Rescuing Jewish children: The story of Lois Gunden
An MCC worker saves Jewish children in Nazi-occupied France.
In 1941, a 26-year-old Mennonite woman, volunteering with MCC in southern France, rescued Jewish children from being sent to death camps run by Nazi Germany.
Lois Gunden Clemens, from Goshen, Indiana, was asked by MCC, in the middle of the Second World War, to work with the European Mennonite organization, Secours Mennonite aux Enfants (Mennonite Aid for Children), joining other Mennonite relief workers scattered across France.
Fluent in French, Lois was sent to a children’s home close to France’s border with Spain, caring for young refugees from the Spanish Civil War. She set out on Saturday, Oct. 4, 1941 – more than a year after France had surrendered to the Nazis and was under German occupation.
She set out on Saturday, Oct. 4, 1941 – more than a year after France had surrendered to the Nazis and was under German occupation.
The children’s home was a few miles from a large camp housing refugees who had fled from the Spanish Civil War or the reign of Francisco Franco, the Spanish general and dictator who took power in 1939 when the war ended. MCC staff learned of the great need for food and clothing at the camp and began to take action.
What in time would become significant was that of the camp’s total population of 21,000, more than 5,000 were Jews held for deportation to a “special camp.” Many of the Jewish prisoners were children, whose parents had been deported to Auschwitz.
The diary Lois kept and the letters she wrote home about her life as an MCC volunteer are a fascinating account of a young Mennonite woman’s travels from the U.S. to Europe in the midst of war.
And I was inspired by how they show the way in which God gave Lois great courage, ingenuity and wisdom to save children under her protection. Lois’ story was an encouragement and challenge to work for justice even when it would be personally costly.
Setting sail for war-torn Europe
Saturday, October 4, 1941
It was a bit exciting when the gangplank was pulled in at the pier and the last cable was pulled in and the blasts from the boat horn … indicated that we were getting underway. We stood on the top deck and waved back at the figures waving to us from the last door on the pier. The white handkerchiefs could be distinguished for quite some distance.
Got to the boat before nine found our stateroom to be surprisingly lovely (A35) explored boat, took pictures, visited with my friends, and had a prayer meeting in Joe’s [Byler] room … smooth sailing all day; assigned to doctor’s table [for meals]; read telegram and letters that came to boat; got deck chairs and enjoyed sight of water; quite cold and windy; before retiring saw full moon out of porthole.
Lois also writes about her first day on the ship.
After we could no longer see the people on the pier, we watched the Statue of Liberty looking at us as we passed by. Finally, we got out into the open of the Atlantic. We had started a little up the mouth of the Hudson and soon can see only water. Today we could see a steamer traveling along to the south of us going parallel with us. Tonight, when we went up on deck, we noticed it [the steamer] still over there on the horizon all lighted. Probably it was also headed for Bermuda.
As the ship got closer to Europe, Lois reported in a letter home that a German bomber came towards the ship one morning when many of the passengers were on deck.
Oh yes, a German bomber came toward us this morning as we were on Deck drinking boullion. It circled over us a couple of times and then flew on. That was our first sign of war in Europe.
Ten days after leaving New York, the ship arrived in Portugal. From there the MCC workers traveled over land through Spain and arrived in the French city of Canet Plage on the Mediterranean coast. The children’s home where she would serve was a 20-room mansion and housed 60 children.
Lois records in her diary on October 22, 1941, her first morning in her new home:
Woke with noise of happy children outside the window; children singing, playing games, and running on beach…
Working with young refugees
The children’s home in France was close to the Spanish border and several miles from the large refugee camp. The children’s home operated by MCC received between 20 to 60 children from the refugee camp for several months at a time so that the children could regain their health from the harsh realities of life in a camp. Several times a month Lois and a Quaker relief agent, Mary Elmes, would identify children from infants to 16 years of age from the camp to be moved to the children’s home for nourishment and care.
Once the children were “back on their feet,” they would return to their families in the camp. Then another set of 20 of the most vulnerable Spanish children would be placed in the children’s home to regain their health.
Almost a month later, Lois records what she saw when she first visited the refugee camp near the children’s home:
Outstanding and unforgettable memories of day – braveness of boys when they discovered they were leaving without parents; sight of bunks with people sitting hunchbacked on them; dirty and bare kitchen – provisions only for one day; eagerness with which children drank milk; possibility for terrible cold when wind blows.
While there would be many occasions for joy in helping Spanish refugee children, her MCC assignment would be significantly changed when the United States declared war on Japan and then Germany. Now, she was an enemy alien!
She wrote home on Dec. 8, 1941:
This morning when I came out they showed me the headlines in the paper which declared that Japan and the United States were at war. It is too bad that at a time when people are preparing for the holiday which marks the advent of Him who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill among men still more people should be plunged into war.
After arriving in France, it had soon become clear to Lois that the French government was collaborating with Germany. A part of the French collaboration was sending Jewish people to Germany and then they were sent further east to concentration camps.
