Children at heart

An organization of Jews that helped save other Jews during the Holocaust visits Israel and has an interesting story to tell.

GEORGES LOINGER with President Shimon Peres. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GEORGES LOINGER with President Shimon Peres.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There aren’t too many people around who make Shimon Peres seem like a youngster, but by the time our president was born, Georges Loinger had already reached bar mitzva age.
The Jewish Frenchman, 102 years young, was here last week with a group of officials from the OSE (Oeuvre de secours aux enfants, or Children’s Relief Effort) organization, with which he has worked since World War II.
Besides presenting Peres with the OSE Medal of Honor for his peace efforts and work on behalf of the Jewish people, the team – which included OSE president Jean- Francois Guthmann and director-general Roger Fajnzylberg – came here to look into developing cooperation with similar bodies in Israel, and to attend a ceremony at Yad Vashem in honor of Jews who saved other Jews during the Holocaust.
The OSE is a French-based international Jewish organization that primarily provides healthcare and welfare services for children. In recent years it has extended its purview to senior citizens as well, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The organization was founded in Russia in 1912, a year or two after Loinger was born, and relocated to France in 1933, after a couple of temporary berths along the way.
“They were expelled from Russia because they accepted medicines from people in America,” explains Guthmann.
“That was considered totally unacceptable in Russia at the time.”
The organization was already up and running in France before the outbreak of World War II, which was fortuitous considering that during the war the OSE cared for thousands of Jewish children from France, Germany and Austria, saving them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. At the beginning of the hostilities, the OSE accommodated the children, including Jewish German children whose parents had been taken away to concentration camps or killed, in chateaux and other facilities across France. However, as the Germans occupied the country, the children in the northern and central parts of France had to be relocated to the so-called Free France domain in the south, where it was still relatively safe.
All told, the OSE had around 1,300 children in its care in the early part of the war, and this number grew as the war progressed.
It managed to ship about 350 children to the United States between May 1941 and May 1942, but as the Germans took control of southern France, the organization had to go underground.
AS A young man, Loinger studied to become a physical education teacher, and by the mid-1930s he was a teacher and deputy principal of the first Jewish high school in France. When war broke out, he was conscripted into the French army, and in 1940, shortly after the French military defenses crumbled, he was taken captive and incarcerated in a POW camp in Germany.
Paradoxically it was the German army that kept him alive at the time.
“They knew I was Jewish,” he recalls, “but the army did not want to let the Gestapo into the camp.”
By then he was already married, and he and his wife managed to exchange letters during his incarceration.
One missive from his spouse prompted the prisoner of war to make a bolt for freedom.
“She was in charge of 123 Jewish children at a chateau owned by the Rothschilds, and she told me she was having great difficulty with caring for them,” he explains.
“So I decided to escape, together with my cousin, who was with me at the POW camp, and we made our way back to France to help her.”
He timed his run to perfection: “I arrived back in France on my wife’s birthday,” the centenarian recalls with a chuckle.
Before long, he joined one of 10 Jewish units working with the Resistance to free Jews from German internment camps. Toward the end of the war, in 1945, he was involved in a successful military operation to liberate Jewish children in the southeast of France. The Resistance entrusted the children to his care, and he immediately set about getting the youngsters to safe haven in Switzerland. It was a perilous journey.
“There was a railway official – in those days, taking the train was a very risky business – who asked me where I was from,” he recalls. “He asked me if I was Jewish, and I told him I was.”
That, of course, might have spelled death for Loinger, but he showed remarkable courage and resourcefulness.
“I told him I was Jewish and that if he did anything to me, he wouldn’t just have the Jewish Resistance coming after him, he would have the whole of the Resistance after him. He sent me on my way,” Loinger laughs.
That was just one of the operations he helped organize to get Jewish children to safety across the border. The OSE needed to find alternative arrangements for some of the more than 1,000 Jewish children it tried to conceal in villages, churches and orphanages, and with families around the south of the France.
“Some of the children came from religious homes, and they said their parents would not be happy if they had to eat non-kosher food,” Loinger explains. “So we had to take them and some other children who couldn’t get along with the families we placed them with, to Switzerland.
We saved something like 300 children like that.”
He is understandably proud of the work he and his fellow Jewish members of the Resistance carried out during the war. “The result of what we did, together with the Resistance, is that out of around 300,000 Jews who lived in France before the war – some French-born and some who moved to France from other countries – around 76,000 perished, including members of my own family, but all the rest, around 220,000, survived the war.”
Two of the children the OSE took in became famous leaders – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and Israel’s former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Several years after the war, the centenarian wrote a book about the French Resistance units, although he says he hadn’t planned on putting pen to paper.
