Andrée Geulen, savior of Jewish children in wartime, dies at 100
By Joseph Berger
Andrée Geulen was a young Belgian teacher at an all-girls boarding school in Brussels in the 1940s when her Jewish students were told that they had to wear uniforms with yellow stars sewn onto them — an antisemitic decree by the occupying Germans to identify and isolate Jews. The students were so humiliated, they clutched notebooks against their chests to hide the stars.
In response, Geulen, in a show of solidarity, had all the girls in the class — Jews and non-Jews alike — put aprons on over their uniforms.
A few weeks later, she noticed that some of the Jewish students were no longer showing up for school. She soon learned why: They and their families had been rounded up by the Gestapo and sent to a camp in Mechelen, northeast of Brussels — a way station on the road to dreaded Auschwitz.
Shaken by the revelation and feeling a need to take action, Geulen (pronounced guh-LEN) volunteered to help a clandestine group, the Committee for the Defense of Jews, spirit Jewish children out of harm’s way — to convents, monasteries, boarding schools, farms and families around the country that were willing to hide them.
“Everything was urgent,” she recalled in testimony that was incorporated in a 2017 exhibition, at Queens College, about the Belgian resistance. “I had some addresses, and I saw it as a race between myself and the Gestapo — who would get to the family first.”
The work was not just treacherous but also emotionally wrenching. Parents had to agree to turn over their children to the committee’s escorts without being told where the young were being taken or whether the parents might ever see them again. Some parents were arrested mere hours after Geulen had picked up their children.
She estimated that from the fall of 1942 to September 1944, when Belgium was liberated by Allied forces, she found havens or hiding places for 300 to 400 Jewish children, ranging from newborns to teenagers. For that, she was honored in 1989 by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance and research center in Jerusalem, as a Righteous Among the Nations, a recognition given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi genocide. She was made an honorary citizen of Israel.
When she died at 100 on May 31 in a Brussels nursing home, Geulen had been the last survivor of a cadre of 12 women who, working for the committee, together rescued some 3,000 Jewish children.
However reluctantly, parents had asked the committee to take their children into hiding so that they themselves could hide, flee or assume Christian identities, sometimes taking inconspicuous jobs as, say, maids, according to Anne Griffin, a professor of political science at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, who has studied the Belgian resistance and who befriended Geulen. The committee workers and some parents recognized that “at least they would save the next generation of Jews,” Griffin said by phone.
They could not tell the parents where their children were heading for fear of exposing the families or institutions hiding them.
One parent told Geulen, “I am trusting you with the most precious thing I have.”
Geulen was favored by her fluency in German and by her blue eyes and shoulder-length blondish hair, giving her the visage of the so-called Aryan woman whom the Nazis idealized. One time she was walking alone on a Brussels sidewalk on her way to pick up two children while carrying their names on a slip of paper hidden under the inner sole of one of her shoes. A street photographer snapped her picture at a moment when a German officer happened to be striding a few steps behind her. Not knowing if she had been set up, Geulen called her handlers at the committee and was told to find the photographer and get the negative. Perhaps because he was disarmed by her beauty, he gave it to her, Griffin said.
In May 1943, the Germans raided Geulen’s boarding school (today called the Isabelle Gatti de Gamond Royal Atheneum), where a dozen Jewish children were hidden. The school’s headmistress, Odile Ovart, and her husband were sent to concentration camps, which they did not survive. Geulen was interrogated but released. When a German officer told her that she should be ashamed of teaching Jewish children, she responded, “Aren’t you ashamed to make war on Jewish children!”
After the war, Geulen fetched many hidden children and reunited them with parents who had emerged from their own hiding or who had survived the concentration camps. She found apartments for the families, solicited charities to pay for adequate furnishings and negotiated with manufacturers for mattresses, blankets and sheets to give to the families.
But her efforts could be agonizing. Sometimes she had to grapple with children who were upset to leave the families that had sheltered them for two years and were reluctant to be reunited with parents they scarcely remembered. Other times she had to place children in orphanages when it was clear that their parents would never return.
Andrée Céline Geulen was born in Brussels on Sept. 6, 1921, into an affluent Roman Catholic family. Her father, Gaston Geulen, was disabled, and he and his wife, Joséphine (Van De Meersche) Geulen, lived off income they derived from properties they had inherited. When some properties were destroyed in the war, Andrée’s mother opened a bookstore that specialized in antique volumes.
When Andrée was 15, a teacher showed maps about the Spanish Civil War then raging, making clear that his loyalties were with the leftist Republican government in its battle with the Nationalists under Francisco Franco. In time, Geulen gravitated toward the ideals of communism, but she also developed a personal ideal, Griffin said: an imperative to display “moral courage” when people were threatened or suffering.
After the war, Geulen married Charles Herscovici, a lawyer, and worked with the U.S. Army to help refugees make their way back to Belgium, learning to drive a jeep, said a grandson, Nicolas Burniat, who confirmed her death. For a time she was the Belgian correspondent for Les Lettres Françaises, a leftist French literary publication.
Geulen went to Switzerland to study social work and, after receiving a degree, took up social work as her career.
In addition to Burniat, she is survived by two daughters, Anne and Catherine Herscovici; four other grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.