So just as the crisis of the Spanish refugees was slowly ending, the realities of World War II were encroaching upon the life of the children’s home.
"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."
- Ginette Kalish
Hiding Jewish children
Lois turned the home into a safe haven for Jewish children when the German authorities demanded more and more Jews be deported to Eastern Europe. Being fluent in French gave her the skills for dealing with the French police who were trying, often reluctantly, to arrest Jewish children. The relationship between the French police, local French community leaders and the German authorities was often fraught with complexity. The French police and community leaders expressed great respect for the work and the spirit of Lois and MCC.
They confided their appreciation to Lois and other MCC volunteers working in France. There was a recognition by the French authorities that having people from the U.S. in communities provided a sense of support while France lived under German control. In his book, In the Name of Christ, John D. Unruh records on page 47 that a local police commissioner in the neighboring city of Lyon observed to MCC worker Henry Wiens, “Ah you are still here! Then we have hope!”
But French police and community leaders were also under growing pressure to participate in sending Jewish people to camps in Eastern Europe. In desperation, parents trusted Lois and her team to hide and protect their children. It would only be later that the world would realize that the Germans were operating death camps in Eastern Europe. Lois recorded that her great fear for the Jewish children who were deported to Germany was that they would starve.
It would only be later that the world would realize that the Germans were operating death camps in Eastern Europe. Lois recorded that her great fear for the Jewish children who were deported to Germany was that they would starve.
Ginette Kalish remembers Lois giving courageous leadership for the children’s home. Ginette was born in 1930 in Paris. In 1942 Ginette’s father was deported to Auschwitz. Lois went to Ginette’s mother and begged her to allow Ginette to be hidden among the other children at the home. Ginette’s mother finally agreed.
Ginette remembered Lois as “quite kind and passionately determined to take me and these other Jewish children out of Rivesaltes (the refugee camp) 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.”
Under increasing pressure from Germany, the French Vichy government agreed to deport 60,000 French Jews to the concentration camps. Lois notes in her diary on August 9, 1942, that Elmes, the Quaker worker, asked Lois to take an enormous and life-threatening risk by hiding Jewish children in the children’s home! Elmes was credited years later with personally saving over 200 Jewish children. Lois began to work with all her strength to provide a safe hiding place.
Aug. 9, 1942
…Mary informed me about return of Polish and German Jews to Poland where death by starvation awaits them…
As Lois and her staff soon learned, many of the children who came to hide in the children’s home were already deeply fearful and had been instructed by their parents on how to keep from being discovered to be Jewish. After the boys adamantly refused to remove their pants for bed and to take baths, Lois realized that their parents had firmly directed them not to let anyone see that they had been circumcised as Jews.
Aug. 11, 1942
…While we were eating supper Miss Elmes brought seven Jewish children – some of whom can’t speak French; [Isidore] Mussoles cooked some extra macaroni.
In November 1942, the Germans finally occupied Southern France where the children’s home was located. Life became much more difficult after the Germans took direct control of all of France.
Lois worked feverishly to move as many Jewish children into the children’s home as possible to protect them from being deported.
One morning while the children were taking a walk, a police officer appeared at the children’s home with orders to arrest three of the Jewish children. Lois responded truthfully that the children were away, and he should return at noon.
When the police officer came back, Lois continued to resist the orders by replying that it would not be possible because the children’s clothing had been washed and would not be dry until late in the afternoon.
Throughout the day Lois prayed that God would give her wisdom in how to protect the children and that they would be safe. God granted her prayer. The police officer did not return!
Nearly a year after her arrival in France, the long arm of Germany continued to touch the life of the children’s home. Elmes wrote to Lois on August 29, 1942, alerting her that many more Jewish children needed to be hidden.
… I should warn you that there is a possibility that the children whose parents are still at Rivesaltes may be recalled to leave from there with the rest of the family. We are doing everything possible to prevent this however, but it is unfortunately still an eventuality. I am getting the parents of the children to sign a “discharge” for us, in case they do not take their children with them and I shall pass to you those which concern the children you have. These papers may be of value in the future.
The children’s home continued providing a hiding place, but also was under the eye of the French police who were searching for Jews. Lois writes in her diary about yet another visit by the police to the children’s home.
Sept. 1, 1942
…in afternoon two policemen called asking me to get the Landesmann children ready in an hour’s time; that rather upset the others who had come at same time, because they are afraid of what may be happening to their parents; Ginette [Drucker] has never heard from her mother; I’m afraid for her; after getting all their clothes out of washing process in basement, waited with them until ten o’clock…
Sept. 2, 1942
All day expected gendarmes [police] to be dropping in, but they did not show up …
Sept. 3, 1942
... an urgent telegram was telephoned from Canet concerning the Landesmann children; while at the post office [Maria Louise] Sangarné called me to tell me that Miss Elmes had called saying that the uncle of the children was coming after them immediately; … Mr. Cadier from Pau and a man from the Prefecture arrived shortly before 6 o’clock to get children; 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…
Arrested by the Germans
French friends had encouraged Lois and the other MCC workers in France to escape the tightening German control. French friends even offered to help the MCC workers in their escape out of France. But Lois and the other MCC workers refused to leave, declaring a desire to remain in solidarity with their French friends and co-workers.
