During World War II, Lois Gunden Clemens, a Goshen College graduate, worked in France to smuggle Jewish children out of internment camps. This past Wednesday, she was posthumously honored for her actions.
The Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. honored Clemens, a 1936 graduate, as Righteous Among the Nations in partnership with Yad Vashem on Wednesday, January 27. Clemens was the fourth American to be recognized with this honor, and one of four honorees on Wednesday.
Righteous Among the Nations is the highest honor the State of Israel bestows on non-Jews in the name of the Jewish people.
Clemens, who was a French teacher, volunteered to work for Mennonite Central Committee in southern France in 1941. While working there, she established a children’s home that became a safe haven for Jewish children whom she helped smuggle out of a nearby internment camp.
Clemens worked to protect the children, continuing to run the children’s center even after the United States entered the war and she became an enemy alien. She continued her work until 1943 when she was detained by the Germans. She was released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange.
Brian Yoder Schlabach, news and media manager at Goshen College, said Clemens “truly lived out [Goshen’s] motto of Culture for Service, and her courage and compassion demonstrated how much a difference on person with strong convictions can make.”
Three of Clemens’ siblings attended the ceremony, along with fifteen nieces and nephews. Liz Gunden, Clemens’ niece, said, “It was a joyful time for us to connect as family members…The experience was a once-in-a lifetime event.”
The ceremony began with stories told about each honoree by a family member of those whose lives were saved, and was concluded with a speech from President Barack Obama. A son of one of the children saved by Clemens said he and his family owed their lives to the Gunden family.
“It is hard to describe what it felt like to hear this,” Gunden said. “I had to ask myself, if I were faced with a situation like my aunt, would I have the courage to do what she did?”
After the ceremony ended, Gunden said she felt grateful for the moment. “[I’m] thankful for the legacy of my family and their Christian faith and values that allowed my aunt to save the lives of Jewish children so many years ago. She will continue to be an inspiration to me.”