Nevejean, Yvonne (1900–1987)
Nevejean, Yvonne (1900–1987)
Belgian head of the National Child Welfare Organization who supervised children's homes throughout Belgium, defying Nazis by saving the lives of over 3,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Name variations: Yvonne Feyerick-Nevejean. Born in 1900; died in 1987.
On May 10, 1940, the military might of Nazi Germany smashed into Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. On May 28, after putting up a doomed struggle, the Belgian Army surrendered and its small country came under German military rule, which remained in force until a civil administration was formed in July 1944. Even at that late stage in the war the Nazis still anticipated annexing Belgium directly to the Greater German Reich in the form of two territorial units, which were designated Reichsgau Flanders and Reichsgau Walonia. Long before this, the essence of National Socialism had revealed itself to the Belgian population. Central to Nazi rule was the imposition of the racial regime that had long existed at home in the Reich. This included extending the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935 to the Jewish population of Belgium. At the time of the German invasion, Belgium's Jewish population numbered 65,696. When the occupation ended in the fall of 1944 with the appearance of victorious Allied troops on Belgian soil, a grim tally revealed that 28,902 Jewish men, women, and children had perished, representing 44% of the total Jewish population. However, despite more than four years of systematic efforts by the Nazis and their Belgian collaborators to first demoralize and finally deport Belgium's Jews to death camps in the eastern territories of the German Reich, 56% of these endangered individuals had managed to survive. Both Jews and non-Jews played important roles in slowing down and frustrating the machinery of annihilation.
After the first, preliminary stage of occupation ended in November 1940, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring ordered the "Aryanization" of the Belgian economy, which included the plundering of Jewish assets and property by German business enterprises. By the spring of 1942, the terror was accelerated and Jewish businesses, including the important diamond industry in Antwerp, systematically began being seized from their legal Jewish owners. After a general draft of Jewish labor was announced in March 1942, turning Belgian Jews into slaves, a decree of May 27 of the same year ordered all Jews to wear the yellow badge whenever they appeared in public. In summer 1942, the Nazis began deporting Belgian Jews to Auschwitz as well as to other camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and the women's camp of Ravensbrück.
Probably the most threatened group within the Belgian Jewish community were its infants and children. Soon after the mass deportations began in the summer of 1942, Yvonne Nevejean, the director of the l'Oeuvre National de l'Enfance (National Child Welfare Organization or ONE), received a request from the Belgian Jewish Defense Committee asking whether she could find places to shelter Jewish children who were now clearly in danger of being sent to the death camps. Without going through the formalities of consulting the ONE board for authorization, Nevejean agreed to help, despite the risks to her own life. Telling no one, she quickly began to organize a complex system for placing scores, then hundreds, and finally thousands of at-risk Jewish children in sites of safety. Over a period of more than two years, Nevejean was able to place between 3,000 and 4,000 Jewish children of various ages in foster homes, convent boarding schools, and orphanages run by ONE.
Separate files were kept for the Jewish children, listing both their old and new identities. Trusted associates were sent out to locate the children, who were then taken either to a ONE transit facility or directly to a safe house. In each instance, circumstances dictated how much or how little would be revealed concerning a child about to be entrusted to the care of a boarding school or convent. For security reasons, the parents of Jewish children were never told where their daughters or sons had found refuge. Messages between parents and children did, however, pass between ONE couriers. Nevejean's concerns included not only placing the Jewish children with reliable caretakers, but also finding ways to sustain them once they were out of danger. She had to provide all-important food ration coupons. When funds were needed, as they often were, to help pay for board and lodging, she provided money that in many instances had been parachuted or smuggled in overland by operatives of the Belgian government-in-exile in London.
Nevejean took advantage of any means to save the lives of Jewish children, who eventually would become known simply as "Yvonne's children." Through underground channels, she received word of a planned transfer of a group of Jewish children who had been staying in a German-controlled orphanage. The Nazi plan, which went into operation on the night of October 30, 1942, was to relocate a group of 58 Jewish children from the orphanage to the transit camp that had been established at Malines-Mechelen. From there, they would be shipped to Auschwitz and death. Nevejean met with Belgium's Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965), the much-loved queen mother who, though German-born, had become a hero for all Belgians because of the courage, dignity, and patriotism she had displayed during World War I. As honorary president of ONE and as a woman who detested intolerance, Elizabeth persuaded a German general to authorize sparing the children. The details of the release of the children and their supervisors were worked out by Léon Platteau, a sympathetic official of the Belgian Ministry of Justice.
