1942 - Journal from Occupied France

Lois Gunden Clemens
Lois Gunden Clemens

In 2013 Lois Gunden Clemens (1915-2005) was recognized posthumously as “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel. She becomes one of only four Americans, among 24,800 people worldwide, to be so honored. Her niece, Mary Jean Gunden, will accept the honor on her aunt’s behalf at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in the coming months.

In 1942, as a volunteer worker at the children’s convalescent home Villa St. Christophe in Canet-en-Roussillon, France, Lois managed to save an unknown number of Jewish children from deportation to Auschwitz. Six of them are named in the journal entries published here.

Villa St. Christophe cared for sixty children transferred from the internment camp at nearby Rivesaltes, which originally housed refugees from the Spanish Civil War but as of July 1942 began housing Jews prior to their shipment to Auschwitz. Children came to Villa St. Christophe to recover from illness or malnutrition and returned to the internment camp when they improved.

Between July 1942 and November 1942, Lois was able by various means to move some Jewish children from the camp to the Villa and to keep them there while their parents were forcibly removed to concentration camps. She was encouraged and supported in her work by Mary Elmes, an Irish Quaker aid worker in nearby Perpignan.

We publish entries from Lois’s extensive journal (plus one letter excerpt) that allude to her work with Jewish children. She seldom gives detailed information, perhaps because she did not want to provide incriminating evidence in writing for Nazi authorities. For brief narratives of her efforts on behalf of the three Landesmann children and Ginette Drucker Kalish, mentioned in her journal, see http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/pressroom/pressreleases/pr_details.asp?cid=804

Lois was taken as a prisoner of war to Baden-Baden, Germany, on January 27, 1943. She returned to the U.S. in March 1944 and resumed teaching French at Goshen College in the fall of 1944 and married Ernest Clemens in 1958.

Selections from the Journal

Villa St. Christophe
Children at Villa St. Christophe

Friday, July 17, 1942

Were surprised by real account of Albert arrest as it appeared in paper this morning; lots of business all morning … spent about an hour on beach and then came in to dress for visit of Miss Elmes and Eleanor Cohu; when they arrived we (all 3) dressed for a swim; showed the house and then talked about next convoy; she wants me to take children from town; can’t figure out why she doesn’t want to give us camp children; may be that it is in order to get them to go to Vernet that she informs them that there are no possibilities of coming here; [Yvonne] Plion and I talked it over and I decided to try to take into my hands the selecting of [Jewish] children; instead of going to sleep thought longer – God, make me strong; help me not to cringe when I must show thoughts of decency and judgment.

Sunday, August 9, 1942

… met Clothilde Magnant when I was already in tram; failed to see Miss Elmes at tram – she was already at colony when I arrived; Clothilde arrived at 2; we three spent nice afternoon on beach; had tea about 5:30; Mary informed me about return of Polish and German Jews to Poland where death by starvation awaits them; went for unusual evening walk…

Monday, August 10, 1942

…when I got back to colony found a little boy crying – asking for his barrack and for the Secours Suisse; Miss Elmes had brought us 3 Jewish boys in an attempt to save them when their parents leave; had quite some time quieting the poor little fellow; but finally his sobs died down…

Tuesday, August 11, 1942

...While we were eating supper Miss Elmes brought seven Jewish children—some of whom can’t speak French; Mussoles cooked some extra macaroni; Quelle comedie pour les laver en lavabo! [What a comedy to wash them in the washbasin!] Les garcons ne voulaient pas enlever leurs culottes. [The boys didn’t want to take off their pants. NOTE: They did not want to expose their circumcisions, which identified them as Jews.]

Wednesday, August 12, 1942

…it is disgusting the way the Spaniards are often decried by the French, and yet today those very ones say how much better it is to have Spanish children [at the Villa]; yet it is [Jewish] children from the camp who interest us most.