“There was a book by [Raul] Hilberg [the 1961 work The Destruction of the European Jews], which was a very important book about the annihilation of European Jewry, but he didn’t mention the Jewish Resistance units,” notes Loinger.
“When I asked him about that, he said there was no written record of that, and that he only works on the basis of documents he can research. So I told my colleagues from the unit that we had to write a book about it.”
Loinger subsequently compiled three more books on the topic.
His work with the OSE had also caught the attention of the Yishuv leaders in pre-state Palestine.
“I was approached by some secret service people, and they asked me if I could be trusted, and when I said yes, they told me about the Exodus and how they wanted to try to take Jews to Palestine,” he recalls. “My job was to deal with forged documents and coordinate things.
There were also 11 people who had been saved by the OSE on the Exodus.”
LOINGER’S WORK in his own country did not go unrewarded, and after the war, he received a decoration from Charles de Gaulle, who headed the provisional French government after the liberation of Paris, from August 1944 to January 1946, and who would later become president of France.
The centenarian has received quite a few decorations during his 102 years to date. One of the medals he prizes most had nothing to do with wartime exploits on behalf of Jewish children.
“I was given an award by the French government for helping to boost the shipbuilding industry in the south of France. It was nothing to do with what I did during the war, it was because I helped France sell four ships,” he says with a chuckle. Those sea craft were ordered by the fledgling State of Israel and put the Zim shipping company on the international seafaring map.
“Israel only had a few small, and unreliable, ships at the time,” he says. “One of the ships Zim had built in France was called Shalom, and it opened up the line between New York and Israel. And two more ships – Etzel and Jerusalem – were paid for by reparations from Germany.”
Shortly after the creation of the State of Israel, the Frenchman came over for a visit and left with a new job after a short interview with the country’s first prime minister.
“One night, someone came and told me [David] Ben- Gurion wanted to see me,” recalls Loinger. “When I met Ben-Gurion, he told me he wanted me to help develop Zim, and I became the director of the company’s operations in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.”
Notes Guthmann, “Georges’s story is quite well known in France, but not in Israel, and his life has an important place in Jewish history, so it was important for us to come to Israel with him now. He did important things during the Shoah, but also things to do with the creation of the State of Israel.”
BUT GUTHMANN and Fajnzylberg didn’t come here just to meet Peres and attend the Yad Vashem ceremony; they are looking to extend some of the OSE’s vast experience and service to Israel.
“We work in four areas, and 60 percent of our work is to care for children in serious distress,” explains Guthmann.
“These are children – Jewish and non-Jewish – who are entrusted to our care by the courts, because it is dangerous for them to stay with their families. They could be from single-parent families, there may be a drug problem in the family, or violence. We receive full subsidies from the French government, for all our costs.”
According to the OSE president, the organization “cares for around 1,000 children and youngsters up to the age of 20, of whom 300 are Jewish.”
Initially the organization cared exclusively for Jewish children, but that has changed over the years.
“We began providing services for non-Jewish children, too, in the 1980s,” Guthmann continues. “That is partly, thankfully, because there was less need for our services for Jewish children, and also, because we receive state funding, we could not refuse to care for non-Jewish children; that would be racist.”
The OSE also provides the French Jewish community with services for handicapped children, and helps senior citizens suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Guthmann says the organization is keen to offer organizations and groups here the benefit of the OSE’s experience in the relevant fields.
“There are some organizations here that do things that are similar to what we do, so we can consider a partnership with them,” he explains. “We are already talking to a children’s organization in Abu Ghosh called Jerusalem Hills. The director is French, and they have seven houses and deal with over 100 children. These are children, just like the ones we care for in France, who the courts decided could not stay with their families.”
The OSE has also struck up a close professional relationship with the Eshel organization, which provides services for Alzheimer’s sufferers in Israel.
“We have worked with Beit Frankfurter [in Jerusalem], which operates under the auspices of Eshel,” Guthmann says. “We want to strengthen the cooperation we have here, with various organizations, both to enhance what we do in France and also because we know there are places in Israel where we can bring our experience, and help them.”
But it’s not all a one-way street, he notes; the organization has benefited from Israeli experience as well.
“For example, around 10 years ago, there was a big conference of social workers here, and the OSE people who work in geriatrics were very interested in learning about the day centers for senior citizens they have in Israel,” he says. “That is a format which hardly existed in France, but after the conference, we set up a center like that in France, based around people with Alzheimer’s.
The model we set up there impacted on care for people with Alzheimer’s all over France. So we haven’t come here just to show people here what we know; we want to learn from Israel, too.”