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Andrée Geulen, rescuer of Jewish children in Belgium, dies at 100

The Belgian schoolteacher was credited with shepherding 300 to 400 Jewish children to safety during the Holocaust

For her wartime heroism, Andrée Geulen was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
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Andrée Geulen, a Belgian schoolteacher who saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust, holding their hands and comforting them with stories as she spirited them to hiding places where they stayed until liberation, died May 31 at a nursing home in Brussels. She was 100.

A grandson, Nicolas Burniat, confirmed her death but did not cite a cause.

Ms. Geulen was 18 years old, a Catholic-born teacher just embarking on her career, when Hitler conquered Belgium in May 1940. Despite the wartime deprivations, her life carried on more or less as usual, she said, until she began to witness the cruelties visited upon her Jewish students.

One day, she recalled years later in an interview with an American scholar, Anne Griffin, several Jewish students arrived at school with their notebooks held tightly against their chests. They were trying to hide the yellow stars sewn on their uniforms in accordance with a Nazi decree. To lessen their shame and fear, Ms. Geulen declared that all her students, Jewish or not, would wear aprons over their uniforms. If only in the confines of her classroom, a yellow star — its presence or absence — was no matter.

Shortly thereafter, Ms. Geulen’s Jewish students began to disappear. They had been rounded up, bound for deportation to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. “At that very moment,” she told Griffin, “I said to myself, ‘What can I do to help? What can I do?’ ”

Ms. Geulen joined the underground, and for two years in her early 20s, from 1942 until the Allied liberation of Belgium in September 1944, devoted herself to the rescue of Jewish children. Nearly half a century later, in 1989, she was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed on gentiles who assumed extraordinary risk to save the lives of Jews during World War II.

Working with an organization called the Comité de la Défense des Juifs, Ms. Geulen — under the code name Claude Fournier — escorted Jewish children to farms, convents, boarding schools and the homes of host families, where she and her colleagues in the resistance had arranged for them to live under assumed Christian identities.

“Why can’t I say my name is Sarah?” she recalled one child inquiring. “It’s a beautiful name!”

“It’s a very beautiful name,” Ms. Geulen told the girl, but at least for a while, “you have to say your name is Suzanne Peters.”

In what Ms. Geulen described as an “indispensable security measure,” under no circumstances did she reveal to parents where she was taking their children, lest the parents be tempted to visit and risk the entire mission. “I am trusting you with the most precious thing I have,” she recalled one mother impressing upon her.

In a complex series of ledgers, Ms. Geulen and her colleagues recorded the true names of the children in their care, their assumed names and their locations, but in such a manner that no single notebook — should it fall into the wrong hands — would reveal their whereabouts.

“Everything was urgent,” she told Griffin, who organized a traveling exhibit about the resistance in Belgium that was presented most recently at Queens College in 2017. “There were roundups every night. I had some addresses, and I saw it as a race between myself and the Gestapo: who would get to the family first.”

Sometimes, she said, she and fellow underground workers would rescue a child, only to learn that the parents had been taken away later that night. Ms. Geulen often posed as a mother, holding the hand of one child who was not her own and pushing another in a buggy, striding forward under the gaze of German soldiers.

Of the 300 to 400 lives Ms. Geulen was credited with saving, some of them had scarcely begun. The youngest of the children she rescued were newborns, five or six days old, lifted from the arms of their mothers in hospital maternity wards and taken to places where they would be safe, or at least safer, until the Nazi danger passed. Her underground group worked with a doctor who would inform them when a Jewish woman had given birth and wished to surrender the child for safekeeping.

“Taking children that way, from a mother who has just given birth, is terrible,” she told Griffin. “Getting onto a train with Jewish children, knowing that the Germans could also get on, that didn’t frighten me. But to tear a child away from his mother, and not tell her where we were taking him, and to have her cry and cry, ‘Tell me, at least, only tell me where you’re going to take him!’

“If I’d had children then,” she added, “I don’t know if I could have done it.”

Some of those babies, like the other children rescued by Ms. Geulen, would be reunited with their families after the war. But many of their parents were murdered in the concentration camps. Meeting decades later with one of the children she had helped, Ms. Geulen spoke to the man of his mother and his mother’s anguish on leaving him before her ultimate death: “She let you go and saved your life.”

Andrée Céline Geulen was born in Brussels on Sept. 6, 1921. Her parents provided for her through income generated by family property holdings. After they lost some of those properties in the war, her mother ran a store dealing in antique books.

On at least one occasion, Ms. Geulen closely escaped arrest because of her resistance work: when she was working at a boarding school that had taken in 12 Jewish children. Apparently tipped off to their presence, the Germans raided the school in 1943 on the Christian feast of Pentecost, when gentile students were likely to be home with their families. Wasn’t she ashamed, a German interrogator demanded of Ms. Geulen, to be teaching Jewish children?

“Aren’t you ashamed,” she replied, “to make war on Jewish children?”

The students were arrested, according to Yad Vashem, as were the headmistress and her husband, who perished in concentration camps. They were posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations.

After the war, Ms. Geulen assisted in the repatriation of Jewish refugees through an agency of what became the United Nations. That work brought her in contact with further suffering, such as when a child had no surviving parents or relatives, or when a surviving parent lacked the material, physical or emotional strength to resume a normal life.

Ms. Geulen was a correspondent for Les Lettres Françaises, a French leftist literary publication, her grandson said, and later pursued a career as a social worker.

She was married in 1948 to Charles Herscovici, a Belgian lawyer whose parents, both Jews of Romanian descent, had been murdered in Nazi concentration camps. He died in 2005.

Besides her grandson, survivors include two daughters, Anne Herscovici and Catherine Herscovici, both of Brussels; four other grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Ms. Geulen also is survived by an ever-diminishing number of the children she saved.

One of them is Henri Wolfe, 84, a retired TV and film producer who lives in Lewisboro, N.Y. He was a boy of just a few years and had already been separated from his parents when Ms. Geulen smuggled him out of the Mechelen transit camp, in Belgium between Antwerp and Brussels, where he was awaiting deportation to Auschwitz. Wolfe, who lost both his parents in the Holocaust and was adopted at age 9 by an American couple, said in an interview that he never learned precisely how Ms. Geulen got him out.

Another of the children is Herbert Barasch, 85, of Menlo Park, Calif. His parents entrusted him during the war to Ms. Geulen, who, he recalled, held his hand as he boarded a train for the city of Leuven, where she placed him in a convent under the name Henri Le Chat. His parents also survived in hiding, and together they immigrated after the war to the United States.

“If it wasn’t for Andrée, I would not be here today, and if I wouldn’t be here today, I wouldn’t have a family,” Barasch said in an interview. “I have two sons and six grandchildren. … I am alive because of her.”

Yet, Ms. Geulen insisted that it was she who owed her thanks to the children.

“I was then a young woman; not better, nor worse than others,” she said at a reunion of hidden children in 1998. “Life had kept me isolated from the major upheavals around me; I did not know unhappiness. Then, suddenly, I found myself, a young teacher, confronted with this tragedy that befell you. I could not accept it.”

“You placed your little hand in mine (the other hand held on to the large suitcase with all the treasures prepared with tears by your mothers), and we left on our journey,” she continued. “For a long time now I wanted to say to you ‘thank you’ for having taught me the immeasurable stupidity of racism. This will remain with me for all of my life.”

“Never again have I felt such exaltation, such satisfaction, except when raising my own children,” she added. “No other work has filled me with such pride. Imagine what this represented for a 20-year-old woman to go to sleep at night and think — another five children saved; another five children spared deportation. … I loved you then so much; I still love you as much today.”