SAVE THE CHILDREN
Born Andree Geulen in Belgium, her father was Gaston, who was disabled, and her mother was Josephine Van De Meersche, who ran an antique bookshop. The family income came from a string of inherited properties, some of which were destroyed when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. They were Catholic.
When she was at school (aged 15) she remembered a teacher giving a lesson on the Spanish Civil War. This awakened what she called her ‘moral courage’ and led to her having left wing views.
When she was old enough (just 18), she became a teacher and got a job at the Isabelle Gatti de Gamont girl’s school. The Headmistress was Odile Ovart.
She was teaching here when the Nazis invaded Belgium .
Soon she noticed that some of the girls were arriving at school holding notebooks across their chests. When she enquired why, they showed her the yellow star they had been forced to wear, indicating they were Jewish. She was appalled. She then insisted that all her girls, whether they were Jewish or not, wore their aprons whilst travelling to and from school, covering their uniforms.
But it got worse. She noticed some girls were disappearing. When she asked why, Odile told her they had been taken to a holding camp at Mechelen – and from there were sent to concentration camps.
Andree was furious. When she told a friend, Ida Sterno, what was going on, she found herself instantly recruited to a top secret resistance movement, the ‘Comite de Defence des Juifs’ (Committee to Defend Jews), known as the CDJ. This was run by a Belgian spy, Victor Martin. Ida, who was Jewish, was a member, but they needed some non-Jews to help them.
She became part of a group of 12 women dedicated to saving Jewish children. The CDJ suggested she leave her parent’s house and go and live in the school. Then she realised that Odile and her husband were already sheltering 12 Jewish children in the school.
Andree (and Ida) began spiriting children out of Brussels and into the countryside. They put them in safe houses. Andree would sometimes pay families out of her own pocket to take these children in. If no safe house could be found she would put them in an orphanage, which she considered safe from the Nazis. She even used monasteries as a safe haven and was to travel the length and breadth of Belgium.
She would help any Jewish parents who asked her. She took children of any age, from babies to older teenagers. She gave the children false names, and even operated under an alias herself, Claude Fournier.
She allowed each child to take one suitcase with them but would not tell the parents where she was taking their child, in case the Nazis forced the information out of them.
Andree said, “The hardest thing was taking children from their mothers.” Many of the children never saw their parents again. One mother said to Andree, “I am trusting you with the most precious thing I have.”
Andree would push a pram around the city streets. She said no Nazi soldier ever had the courage to look inside a pram. Children far too old for a pram were often hidden inside. She passed through many roadblocks this way.
Andree would often walk great distances into the countryside, carrying a child on her hip and a suitcase in the other hand, whilst delivering the children. “I would have to stop every 30 feet, put the suitcase down and change the child to the other side.”
Andree once had a close shave when taking a little girl by train to her safe place. Another passenger asked the girl’s name. She turned to Andree and said, “Should I tell her my new name or my real name?” Luckily, the other passenger was sympathetic – and didn’t tell the Nazi guard that walked down the train shortly afterwards.
She admitted she was helped by being blonde haired, blue-eyed and very pretty – the typical Nazi ideal of an Aryan woman. And she spoke fluent German!
Once a Nazi realised what she was doing and asked her if she wasn’t ashamed of helping Jewish children as an Aryan. She retorted, “Aren’t you ashamed of making war on Jewish children?” – and then she stormed off.
In May 1943, the Nazis got a tip off that there were Jewish children hidden in the school and they raided it. The 12 children were taken away, as were Odile and her husband, Remi.
Odile and Remi were to die in a concentration camp.
Andree wasn’t there at the time. She quickly got a message to other Jewish children telling them to no longer attend the school.
Ida and Andree rented a flat under assumed names and continued with their operation.
But Ida was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944.
And then Andree was stopped and searched on the street. She had the names of some children on a piece of paper in her shoe, but this was the one place she wasn’t searched.
Amazingly, this incident was captured by a passing photographer. After Andree had been allowed to go free the CDJ persuaded the photographer to give them the negative so that the Nazis would never be able to trace her. Hence the photograph still exists.
Andree always kept meticulous records so that she would be able to trace the children at the end of the war.
And that is what she did when the war was over, reuniting those children that still had families to return to.
She initially worked with US forces and learned to drive a jeep to help her get around. Then she worked with any organisation that helped Belgian Jews, but particularly AIVG (Aide aux Israelites Victimes de la Guerre)
Whilst doing this she met Charles Herscovici, a lawyer of Romanian origin whose parents had died in Auschwitz. They married soon after and went on to have two daughters of their own, Anne and Catherine.
And she was reunited with her friend Ida Sterno, who survived a concentration camp (Ida died in 1964).
Andree then worked as the Belgian correspondent for a French literary publication, before going to Switzerland to take a degree in social work. She never returned to teaching, becoming a social worker instead.
But she threw herself into any democratic, pacifist and anti-racist causes that she could.
She kept contact through the years with as many of the children that she had saved, as she could. She was proud that one of them, David Inowlocki, went on to create ‘The Hidden Child Association’, an organisation dedicated to remembering stories of children who were forced into hiding by the Nazis.
Another child she saved was Helen Weiss aged 8. Helen wrote to Andree from Baltimore, USA. By now she was an 89-year-old retired bookkeeper. Helen said, “I sent her pictures of my children and grandchildren. I said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, they wouldn’t be here.”
Another one of her ‘children’, Henri Lederhandler, became a Belgian diplomat.
And then Andree was inducted into Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Amongst Nations’ memorial, dedicated to non-Jewish people who had helped Jews survive.
At her inauguration, the hall was full of the children she had helped – and their children and grandchildren. She was invited to give a speech.
“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. I loved you so much: I still love you as much today.”
At the same time, Odile and Remi Ovart were inaugurated into the Righteous Amongst Nations, posthumously.
Andree was also awarded honorary citizenship of Israel.
When interviewed about her work just before her death, Andree said, “Everything was urgent. It was a race between myself and the Gestapo – who could get to the family first.”
She continued, “Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do.” She urged people to keep up the struggle against injustice. “We have to keep fighting, absolutely.”
And tellingly, Andree said, “Everything I am today, I owe to that period of my life – those 3 years.”
She died in a Brussels care home, having just passed her 100th birthday. She was the last survivor of the CDJ women.
At her funeral, her grandson Nicolas Burniat said, “She could have been caught at any moment.”
There is a creche in Brussels named after her.
When she died, the Israeli Ambassador to Brussels, Emmanuel Nahshon said, “If there were more women and men like Andree Geulen Herscovici, the world would be a better place.”
RIP – Rescuing Innocent Pupils