Nevejean depended on a large network of men and women in the Belgian underground movement to provide safe homes for Jewish children. In one such instance, the Sisters of Charity of Besançon were in charge of the Queen Elizabeth Home, situated in a castle (the Château du Faing) and under the sponsorship of the queen mother. Located in the isolated village of Jamoigne-sur-Semois, the home in 1941 had been transformed into a center for the care of disabled children. With the knowledge and support of Elizabeth herself, the castle facility served for several years as a refuge for Jewish children. At any time during this period, over 80 of the home's residents—at least half of the total—were Jewish. They had been brought to the home through the efforts of Nevejean and one of her most dependable collaborators, Father (later Abbé) Joseph André. But the heroes on the ground in Jamoigne-sur-Semois were the home's manager, Marie Taquet-Martens , who was in charge of the countless details of the daily routine, and her husband, Major Emile Taquet, who took care of administration and coordination with ONE headquarters in Brussels. As much as was possible in an institutional setting, the children received warm care in the Queen Elizabeth Home. After the war, one of the children recalled their experience in the castle home: "For us, the manor became a vacation camp."
Another organization, the Comité de Defense des Juifs (CDJ), also was able to save the lives of Jewish children. For more than two years, Andrée Herscovici took them to foster homes where they found safety. When she joined the Comité, Herscovici changed her name and identity, an act that put her at risk of being deported
to Germany. In other instances, prewar friendships played a role. Germaine Belline and Liliane Gaffney , acting independently of an organized rescue group, saved the lives of 30 of their Jewish friends, including children, by giving them the identification documents of relatives who lived abroad. Finally, Jewish members of the Belgian resistance movement, including Esta Heiber and her husband, placed themselves in perilous situations by working to place Jewish children with non-Jewish individuals, families, and institutions.
Nevejean and her colleagues faced the constant risk of denunciation by Belgian collaborators. Despite the magnitude of ONE's work, only a small number of rescuers and rescued children were arrested by the Germans. Although the Gestapo offices in Brussels were well aware of the existence of an extensive rescue network designed to save Jewish children, with only one or two exceptions, they failed to disrupt the efforts headed by Mme Nevejean. In August 1944, with the defeat of the Third Reich now a certainty, diehard Gestapo fanatics in Brussels made plans to capture and kill as many of Belgium's Jews as they could. A desperate Jewish underground appealed to Nevejean to save still more children. A member of the Jewish underground, Marie Blum-Albert , recalled later, "I can never forget the determination, the diligence, the heart with which Mme Nevejean applied herself to this task." Nevejean telephoned convents, hostels, and homes for war orphans and prisoners' children, pleading with them and with various men and women of influence to obtain shelter for children in homes that were already severely overcrowded.
In 1965, Yvonne Nevejean was honored by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, which named her one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a Gentile who had risked her life to save Jewish children during the dark days of the Holocaust. At Nevejean's funeral in August 1987, Yvonne Jospa , a former member of the wartime Jewish Defense Committee, praised her for having been "committed, without reservation and despite all the dangers, to the rescue of Jewish children, motivated by her love of children, her ideological rejection of all forms of racism, her struggle against the Nazi occupation." Nevejean was also honored on a Belgian 16-Franc postage stamp, issued on May 6, 1996.
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Jewish Museum of Belgium (Joods Museum van België-Musée Juif de Belgique), Brussels, Belgium, biographical research files.
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——, ed. Belgium and the Holocaust: Jews, Belgians, Germans. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998.
Paldiel, Mordecai. "Nevejean, Yvonne (d. 1987)," in Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. 4 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1990, Vol. 3, pp. 1059–1060.
——. The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. NY: KTAV, 1993.
Silver, Eric. The Book of the Just: The Unsung Heroes Who Rescued Jews from Hitler. NY: Grove Press, 1992.
Steinberg, Lucien. Le Comité de défense des Juifs en Belgique, 1942–1944. Brussels: Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1973.
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Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority Archives, Jerusalem, Israel, biographical research files.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia