This Preschool Teacher Risked Her Life to Save Her Students

Group portrait of children and teachers in the Nos Petits school for Jewish kindergarten students. Jewish staff members have been forced to wear a Star of David. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Olivia Mattis.

Those who chose to resist the Nazis during World War II weren’t necessarily choosing to risk their lives. But for Jeanne Daman, a young Belgian Catholic, her sense of right and wrong drew her deeper into danger.

When Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, Daman was working as a schoolteacher. The Nazis organized the classroom curriculum to fit their propaganda requirements.

“I couldn’t teach what I wanted to. I wouldn’t teach what they wanted me to,” Daman wrote in her diary of her decision to resign from public school teaching. “My parents agreed. I took employment as a secretary. I spoke German. I was Catholic. The Nazis paid me no attention. I was ‘safe.’”

Word got around about Daman’s first small act of resistance, quitting over the Nazi’s curriculum. After Jewish children were barred from attending public schools, a Jewish woman named Fela Perelman approached Daman and asked whether she would be willing to join the staff of Nos Petits, a Jewish kindergarten in Brussels. Daman was only 21 years old at the time.

“I had no contact with Judaism or the Jewish world, but the need was demonstrated clearly when we heard that (due to a Nazi raid) a small child left alone at home fell through a window to the street below and was killed. Having been raised in an anti-Nazi atmosphere, my immediate impulse was to agree to go into this work. It was essentially a question for me to take a political position, one of solidarity with the victims of the Nazis and sympathy for the children involved.”

Daman became the headmistress of Nos Petits at age 23. Jewish schools had a precarious existence. Keeping the children together was dangerous. Nazi raids on Jews had already begun. The tactics of the Nos Petits staff changed as the occupation went on, especially after an incident Daman described in her diary:

It was at the height of the raids. We knew, of course, when children didn’t come to roll call, that meant their families, including them, had been taken by the Nazis. It became the way of life for us, day after day. But one day, Gestapo agents arrived at the school in a truck. They named three children, told me they had been asked by their mothers to pick them up and take the little ones to them. These Gestapo men were pleasant and polite. Of course, I knew what it meant. But I had to think of the 60 other children we had in our school that day.

I was helpless to stand up to them and I didn’t. I dressed those children myself — the youngest was three-and-a-half years old. I put them in the truck myself, delaying the moment when the Nazis would touch them. And they took them away. We learned later that the parents were hiding and the Nazis used this trick to get them out in the open. It worked. They got them all.

I knew those children would never be seen again, or their families. I couldn’t intervene without peril to all our children. But I felt I should have done SOMETHING. I was anti-Nazi by conviction before. Now I wanted to strike back myself, to damage them.

Thus began Daman’s clandestine efforts to find shelter and hiding places for the children — to save their lives. Initially, children were placed with non-Jewish Belgian families simply out of a spirit of solidarity toward children in danger. However, as time passed, it became necessary to find money to make monthly payments to families providing shelter for the children. Children were given new names and identities. These details would be rehearsed repeatedly with the child, with the teacher stressing the importance of never making a mistake.

There were times, however, when the placements did not work out well, and Daman was forced to move the child again. Eventually, Jewish schools, including Nos Petits, were closed. Fela Perelman once again asked Daman to deepen her commitment, this time by joining the resistance more actively. Daman writes that from the time “I stood and watched those three children taken away from me,” she was ready.

A network emerged placing Jewish women as maids in the homes of the Belgian elite. Daman was involved in obtaining false identity papers and ration cards for them. She also worked with the resistance to search for people who were denouncing Jews to the Gestapo.

Near the end of the war, Daman further put her life in harm’s way by transporting arms on her bicycle and providing intelligence. After the war, she continued her efforts by reuniting Jewish orphans with their families and fundraising for Israel through the United Jewish Appeal. She was honored in 1971 by the Belgian Jewish Committee, the King of Belgium, and Yad Vashem, who credited her with saving the lives of as many as 2,000 children.

This story was written by Kristin Thompson, the Museum’s program coordinator for education initiatives, as part of “Oath and Opposition: Education under the Third Reich,” a case study for teachers.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org