JERUSALEM (AP) — An 86-year-old former teacher who risked her life to save more than 300 Jewish children from the Nazis in Belgium was granted honorary Israeli citizenship Wednesday at an emotional ceremony in which she was reunited with dozens of the people she rescued.
“What I did was merely my duty. Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do,” Andree Geulen-Herscovici said softly in French in accepting the honor.
Geulen-Herscovici was a teacher in Brussels in 1942 when she witnessed a Gestapo raid on a school. That prompted her to join a rescue organization and for more than two years she took in Jewish children and hid them in Christian homes and monasteries under assumed identities.
Throughout the war, she kept track of the children, keeping a secret record of their original names and other details about them in a diary. At the end of the war, she returned as many as she could to their surviving relatives.
Geulen-Herscovici was recognized in 1989 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, as Righteous Among the Nations — an honor granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, including Oskar Schindler, whose efforts to save more than 1,000 Jews was documented in the Oscar-award-winning film “Schindler’s List.” Among these, only a few hundred have been granted honorary citizenship by Israel.
“She belongs to this unique club of courageous and honorable human beings,” said Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem. “This is another way for us to say ‘Thank you.'”
Henri Lederhandler was 9 in the spring of 1943 when Geulen-Herscovici took him in. He said he still vividly remembers his first meeting with the young woman who would become his guardian angel.
“You saved us, you rescued us from the fingernails of the Nazis,” he said at the ceremony. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today. You are like a mother to us all.”
After the war, Geulen-Herscovici married a Jewish survivor and raised two children of her own. But she also maintained contact with some of her Jewish “children,” many of whom later immigrated to Israel.
“And since then, I have never been alone,” she said. “Through every moment of my life, you have been with me and I love you all like I love my own children.”
Many of those whose lives she saved attended Wednesday’s ceremony, along with their own children and grandchildren.
Shaul Harel, 70, was among them. “When you meet the woman who is responsible for you being alive,” he said of Geulen-Herscovici, his voice trailing, “it’s very emotional.”
To honor her and others like her, the Israeli doctor organized an international conference in Israel for the Belgian children hidden during the Holocaust, of which there are an estimated 3,000.
The five-day conference, attended by some 160 survivors, coincided with Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, when the country honored the memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
Dozens accompanied Geulen-Herscovici as she strolled slowly Wednesday though the Holocaust museum. Many shed tears as she neared an exhibit and pointed to a black-and- white photograph on the wall showing her with two children in her arms.
“That’s Jackie,” she said, motioning to one of the children.
She said she remembered them all, down to every detail she kept about them in her wartime diary.
“Even in the darkest hour of humanity there were still a few rays of light,” said Belgian Ambassador to Israel Danielle del Marmol. “Andree Geulen-Herscovici was one of those.”