When Lois Gunden went to Vichy France at the request of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) 72 years ago, she hoped to be able to improve the lives of child refugees. She could not have imagined that she would be in a position to save them from deportation and death at Auschwitz.
In 1941, MCC asked her to manage a children’s convalescent home, the Villa St. Christophe in Canet-Plage (now Canet-en-Roussillon), France, just 30 miles north of the Spanish border. She was also to oversee a food distribution program in several outlying villages.
Lois’ proficiency in French was likely her single most important qualification; she had already attained a master’s degree in French and had been a language instructor at Goshen (Ind.) College for two years.
Previous experience by MCC workers had shown that language was a significant barrier to effectiveness in assignments outside metropolitan areas of France, as few people spoke any English. She was also well-known to Mennonite decision-makers of the time, since she had graduated from the Academy and then Goshen College in 1936, after her family had moved to Goshen in 1930.
MCC had successfully collaborated with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to aid those affected by the Spanish Civil War from 1937 through 1940.
Workers from both organizations then moved their efforts to aid Spanish refugees, following those who had fled to Southern France and were unable to return to Spain without reprisal.
With the hindsight of history, it seems difficult to imagine why church leaders would even consider sending a 26-year-old woman on such a mission. But at the time Lois left the United States in October 1941, it was generally perceived by the U.S. government and American popular opinion that the Vichy Regime was a legitimate state separate from Nazi Germany and German-occupied northern France.
Lois Gunden embarked on the ‘S. S. Excambion” at dock in New York harbor on Oct. 4, 1941. Her companions were Helen S. Penner (b. 1909, Nebraska) and Joseph N. Byler (b. 1895, Pennsylvania), both also traveling to southern France as MCC relief workers.
Although there were 99 passengers on the ship when it departed New York City, after a stop in Bermuda two days out, only about a dozen passengers continued on to Lisbon.
They had an enjoyable trip, the first such voyage for Lois and Helen. As they approached Lisbon, Lois wrote in a letter to her family on Oct. 14, “Oh yes, a German bomber came toward us this morning as we were on deck drinking bouillon. It circled over us a couple times and then flew on. That was our first sign of warring Europe.”
Their small party traveled through Portugal and Spain to France; Lois Gunden and Helen Penner began work at Villa St. Christophe on Oct. 22. Joseph Byler went on to Lyon, about 300 miles north, where he relieved Jesse Hoover as the director of the small MCC operation in France. Also working from the Lyon office was Henry Buller, who had already been serving for eight months.
The Villa St. Christophe was a 20-room summer home located on the Mediterranean beach. It was reasonably comfortable, although cold and drafty in the winter, and its sewage system was prone to backing-up. They cooked on a coal-fired stove and did laundry by hand. The home held 60 children, and at the time Lois arrived, the majority of them were Spanish refugees; almost all were brought to the home from the Rivesaltes refugee camp about 12 miles away.
Most of the children at the Villa had been treated in the camp infirmary or at the hospital for refugees in nearby Perpignan. Some were severely malnourished when they arrived, and all of them needed a good bath and delousing. Lois described her first visit to Rivesaltes on Nov. 18, 1941: “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.”
The camp at Rivesaltes truly was a horrific place housing 8,000 people without adequate food, water, shelter or sanitation; death by starvation or disease was a daily occurrence in the camp.
MCC wanted to expand its operation in France, and Lois was assigned to find other possible locations. When she was successful, Lois would organize and direct the new operation. While there were properties available to rent, unfortunately, furnishings were impossible to find. Mattresses, sheets and other textiles, kitchen supplies and utensils, tableware—all were in short supply. Lois continued to search for other locations throughout her stay but was never successful.
Helen Penner suffered a nervous breakdown in January 1942, only about two months after her arrival. Lois spent nights with Helen in the hospital, and the physician’s recommendation was a lengthy rest cure, after which Helen should return to the United States. Lois found a suitable place for Helen in the spa-town of Vernet-les-Bains, where she stayed until arrangements could be made for her return to the United States in mid-May. In working through that crisis together, Lois learned that she could count on her staff, who themselves were refugees.
Mary Elmes, a Quaker aid worker in nearby Perpignan, was Lois’ direct link to AFSC operations. Mary, from Ireland, had been a relief worker in Spain during the war and had moved into France with AFSC. Lois had great respect for Mary, and her friendship and mentoring offered a camaraderie that Lois very much appreciated.
MCC’s need for a French speaker was not only to be able to communicate while undertaking normal business but also to be able to work with French officials and bureaucrats. They required virtually all legitimate activities to be documented by various papers; identity cards, permission-to-travel cards, ration cards, permission for and documentation of the transfer of children, all required official signatures, stamps or periodic renewals.
