SOUTH BEND -- Family members always knew Lois Gunden helped run an orphanage in France during World War II, and that she spent a year detained by the Germans.
What they didn’t know until a few years ago is that Gunden, a Goshen native who died in 2005, risked imprisonment to save Jewish children from Nazi persecution -- daring work that secured her place among the the most highly respected gentiles who fought against the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial organization, last year named Gunden “Righteous Among the Nations,” making her one of just four Americans to receive the honor, and the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley honored her Sunday as part of its annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust memorial service.
“We consider it a great honor,” said Doris Metzler, Gunden’s sister, who attended the service with about half a dozen other family members.
But for many years, Gunden’s family never knew the whole story. She never made a big deal of her work, and she didn’t talk much about what she witnessed of the Holocaust once she returned home, Metzler said.
“She would never have considered what she did anything that wasn’t part of her job and wasn’t natural for her to do,” said Jane Metzler, Gunden’s niece. “All the details of what she did were really hidden.”
In 1941, Gunden, who taught French, went to France at age 26 to serve with a Mennonite mission. She was sent to a seaside village in southern France to start a children’s home, which became a haven for Spanish refugees and Jewish children who were smuggled out of the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp, according to Yad Vashem.
In some cases, Gunden had to persuade Jewish mothers who were detained in the internment camp to entrust her with their children so she could help protect them.