In 1941, twenty-six year old Lois Gunden, an American French teacher from Goshen, Indiana, came to work with the Mennonite Central Committee in southern France. Far from her home, she would become the rescuer of children of a different nationality, religion and background.
Gunden joined the Mennonite organization Secours Mennonite aux Enfants in Lyon, and was sent to establish a children’s home in Canet Plage, on the seaside of Mediterranean. The children’s center became a safe haven for Spanish refugee children as well as for Jewish children, smuggled out of the nearby internment camp of Rivesaltes. One such child was Ginette (Drucker) Kalish (b. 1930), from Paris. In July 1942 Ginette’s father was deported to Auschwitz, but Ginette and her mother managed to hide from the police. They fled to the South of France but were caught on the train, and were eventually taken to Rivesaltes. It was there that Lois Gunden approached Ginette’s mother and pleaded with her to let her take the child out of the camp. The mother was hesitant at first, but when Gunden convinced her that Ginette would be safer under her care, she agreed to part from her child. “At the time I was 12 years old and certainly scared”, Ginette Kalish told Yad Vashem, “but Lois Gunden was kind and passionately determined to take me and these other Jewish children out of Rivesaltes to protect them from harm… I remember Lois Gunden being kind and generous and she made a special effort to integrate us with the other children. None of the other children were told that we were Jewish.”
Gunden kept a diary and described her activities, in which she proved great courage, ingenuity and intuition. One morning while the children were out for a walk, a policeman came to the center in order to arrest three of the Jewish children: Louis, Armand and Monique Landesmann. Lois said the children would not return until noon. At noon the policeman appeared again and told Lois to pack up the children's belongings and prepare them for departure. This time Lois said that their clothing were being laundered and would not be dry until late afternoon. All through that day Lois prayed for wisdom and guidance and for the safety of the three children, and the officer never did return. The children were saved.
In November 1942 the Germans occupied Southern France. Although she was now an enemy alien, Gunden continued to run the Children’s Center. In January 1943 she was detained by the Germans, only to be released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange. She returned home to Indiana and in 1958 she married a widower, Ernest Clemens. She never had any children of her own, but she gained a step-daughter through her marriage. Lois continued teaching French at Goshen College and Temple University, and in addition she ministered in the Mennonite Church.
On 27 February 2013 Yad Vashem recognized Lois Gunden as Righteous Among the Nations.