Friday, August 21, 1942

…Took Felicia to hospital; doctor proudly showed me the improvement in cleanliness; brought back bottle of ammonia and found the [bed bug] fight going on in earnest in the two dormitories; all beds down on terrace … I took care of children on plage [beach] – find a real challenge in trying to establish feeling of brotherhood between Jews and Spanish…

Wednesday, August 26, 1942

… camp called announcing arrival of eight more children tomorrow; lectured to Jacques Koltein and tried to reason with him in gentle manner showing him that his state of happiness here depended on him – think he will be more disciplined hereafter… [NOTE: Mary Jean is in touch with Jewish relatives of Jacques Koltein.]

Tuesday, September 1, 1942

Waited for Fruicoop to open watching arrival of merchandise – mostly tomatoes and celery with a few green beans and eggplant occasionally … 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 [Druker] 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; Miss Elmes called me upon returning from camp – she had talked to the mother in the afternoon…

Wednesday, September 2, 1942

All day expected gendarmes to be dropping in, but they did not show up; Elmes called tonight saying that they were still coming; washed a big washing today; interrupted by several visits concerning relief work to private cases; wonder whether man asking if we couldn’t pass him in an ambulance in order to get to English might not have been a spy to find out about our work…

Thursday, September 3, 1942

Didn’t feel exceptionally well, but got work done at market … stood in packed platform of tram and began to feel fainty at Canet village; when we arrived at the plage everything went black before my eyes, and a kind lady and a gentleman helped me from the tram to the café; the boys who had come to station for vegetables soon surrounded me; was able to walk back to colony; rested until after two o’clock and then ate dinner; 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 2 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

Business letter to Mary Elmes, September 4, 1942

… I was extremely glad for the happy turn of events in the case of the Landesmann children. Mr. Cadier explained to me exactly how this came about when he called for the children yesterday afternoon. Some of the other children who came to us at the same time as the Landesmann family have been without news from their parents for some time, and are therefore fearful of what that might mean. I have been telling them that they may have news any day, but I will not be able to keep telling them the same thing forever. Do you have definite information for them? It is especially the mothers of the Koltein brothers and Ginette Druker who are in question.

Tuesday, September 8, 1942

… when I returned at noon Sangarné sent me Valverde for a conference after her behavior this morning when Ginette [Druker] was given her as a partner in making up the dormitory where Martin and Emile sleep; talked over with the girls stringing beans this question of being a bit more kind to the new [Jewish] girls who were not Spanish …

9 Jewish Children
SITTING, l-r: Claire Landesman, Fritz Isenberg, unknown; STANDING front: unknown, Georges Koltein, Berthe Landesman; STANDING rear: Jacques Landesman, Ginette Druker, Jacques Koltein. What became of the Landesman children is not known, but their parents were able to immigrate to the U.S. As of 2015, Georges Koltein lives in Paris; Jacques Koltein is deceased. Fritz Isenberg lives in Arizona. Ginette Druker Kalish lives in Florida.


Letter home, October 31, 1942

… But my year’s experience in relief work over here has taught me more than ever that one has to live only a day at a time, and that God’s faithfulness towards those who put their trust in Him can be counted upon for the experiences of each day as it comes bringing its particular problems. I know that without the assurance of His abiding presence and His sustaining help, I would feel lost in an impossible tangle of circumstances…

Vad Yashem on Righteous Among the Nations:

"In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation."

For a full narrative of Lois’s work in France, see Mary Jean Gunden, “Lois Gunden: A Righteous Gentile” in The Mennonite (Sept. 2013): 12-16. For letters and more of the journal, see Mary Jean Gunden and Jodi J. Beyeler (ed.), “Letters from Lois,” Goshen College Bulletin (Fall 2013): 22-27. The papers of Lois Gunden Clemens are housed in the Goshen Archives of the Mennonite Church USA and are used here by permission.

About the Author

Mary Jean Gunden

Mary Jean Gunden graduated in 1977 from Goshen College, earning a B.A. in business administration. Although she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, she retains membership in College Mennonite Church in her hometown of Goshen, Indiana. The niece of Lois Gunden Clemens, she admires her aunt especially for her World War II work in France but also for editing the WMSC periodical Voice and for writing the book Woman Liberated. She feels “fortunate to have the time and interest to research the context of Lois’s experience in France,” since “few in her community were aware of these more heroic aspects of her work.”