Ixelles commune awards first honorary citizenship to human rights defender in WWII

Ixelles commune awards first honorary citizenship to human rights defender in WWII
Mayor Christos Doulkeridis and the council members of Ixelles commune awarding honorary citizenship to Andrée Geulen-Herscovici, credit: Ixelles commune

In a touching ceremony on Saturday, the municipal council of Ixelles in Brussels awarded honorary citizenship to Andrée Geulen-Herscovici for her extra-ordinary courage during WWII when she as a young girl saved Jewish children from the hands of the Nazi occupiers.

Andrée Geulen-Herscovici, who celebrated her 100th birthday in 2021 and lives in Ixelles, could not herself attend the ceremony but her spirit was felt among the audience which included school children. The award was received by her family on her behalf.

During WWII, she was teaching at the Gatti de Gamont School, a private boarding school located at rue André Fauchille 10 in Woluve-Saint-Pierre. The school was hiding Jewish children when it was raided by Gestapo police on 12 June 1943. The children were sent to their death. Ovile and Remy Ovart, the couple who managed the school, died in Nazi concentration camps.

As previously reported, the razzia at the school was commemorated by the municipality of Woluve-Saint-Pierre in June 2018, in cooperation with the neighbourhood committee and the Association for the Memory of the Holocaust, with the inauguration of 15 stones in the pavement in memory of the victims and as a warning against anti-Semitism and xenophobia today.

When the school was raided, Andrée Geulen was asked by the German police if she was not ashamed to teach Jews. She replied, “Aren't you ashamed to make war on Jewish children?” In 1989, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations. In 2007 she was awarded honorary citizenship of the State of Israel.

During the war, she joined the Committee for the Defence of the Jews and embarked on a clandestine existence, living under an assumed name.  Until the end of the war she hid hundreds of children, keeping coded records of their original names and their places of shelter. This enabled the return of the children to their families or relatives when the war ended.

The "Citizen of honour of Ixelles reward" was initiated be Christos Doulkeridis, the Bourgmestre (mayor) of Ixelles, and adopted by the council in September last year. The purpose is to reward exceptional and inspiring personalities linked to Ixelles who have distinguished themselves by their particularly remarkable actions in relation to fundamental rights, freedom and peace.

"Throughout her life, Andrée Geulen-Herscovici, now a centenarian, has continued to bear witness, again and again, to prevent this from happening again with other children, other religions, and to fight today's racism as she fought yesterday's,” he said at the award ceremony.

“This is the first time in the history of the municipality of Ixelles that this prize has been awarded,” he added. “It was essential that it be awarded to a person who unquestionably represents the notion of honour with which the title is associated.”

What does Andrée Geulen-Herscovici stand for today?

“For me, she is a woman and resistance fighter who fought against injustice, racism and fascism,” Nevruz Unal, council member in charge of urban renovation in Ixelles, replied. “We must pass on the lessons learned of this dark past since the endless story of wars continues. Andrée  Geulen had the courage to face danger at the risk of her life and inspires us today.”

Simon Gronowski, 90, himself a hidden child, played the piano at the ceremony. He is a former president of the Union of Jewish deportees in Belgium, lawyer and jazz pianist. Born in Brussels, he escaped deportation by jumping from convoy number 20 on 19 April 1943. This was the only attempt by the resistance to stop a train deporting Jews to their death in Auschwitz.

Approximately 4,000 Jewish children in Belgium survived the war in Jewish orphanages or in hiding with false identity papers in Christian institutions and private families. For children, living separated from their parents, in fear of being deported or having to erase signs of their identity, it was often traumatic.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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