Jeanne Brousse said she did not know any Jews before she began rescuing them as a young clerk at her local prefecture in Nazi-occupied France.
“I felt horrified by the atrocious fate likely to befall all these innocent victims whose only ‘mistake’ was to have been born Jewish,” she once told the historian Martin Gilbert. “I was determined to find solutions so that the greatest number of those who came to me could be saved.”
Brousse, who in 1973 was named Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, died Oct. 19 at a nursing home in Annecy, the Alpine town near the Swiss border where she conducted her life-saving wartime work. She was 96.
Her son Denis Brousse confirmed her death and said he did not yet know the cause.
As one of the Righteous Among the Nations, Brousse was among the more than 26,000 gentiles recognized by Yad Vashem for having risked their safety, while seeking no reward, to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
In an account of her deeds, Yad Vashem described Brousse as having been “known by Jews living [in] or near Annecy … as someone to turn to in time of need.” That need became most dire after September 1943, when Italy, which had occupied Annecy and had largely refused Nazi demands for the deportation of Jews, abandoned the Axis to join the Allies.
Under German control, the Jews of Annecy and elsewhere in France faced imminent and mortal danger. Brousse, then Jeanne Maurier, credited her Catholic faith with giving her the courage to confront her own dangers as a rescuer.
“I was faced with a number of painful, tragic situations,” Gilbert quoted her as saying in his book “The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust.” “Nothing was organized at the beginning. We had to find individual solutions case by case — quickly. It was so risky. My family and I were faced with impossible problems and we had to think of ideas, subterfuge and ruses.”
Yad Vashem credited Brousse with using her access to prefecture materials to provide ration cards and false identification documents for Jews seeking to escape detection by Germans or French collaborators.
Working with the French resistance, she helped find hiding places, particularly for Jewish children. Among those children were Francoise, Nicole and Danielle Schilli, daughters of a French rabbi, Henri Schilli, who survived the war and testified to Yad Vashem of Brousse’s works.
Using her government contacts, she learned and warned Jews of impending roundups and helped them flee to the neutral territory of Switzerland.
Approximately 77,000 Jews residing in French territory died in the Holocaust, most of them at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp located in occupied Poland, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Gilbert wrote that “several dozen families owed their escape” to Brousse.
Jeanne Elise Maurier was born in Saint-Pierre-de-Curtille, near Annecy, on April 12, 1921. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father worked at the prefecture.
Jeannette, as she was known, was preparing to enroll in nursing school in Paris when the war broke out. Her son said she began her rescue work when a French Jew approached her, knowing that she worked at the prefecture, and with utmost discretion asked for her help.
In 1944, after her region of France was liberated, she married Jean Brousse, also a local government employee. He died in 2003. Their daughter, Claudie Brousse, died in her teens. Survivors include two sons, Michel Brousse of Lyon, France, and Denis Brousse of Smithville, New Jersey; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Denis Brousse said his mother did not speak about her rescue work until the 1970s, when she received her Yad Vashem recognition. Later in life, she participated in public discussions about the Holocaust and the ongoing threats of anti-Semitism.
“Our first duty consists in overcoming our self-centeredness — to inconvenience oneself, to deprive oneself — when one of our human brethren is in danger,” Mordecai Paldiel, the former director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous, once quoted her as saying, “whoever he may be, from wherever he may come.”
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