A Mennonite in Nazi-Occupied France



A Mennonite from Goshen, Indiana, French teacher Lois Gunden saved many Jewish children in France during the Holocaust.

Born and raised in a Christian family in Goshen, Indiana, Lois Gunden became a French teacher. When she was 26, Lois followed her Christian calling to serve in Europe. Sent to southern France by the Mennonite Central Committee, she soon did more than just teach children…she saved the lives of many Jewish youngsters.

A Shelter for Children

Lois established a children’s home in Canet Plage, on the Mediterranean. The home became a shelter for Spanish refugee children, as well as for Jews. The Jewish children who found safety there had been smuggled out of the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp.

One Jewish child whose life was saved was 12-year-old Ginette Kalish. In July of 1942, Ginette’s father was sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp, while the young girl and her mother were able to hide from the Gestapo. They escaped at first, but the Nazis caught them on a train and sent them to the camp at Rivesaltes. That camp is where Lois Gunden found young Ginette. Lois convinced Ginette’s mother to let her sneak the girl from the camp. Speaking to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Ginette recalled the woman who saved her life:

“At the time I was 12 years old and certainly scared…but Lois Gunden was 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 integrate us with the other children…”

Kind and Generous

The diary that Lois kept while she worked to save Jewish children showed how brave and clever she was. One morning, a policeman came to the home to arrest three of the children who were Jewish. Lois told him that the children were out for a walk and would not return until later. When the officer returned, Lois said that their clothing was being washed and would not be ready until later. Again, the officer left. Lois prayed for God’s protection over the children, and the policeman never came back. The three children’s lives had been spared.

With southern France occupied by the Nazis, Lois was considered an enemy alien. But she did not let that stop her; Lois continued to run the home. In 1943, she was detained by the Nazis, but released the next year. After the war, Lois returned home to Indiana, where she married. For the rest of her life, she taught French at Goshen College and Temple University, while also ministering in the Mennonite Church. In 2013, Lois Gunden was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for her courage and kindness that saved the lives of so many innocent children. She was truly an advocate and ally of the Jewish people.


 

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