Georges Loinger, French resistance fighter who smuggled Jewish children to safety, dies at 108

Georges Loinger in 2005, awarded the French title commander of the Legion of Honor. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP via Getty Images)

It had all started as a game. During World War II, when hundreds of Jewish children were hidden at chateaus in the French countryside, kept out of sight from the nation’s Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators, Georges Loinger entertained them with calisthenics, soccer matches and ball games.

Tall and athletic, Mr. Loinger was a Jewish engineer turned physical-education teacher, whose blond hair and blue eyes helped him “pass” as a non-Jew while he traveled across France, secretly visiting the chateaus and other makeshift refu­gee centers to keep his young wards healthy with exercise.

But as anti-Semitic legislation gave way to mass deportations and murder, his exercise routines turned into a morbid form of training, preparation for the day in which Mr. Loinger would, if everything went smoothly, smuggle the children across the border into neutral Switzerland. As a grim backup, it was also preparation in case the children were discovered and sent to a concentration camp.

Mr. Loinger, who had served in the French army and escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp before joining the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, a Jewish relief organization known as the OSE, became one of the war’s most daring smugglers of Jewish children, shepherding them across the Swiss border using schemes that involved the very games he had once taught them for fun and exercise.

While estimates vary, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, credits the OSE with smuggling 2,000 children into Switzerland. “It is probable,” Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt wrote in “Flight From the Reich,” a history of Jewish refugees in the Nazi era, “that Georges Loinger alone was responsible for half that number.”

Mr. Loinger, whom Le Monde described as the “dean of the Jewish resistance in occupied France,” was 108 when he died Dec. 28 at his home in Paris. His death was confirmed by Jean-François Guthmann, president of the OSE, who said he did not know the precise cause.

Mr. Loinger in 2009. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Fluent in German, with a cover story as the physical-education instructor for a Vichy-backed youth organization, Mr. Loinger based his smuggling campaign out of the town of Annemasse, just across the Swiss border from Geneva. The town’s mayor, Jean Deffaugt, introduced him to a network of paid “passeurs,” or smugglers, who ferried many of the children from one side of the border to the other.

But it was Mr. Loinger who often did the smuggling himself, evading the Gestapo and sometimes carrying small children on his back. The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, a French Holocaust remembrance group, credited him with helping more than 350 children cross into Switzerland, as well as with finding homes for 125 German Jewish children in central France.

When children arrived at Anne­masse, having taken the train under false identities, Mr. Loinger often led them to a field near the border, where he organized what he later described as “some really terrific [soccer] games,” according to Mordecai Paldiel’s book “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s