The children were standing on the French-Swiss border, near Geneva. A tall blond man threw the ball toward the borderline, and the children ran to catch it. The year was 1943. The man was Georges Loinger. The children were of Jewish origin. This is how he saved their lives.
Georges Loinger was a French Jewish sportsman. Handsome, with deep blue eyes, and well-built, he was a runner, specializing in the 400-meter race, and a cousin of the famous mime Marcel Marceau. During the war, he used his athletic prowess and wit to save hundreds of children, all of whom were under the age of 16.
From his home in the 16th arrondissement, Loinger, 107 years old today, related one of the methods he used to rescue children and get them over the Swiss border. “I used to play with the children in the [OSE] residences where they lived in France and trained them to run. One day after the war entered France and it was understood it was dangerous for the children to stay in these houses, we started to hide them with Catholic French families. I took the children to the border of France with Switzerland, next to Geneva, and told them we are going to play with a ball like we used to do. I threw the ball a hundred meters toward the Swiss border and told the children to run and get the ball. They ran after the ball and this is how they crossed the border. This is how their lives were saved. After that, the Italians left France and the Germans came in. It became too dangerous to play ball with the children like this. With the Germans, we didn’t play these games.” In this candid and modest narration and others, Loinger explained how he saved many children until September 1943, when the Italians signed an agreement with France and left the country.
The children that Loinger and other Jewish résistants saved were under the responsibility of the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a nonprofit children’s aid society established in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1912 to help needy members of the Jewish population. In 1923, the headquarters moved to Berlin under the honorary presidency of Albert Einstein. Fleeing Nazism, in 1933 the organization relocated to Paris. In France, the organization ran homes for Jewish children whose parents were either in Nazi concentration camps or had been killed. During the war, Jewish doctors, dentists, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, and physical therapists secretly saved over 5,000 Jewish children from the Nazis and threat of extermination. Most of them were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in France. The OSE still exists in France and has contingency plans to save Jewish children should a third world war break out.
Until 1943, when Italy withdrew from France, the border with Switzerland was guarded “lightly” by Italian troops, who turned a blind eye to the OSE’s smuggling operation. Loinger also knew the mayor of the local town of Annemasse on the border with Switzerland, 5 miles from Geneva. The mayor, Jean Deffaugt, owned a men’s clothing store. Loinger met with him and told him he did not come to discuss clothes. He told Deffaugt of his plan to save Jewish children. The mayor told Loinger that what he planned to do was extremely dangerous, but he agreed to help him. He allowed Loinger to bring the children to his village and housed them there until it was time for them to go. These circumstances made it easier for Loinger to perfect his techniques for getting children across the border. In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized Deffaugt as a “Righteous Among the Nations” for his help in saving Jewish children.
One of Loinger’s schemes took place in a cemetery whose wall abutted the French side. He had people arrive at the cemetery wearing black veils and carrying wreaths while they prayed and wept. With the help of a gravedigger’s ladder, the “mourners” would climb over a wall and find themselves within feet of the Swiss border. Loinger paid professional guides to pilot them over the border. They moved the children in groups of five to seven. Loinger helped them cross, sometimes carrying the smaller children on his back.
Georges Loinger was born in Strasbourg in 1910 to an Orthodox Jewish family. In an interview published in the French Jewish newspaper Tribune Juive in 2015, he says, “I was born a German. Mein Kampf was sold in bookstores. On the radio, we heard the speech of Hitler, who was yelling: ‘The Jews. I will exterminate them.’ ” In 1939, Loinger was mobilized and fought with the French army. When Germany defeated France in June 1940, his unit was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Because he was tall, blond and blue-eyed, the Germans did not suspect he was Jewish. He managed to escape, return to France and join the OSE as a resistant. By then he was married with two children of his own.
In 1941, Loinger he met Dr. Joseph Weill, a physician and medical director of the OSE, who told Loinger what had transpired in Germany. He persuaded Loinger to forgo engineering and become a physical-education teacher, so he could train Jewish youth in sports and exercise to strengthen their bodies for the harsh difficulties that lay ahead. Loinger agreed to do so. He became a traveling physical-education instructor for the OSE residences that housed children from Germany, Austria, and Poland who had been separated from their parents. He trained the children in running, swimming, and calisthenics. The training they received helped those who later crossed into Switzerland and those who ended up in concentration camps. He also became a physical-education instructor in the Vichy youth movement, which provided him with important cover for his OSE work.
When the Germans defeated France, they divided the country into two zones. They occupied the north, which made up two-thirds of the country, while the south became the autonomous “free” Vichy regime, led by Marshall Petain. The German invasion of the northern part of the country generated an exodus of millions of French to the south. Thousands of Jews from the Paris region and Alsace Lorraine joined the exodus. By the fall of 1940, 60 percent of the Jews within France’s borders lived in the south. The German government in the occupied zone and the Vichy government in the south both introduced discriminatory legislation against the Jews. In both zones, foreign Jews were the first targets of these measures.