While Lois was kept busy with a wide range of tasks, she found some time every day to spend with the children. They ranged from toddlers to age 16. They walked on the beach nearly every sunny day, and presented an interesting sight as they walked in pairs in line. The older children helped the staff with various chores, such as carrying water, bringing supplies from the tram to the Villa and helping prepare vegetables for cooking. It was from seeing them regain their health and return to some of the simple pleasures of childhood that Lois gained the most satisfaction. For her, they were the closest replacement to the family she so missed.
About every two weeks, a group of three to seven children returned to the camp, and a similar number arrived at the Villa. By February 1942, many of the Spanish refugees were being freed from the camp, and children were leaving the Villa to join them. A few were able to leave France, but many of them were being released to join work details. The newcomers to the Villa from the camp included an increasing number of German, Polish and other Western European Jews. Many of these families had fled from persecution and took refuge in France for several years before becoming entangled in the anti-Jewish laws of Vichy France, which in many respects were even more repressive than those of Germany.
Lois recognized that most of these children were traumatized by their experiences. She
appreciated every opportunity to “add just another ray of love to the lives of these youngsters who have already experienced so much of the miseries of life.”
With 60 children of various ages, the Villa needed to operate on a consistent schedule, and the children had to be held to certain standards of behavior, or total chaos may have ensued. Lois’ approach in resolving conflict between the children was to talk with them and encourage them so they would find their stay at the Villa much more enjoyable if they changed their behavior. She prayed, “May I show the kindness and gentleness to the children they do not get from others.”
By early July 1942, the Vichy government agreed to deliver for deportation up to 50,000 Jews. Those already in camps in unoccupied Vichy France, such as Rivesaltes, were deported to Drancy, a transit camp in Occupied France. From Drancy, they were deported to Auschwitz.
Mary Elmes visited Lois at the Villa on Aug. 9, 1942. Lois wrote, “Mary informed me about return of Polish and German Jews to Poland, where death by starvation awaits them.”
In the deportations of August, September and early October 1942, if children under the age of 16 were not in the camps with a parent, they often weren’t searched out, particularly if French officials knew they could already meet their quota for the scheduled transports. Lois now understood the importance of moving as many Jewish children out of the camps and into the Villa as possible.
Relief agencies working with AFSC had been allowed to continue working in France as long as they remained neutral and followed French law. Individual workers like Lois and Mary Elmes had to make difficult decisions. To obviously flaunt the law would render them unable to help anyone. But to release these children in the absence of duress was something they both found unconscionable.
The OSE (Œuvre de Sécourse aux Enfants), a French Jewish child-welfare organization, was by this time operating clandestinely. They were able to move children out of the relief agencies’ homes and camps to OSE group homes, private homes and Catholic convents, monasteries and schools that would give them shelter. What evolved was an informal operation similar to the U.S. Underground Railroad, which helped runaway slaves reach freedom.
Workers like Mary Elmes and Lois Gunden were also effective advocates with local officials for individual children and more humane treatment generally. It was the responsibility of local French officials and police to carry out the roundups and deportations; many of these officials were the same people with whom Mary and Lois had already developed working relationships. In their Department (Pyrenées-Orientales), where enthusiasm for these responsibilities was sometimes lacking, the children sheltered by their groups were often overlooked.
Throughout the year Lois spent in France, she and other relief workers operated despite many uncertainties. From the time that the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, there were many occasions when they were advised to consider leaving France. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Vichy France were increasingly strained. Space available on passenger ships was limited, and Clipper service was not possible. Lois became inured to the issue, noting that “if God wants me to return, he will provide a way.”
The amount of food they could acquire, and thus their ability to operate at all, was never certain. All of Vichy France faced food shortages during the winter of 1941-42. While the summer offered fresh fruit and vegetables, the ongoing Allied blockade interrupted normal trade with North Africa; the onset of winter in 1942 was a fearful prospect.
Officials that had helped refugee relief organizations obtain food staples became far less cooperative. Some of the locals expressed dismay that their children had less access to food than did refugee children.
The Nov. 8, 1942, British-American attack on French North Africa ended U.S. diplomatic relations with Vichy France. On Nov. 11, Germany took control of southern France, and Americans became unwelcome. Lois had gone to Lyon to witness the wedding of Henry Buller and Beata Rosenthal, an assistant in the MCC Lyon office.
Unable to return to the Villa, Lois worked with Henry to provide an operating plan so that existing staff could continue to care for the children. The staff moved the children several months later, when German occupiers requisitioned the Villa.
Lois and the Bullers were escorted by police to Mont-Dore on Jan. 27, 1943, and held in a hotel for several weeks before their transfer to Baden-Baden, Germany, as part of the official North American Diplomatic Group. After complex negotiations for a prisoner exchange, they arrived in New York City on the Gripsholm on March 15, 1944. Lois resumed teaching French at Goshen College in the fall of 1944.
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