In preparation for her impending arrest, Lois turned the leadership of the children’s home over to a French Christian, Roger Georges, and left $17,966.16 ($275,000 today) of MCC funds for him to use in the operation of the home.
Then on January 27, 1943, Lois was arrested by the Germans and transported to Germany as a prisoner of war. Lois was released in a prisoner exchange on March 14, 1944.
Like the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, Lois protected and hid the Jewish children in her children’s home. Day after day and week after week, she made excuses why none of her Jewish children could be taken from the children’s home and deported to concentration camps. Through her efforts, Lois, at great personal risk, saved all the Jewish children in the children’s home.
After her release, Lois returned home to Goshen and resumed teaching French at Goshen College. Along with her teaching duties at the college, Lois earned a doctorate in French from Indiana University. Later still in 1958 she married Ernest Clemens and relocated to eastern Pennsylvania.
During her years in Pennsylvania she taught at Temple University. Lois continued her commitment to serving the church through her work on church-wide boards: Mennonite Church General Committee, Mennonite Board of Education and Goshen College Board of Overseers. She served as the editor of The Voice, the publication of the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary and authored the book Women Liberated. Along with these involvements, Lois taught English to immigrants in the Lansdale, Pennsylvania community.
"It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, but what matters is the person you are and what you can give to the life of the church and the community."
- Lois Gunden Clemens
In a 1989 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lois shared that, “It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, but what matters is the person you are and what you can give to the life of the church and the community.”
Lois’ niece, Mary Jean Gunden, has been instrumental in preserving Lois’ story as a source of encouragement and challenge. Mary Jean says of Lois, “To think of her traveling to France to help children at a time when everyone there was trying to leave is really rather amazing. Even at those times when she was discouraged, she didn’t write of any second thoughts of her decision to go, nor did she express fear for her personal safety. She was very much centered on the needs of others.”
Lois died on August 27, 2005, at the age of 90. Mary Jean remembers that her aunt Lois always had a “standard line” in which Lois would in the briefest of terms say that she served in France in 1941 and ran a children’s home and that she was detained by the Nazis. Mary Jean continues, “Unfortunately, none of us really asked a whole lot more than that. I’m not convinced that she ever actually realized the magnitude of what she had done.”
It was while working through her aunt’s papers that Mary Jean came upon Lois’ letters and diaries and realized her remarkable aunt’s remarkable story. Mary Jean shared Lois’ story with Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In turn Yad Vashem named Lois as “Righteous Among the Nations” for her work of saving the lives of the Jewish children hidden in the children’s home that Lois ran during the war.
I remember Lois from a time when we attended Plains Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where she was also a member. My wife and I had a 3-year-old son at the time.
Every Sunday morning, there she sat, on the other side of the meetinghouse. She always struck me as a gentle, quiet, grandmotherly woman.
And every week she had a warm smile and greeting. Meeting her Sunday after Sunday in church, I assumed she was just an ordinary grandmotherly Mennonite woman. But I was very mistaken, to assume Lois did not have an amazing and heroic testimony of how God had used her to save children during World War II!
Joe Miller works for MCC in its ministry partnerships with Plain Communities across the United States. He also serves as a Bishop with LMC: a fellowship of anabaptist churches.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Plain Communities Business Exchange, March 2019.
Transcripts of Lois’ diary and letters are provided by Mary Jean Gunden. “Lois Gunden Clemens” letters and diary are held by Mennonite Church USA Archives, 3145 Benham Ave, Suite 1, Elkhart, IN 46517.
Clemens, Lois Gunden. "What is a Convalescent Home?" MCC files,1941.
Coward, Ros. “Franco refugees still haunted by the past: ‘We were cold, hungry and sacred.’” The Guardian: The Observer. Feb 9, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/09/franco-spain-refugees-haun....
Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Saying ‘We Are All Jews,’ Obama Honors Americans’ Lifesaving Efforts in Holocaust,” The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2016.
Gunden, Mary Jean .“Lois Gunden: A righteous Gentile,” The Mennonite. September 1, 2013.
Gunden, Mary Jean. “Righteous Among the Nations: Alumna and former professor saved Jewish children during the Holocaust,” Goshen College. July 17, 2013. https://www.goshen.edu/news/2013/07/17/righteous-among-nations/.
Gunden, Mary Jean. "Background Document – Environment in Which Lois Worked." Unpublished document.
Homan, Gerlof D. “Friends and Enemies: The World War II origins of MCC work in France.” Mennonite Historical Bulletin. Pages 7-14. April 2010.
Trescott, Jacqueline. “France to Shine a Light on Its Notorious Camp.” The Washington Post. May 2, 2006.
Unruh, John D. "In the Name of Christ." Herald Press. 1952.
Vashem, Yad.“Women of Valor: Stories of Women Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” The World Holocaust Center. P.O.B. 3477, Jerusalem 9103401 Israel.