WWII Belgian educator gave more than 4,000 Jewish youth ‘the gift of life’

Yvonne Nèvejean-Feyerick was born on November 15, 1900. Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations.

November 15, 2016 14:18
2 minute read.
Yvonne Nèvejean-Feyerick.

Yvonne Nèvejean-Feyerick.. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)

In the summer of 1942 during the Nazi deportation of Belgian Jewry, Yvonne Nèvejean was approached by the Comité de défense des Juifs en Belgique, the unofficial underground organization of Belgium’s Jews.

It would be almost impossible to stop the Nazis, but at the very least, something had to be done for the children. Nèvejean, an educator who was head of the country’s l’Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance, now known as the Office of Birth and Childhood, decided to use the children’s agency’s vast network to shelter more than 4,000 Jewish children.

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Bronia Veitch was a five-year-old living in a Belgian home for Jewish refugee children when the Gestapo came in the fall of 1942 to take them away to the Mechelen transit camp. The train was delayed for a few hours, which gave enough time for Nèvejean to help reroute the children to safehouses.

“The non-Jewish housekeeper at the home telephoned Yvonne Nèvejean,”  Veitch recalled as quoted in “The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust” by Martin Gilbert.

“She contacted the Queen Mother of Belgium, Queen Elisabeth, who during most of the day and half of the night interceded with the German High Command. A huge ransom was also paid by a member of the Comité de défense des Juifs and we as lone children were released during the night a very short time before the transports departed.”

Holocaust author Suzanne Vromen wrote that the rescue of the Jewish children owes much to Yvonne Nèvejean, as she was the linchpin in knowing who to call and where to hide the children.

“As head of the [Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance] she held a key official position that gave her oversight of a large number of children’s institutions,” Vromen wrote in “Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis,” edited by Patrick Henry. “She was thoroughly aware of what hiding places were available across the country and she used her wide network of connections to seek placements.”

With Nèvejean’s persuasive talent, the children’s agency became a crucial center for helping Jewish children to find secure sheltering places, many of them under the care of monasteries and orphanages, priests and nuns, Catholics and Protestants, enemies of the state and anyone else she could recruit.

Nèvejean and her circle of friends and associates saved up to 4,000 Jewish children, “Yvonne’s children.”

“Nèvejean provided Jewish children with more than equality of opportunity: she gave them the gift of life,” wrote Vromen in “Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis.”

Yvonne Jospa, who as cofounder and leading organizer of the Belgian resistance worked side by side with Nèvejean, eulogized her as someone who could not bear to see any injustice.

“Nèvejean was driven by her love for children, her antipathy towards any form of discrimination, and her defiance against the Nazi occupation,” she said.

Yvonne Nèvejean-Feyerick was born on November 15, 1900. Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations On February 16, 1965, the first Belgian woman to be recognized as such.

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