French Resistance hero Georges Loinger, a former prisoner of war who helped hundreds of Jewish children escape occupied France during World War II, died on Dec. 28, 2018, at his home in Paris. He was 108 years old.
Loinger, a Jew whose light hair and blue eyes helped him travel freely across France, was born in Strasbourg on August 29, 1910. His parents were Polish Jews.
Loinger, who served in the French army during World War II, was captured by the Germans and sent to Stalag VII-A, a POW camp near Munich. While there, he received a letter from his wife, Flore.
“She was in charge of 123 Jewish children at a chateau owned by the Rothschilds,” Loinger told the Jerusalem Post in 2011, “and she told me she was having great difficulty with caring for them. So I decided to escape, together with my cousin, who was with me at the POW camp, and we made our way back to France to help her.”
After returning to France, Loinger joined the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a Jewish relief organization that strove to provide safe haven to at-risk children, many of whose parents had been sent to concentration camps.
The athletic Loinger traveled extensively across France, visiting the private homes and refugee centers where the children were being housed to help keep the children occupied and healthy by teaching them to exercise.
As the Nazis furthered clamped on French Jews, resorting to violence and mass deportations, the OSE began to smuggle the children across the border into Switzerland, and Loinger came up with ingenious ways to help in that effort.
It’s been estimated that the OSE helped as many as 2,000 children to escape across the border, and Loinger was directly responsible for at least 350 of those rescues and perhaps as many as 1,000.
Loinger, who was fluent in German, was based in the town of Annemasse, just across the border from Geneva, Switzerland. He worked with paid smugglers to get small groups of children across the border to safety, but he sometimes took on the dangerous task himself.
Loinger, whose cousin was fellow Resistance member and mime artist Marcel Marceau, also came up with clever ruses to help the children cross the border. When Italian troops were occupying the Franco-Swiss border, he would take children newly arrived in Annemasse to a field near the border for a soccer game and have them chase a ball toward the border so that they could make their escape.
As Loinger explained in early 2018 to Tablet magazine, “I threw the ball 100 metres towards the Swiss border and told the children to run and get the ball. They ran after the ball and this is how they crossed. 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.”
Another trick Loinger devised was to dress children in mourning attire and take them to a cemetery which had a wall very near the border. A conveniently placed gravedigger’s ladder helped the children scale the wall and cross the border into Switzerland, where Swiss authorities had agreed to help them find new homes.
In 2005, the French government named Loinger Commander of the Military Legion of Honor. He was also awarded him the Medal of Resistance, the Military Cross, and the Gold Medal of the National Education Youth and Sports Ministry. In July 2016, he was made an officer in the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.