The most draconian policy was to send Jews to internment camps and from there deport them to the extermination camps. The largest internment camps were Drancy in the north and Gurs in the south. The camps became home to thousands of Jewish adults and children. Conditions in the camps were horrific. The physical and sanitation facilities, food supplies, and medicine were inadequate, and the inmates lived packed together. Disease and epidemics went unchecked, and dozens died every day. The Jewish inmates were sustained by both Jewish and nonsectarian organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the OSE.
To the adults in the camps, the most frightening and ominous events related to the roundups and expulsions of Jewish children to the east. By 1941, the OSE operated and supervised 15 residences outside the camps in Vichy for orphaned, impoverished, and refugee children whose parents were either in Nazi concentration camps or had been killed. The traumatic turning point occurred in 1942, when the Nazi leadership in France decided to implement the Final Solution. From then on, they deported French Jews, including children, to death camps. The first convoy left for Auschwitz in March 1942, the last departed from Drancy to Buchenwald on the eve of the liberation of Paris, in August 1944.
In early 1943, the OSE summoned Loinger and other OSE workers to a meeting in Lyon. Once there, they were told of the report by Gerhart Rigner, World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, of the Nazi plan to exterminate all the Jews of Europe. This shocked the listeners and gave a terrifying urgency to rescuing French children. The OSE immediately created a clandestine child-rescue network in Vichy. Jewish and non-Jewish social workers, scouts, volunteers, and Jewish résistants joined in the effort. They scoured the countryside looking for families willing to take a child. They placed children in private non-Jewish homes, religious and secular boarding schools, orphanages, hospitals, convents, non-Jewish religious institutions, and youth hostels. They placed Loinger in charge of getting children to Switzerland.
Between April 1943 and June 1944, OSE workers together with Jewish and non-Jewish rescuers helped hundreds of children escape to Switzerland. Loinger’s cool-headedness and good humor helped the work succeed. He alone saved more than 400 children.
In the Tribune Juive interview, he related a remarkable incident that occurred when he was escorting 50 German and Austrian children to Annemasse on a train. The children had all been given new French names to protect their identities and told not to show they understood German. Children being children, they ran all through the train. When Loinger went to round them up, he found a group of them in a car filled with elderly German soldiers on their way to sentinel duty on the border. The soldiers were playing with the children and giving them chocolates and candy.
Loinger remembers breaking out in a cold sweat. He feared that if one youngster mispronounced his new name or showed that he understood German, they would all be arrested. The officer commanding the soldiers asked Loinger what he was doing with all the children. Thinking quickly, he said that the children were from an area in Marseille that had been severely damaged by shelling. He added that the children were traumatized and he was taking them to a children’s rest camp for health reasons. The leader of the detachment, an older noncommissioned officer, offered to escort him and the children into the town. Loinger remembered the officer saying, “The travel was long. The children are tired. It will be easier. I’ll tell the police that you’re with us.” When they got off the train, the officer told the German police that Loinger and the children were with them.
Loinger remembers the soldiers marching and singing through the city of Annemasse “with 50 Jewish children and me marching in step behind. Once we reached the reception center, the convoy came to a halt. The German saluted me, and the children and I went in the door under official German protection.” All the children made it safely across the border to Switzerland.
In the Tribune Juive article, Loinger claims he was successful in his endeavors to save children, “because I did not look Jewish. Sport made me the opposite of an anguished Jew. I walked with great naturalness. Besides, I was rather pretty and therefore well-dressed.”
Once Loinger had secured his own family’s safety in Switzerland, he continued his rescue work until the liberation. After the war, he opened an accommodation center for war prisoners and deportees. In 1947, he worked for Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration) to help Holocaust survivors immigrate to Palestine. He also played a major role in preparing the ship Exodus for sailing when it stopped in France. In 1949, he became the French director of ZIM, the Israeli national shipping company. In 1951, he went to Israel to meet David Ben-Gurion. When they met, Ben-Gurion told him, “You are a good Jew.” In 2005, the French government honored Loinger’s work in the Resistance by naming him Commander of the Military Legion of Honor. It also awarded him the Medal of Resistance, the Military Cross, and the Gold Medal of the National Education Youth and Sports Ministry.
At the end of the war, Jewish deportees from France to the murder camps in eastern Europe totaled over 75,000, with children making up 11,000 of the total. Only 2,800 French Jews survived the camps. From a Jewish population of 330,000 in 1940, nearly 80,000 had been deported or murdered in France. They represented more than 24 percent of the Jewish community.
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Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters. Maya Guez is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in Tel Aviv University.