Jeanne Brousse was a Frenchwoman and devout Catholic who put her own life at risk to save Jewish families during the Nazi occupation of France.
Born in 1921, Jeanne grew up in a working-class family Annecy, a charming town in the French Alps. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father, a cheesemaker, was a veteran of World War I who had been gassed by the Germans and suffered lifelong health problems as a result. After helping care for her injured father as a young girl, Jeanne decided to become a nurse and help other suffering patients. She moved to Paris at age 18, to train at a nursing school run by the French Red Cross, however war was declared and she was unable to enroll. Instead she returned to her hometown and became a civil servant in Annecy. In 1941 Jeanne joined the brand-new Refugee Service, an agency of the local government formed to help new arrivals to the region.
In her new position, Jeanne did much more than the job called for. Seeing an immediate need for French Jews to find a safe haven from encroaching Nazi persecution, Jeanne used her contacts in the government and the clergy to find out when deportations of Jews were scheduled so she could warn them and help them flee to safety in Switzerland. Incredibly, Jeanne had never met a single Jew before she decided to devote her life to saving them. She later said, “I felt horrified by the atrocious fate likely to befall all these innocent victims whose only ‘mistake’ was to be born Jewish. I was determined to find solutions so that the greatest number of those who came to me could be saved.”’
Word got out among the Jews of Annecy that Jeanne was an ally. In November 1942, a Jewish woman named Suzanne Aron approached Jeanne with a desperate request. Her husband, Francis Aron, was a reserve officer in the French army who was injured in 1940 and received the Legion of Honor, the highest award given by the French government. When he and his wife were ordered in 1941 to affix a yellow star prominently to their clothing, identifying them as Jews, Francis was furious. He was a decorated war hero who’d given everything to his country, and now he was being persecuted and humiliated by the government he’d sworn to protect and serve? Defiant, Francis refused to wear the yellow star and burnt his identity papers identifying him as Jewish. This impulsive act however did not provide freedom but rather increased danger. Francis’ wife Suzanne had heard about the woman at the Refugee Service who was helping Jews, and she went to Jeanne’s office and begged for help getting false identity papers.
Despite the danger not only to her career but her life, Jeanne immediately created new identity papers for the Arons, giving them the non-Jewish name of “Caron.” If the Nazi occupiers, or the collaborationist French police, discovered that Jeanne was creating fake documents, she would have been sent to a concentration camp, but her moral compass, inspired by her Catholic faith, was stronger than her fear.
Other desperate Jewish families approached Jeanne, and she started providing “survival kits” for each family, consisting of fake identity papers, clothes, food and ration cards. She tapped into her extensive network of friends and colleagues to find safe homes and jobs for the Jewish refugees. Prominent French Rabbi Henri Schilli and his three daughters were among those saved by Jeanne.
As the war dragged on, Jeanne’s rescue activities intensified. As a government employee, she was not subject to curfews and had a coveted “nightpass” which enabled her to move around freely at night. She used this opportunity to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, and warn young local men who were on the government’s list to be drafted to work in Germany, helping the Nazis. Because of Jeanne’s actions, many young men avoided the labor draft and instead became resistance fighters.
Annecy and the surrounding region were liberated by Allied forces in 1944. Soon after, Jeanne married Jean Brousse, who had also worked with the French resistance. Jeanne had three children, and spent the next three decades focused on her family, not spending much time thinking or talking about her astonishing wartime heroism.
In 1973, Jeanne was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, partly because of the testimony of Rabbi Schilli. After that, Jeanne began speaking to schoolchildren and other groups about her experiences during the war. She said of herself, “I am not a hero, I am not a lecturer. I am, quite simply, an ordinary woman who lived through extraordinary times.”
Jeanne Brousse died in October 2017 at the age of 96.
For risking her life to save others, we honor Jeanne Brousse as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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