germans occupied southern France. Although Gunden was considered an enemy alien after the United States entered the war, she continued to run the children’s center. In January 1943, the Germans detained Gunden Clemens for more than a year before releasing her as part of a prisoner exchange.
After her release, Gunden Clemens returned to Goshen College to teach French, later earning her doctorate in French from Indiana University. She also served on the Mennonite Church General Committee, Mennonite Board of Education and Goshen College Board of Overseers. Gunden Clemens died on Aug. 27, 2005.
Yad Vashem, the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, posthumously recognized Gunden Clemens in 2013 as Righteous Among the Nations for her courageous work in France during World War II. Gunden is only the fourth American to be recognized with this prestigious honor.
In a letter home to her mother, Gunden reflected on her service in France,
“But my year’s experience in relief work over here has taught me more than ever that one has to live only a day at a time, and that God’s faithfulness towards those who put their trust in Him can be counted upon for the experiences of each day as it comes bringing its particular problems. I know that without the assurance of His abiding presence and His sustaining help, I would feel lost in an impossible tangle of circumstances.”
A version of this article was originally released by Goshen College in 2013. “Righteous Among the Nations: Alumna and former professor saved Jewish children during Holocaust” with quotes from “Letters from Lois”