During World War II, Andree Geulen-Herscovici saved more than 300 Jewish children in Belgium, risking her own life to hide them from the Nazis. At an emotional ceremony on Wednesday, Israel honored the 86-year-old woman, granting her honorary citizenship and reuniting her with dozens of the people she rescued.
In 1942, the Brussels teacher witnessed a Gestapo raid on a school to arrest Jewish children. She then joined a rescue organization and for more than two years collected children and hid them in Christian homes and monasteries under assumed identities.
Throughout the war, she looked over them, keeping a secret record of their original names. At the end of the war, she gathered them once again and returned many to their surviving relatives.
In 1989, Geulen-Herscovici was recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as a Righteous Among the Nations - an honor granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, including Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Among these, only a few hundred have been granted honorary citizenship by Israel.
"She belongs to this unique club of courageous and honorable human beings," said Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem. "This is another way for us to say thank you."
The soft-spoken Geulen-Herscovici played down her heroics. "What I did was merely my duty. Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do," she said in French.
Her actions altered the lives of hundreds of children, many of whom reunited with her Wednesday along with their own children and grandchildren.
Henri Lederhandler was 9 in the spring of 1943 when Geulen-Herscovici took him in. He said he still vividly remembers the first meeting with the lovely young woman who would become his guardian angel.
"You saved us, you rescued us from the fingernails of the Nazis," he said at the ceremony. "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here today. You are like a mother to us all."
After the war, Geulen-Herscovici married a Jewish survivor and raised two children of her own. But she also maintained contact with some of her Jewish children, many of whom later immigrated to Israel.
"And since then I have never been alone. Through every moment of my life, you have been with me and I love you all like I love my own children," she said.
Shaul Harel, 70, was one of those children whom Geulen-Herscovici saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
To honor her and others like her, the Israeli doctor organized an international conference in Israel for the Belgian children hidden during the Holocaust, of which there are an estimated 3,000.
The five-day conference coincided with Israel's official Holocaust Remembrance day on Monday, when the country honored the memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
The group, which includes some 160 survivors, has been sharing its survival stories after many years of keeping mum. Harel said doing so together with the woman who saved them made it more significant.
"When you meet the woman who is responsible for you being alive," he said, his voice trailing, "it's very emotional."
Dozens accompanied Geulen-Herscovici as she strolled slowly Wednesday though the museum. Many shed tears as she neared an exhibit and pointed to a black and white photograph on the wall showing her along with two children in her arms.
"That's Jackie," she said, motioning to one of the kids.
She said she remembered them all, down to each one's serial number in her diary.
"Even in the darkest hour of humanity there were still a few rays of light," said Belgian Ambassador to Israel Danielle del Marmol. "Andree Geulen-Herscovici was one of those."
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