Reflections on Lois Gunden from a Mennonite Jew

by Barbie Fischer

Lois Clemens
Lois Gunden was the first woman to teach Sunday School at Plains.

There has been a buzz around the past few weeks as news came that Lois Gunden, the first woman to teach a Sunday School Class at Plains Mennonite Church and one of their first elders, was to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. on January 27. She was first given the award in 2013, but only now was the ceremony taking place, the first such official ceremony held in the United States. Lois and three others were honored at the event in which President Barack Obama spoke. She is one of five Americans to ever receive the award. The award is given through the Yad Vashem, a living memorial to the holocaust, a prestigious award in the Jewish community.  When I heard the news of the ceremony, it was a joyous moment and one that provided me with a renewed sense of hope.

The past year has been a roller coaster for my identity. With discussion in MCUSA and our conference around the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, the findings discussed at Mennonite World Conference that Mennonites may have played an active role with the Nazi regime in World War II, and the fact that more and more people seem to be assuming that being Jewish means you support the state of Israel, I have been led to often stop and contemplate: is it really possible for me to hold these two pieces of my identity together, can I really be a Jewish Mennonite?

JuifI was raised in an Anabaptist home and when it comes to being Jewish, my family is far more Anabaptist then Jewish. My parents were both raised as Christians and don’t observe any Jewish traditions. However, at a young age I became enamored with stories from the holocaust and reading about the lives of Jews in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was struck by stories like Lois Gunden’s of people who risked their own lives to save others.

I remember my father once saying that Jesus was a Jew and the Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree, so Judaism is the trunk and roots of Christianity (Romans 11:11-24). It was soon after that that my family allowed me to begin to observe some of the Jewish traditions. These traditions have always been life-giving to me; times of reflection and deeper contemplation on God’s word, often reaffirming my faith in Jesus Christ.

Recently, however, I have found this piece of me often in conflict with my more-predominant Mennonite side and it has been difficult for me to grasp why. James Hamrick, of North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Ill., recently wrote an article that appeared in The Mennonite entitled, Jesus was a Jew: A challenge to anti-Judaism in our churches. As I read the article it resonated with me. I have felt this growing tension between my being a Mennonite and a Jew. It is not a new tension — after all I am the descendant of recent German immigrant and a European Jew. Recently, though, as we work to stand with the Palestinians and bring voice to their plight, our words and actions have felt harsh to my Jewish side. As a peace church we work so hard to stand with the oppressed and right now in the Middle East, it is clear the Palestinians are more oppressed than the Israelis. Yet this war has a deep complex root system that I think we often fail to recognize. As Mennonites we also have a deep complex history when it comes to the people involved in this conflict. There is a tension here, a tension to pick sides, yet as a peace church, as peacebuilders, are we not called to build bridges between the sides?

The President began his remarks at the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony with a teaching from the Talmud I have posted in my home: “if a person destroys one life, it is as if they’ve destroyed an entire world, and if a person saves one life, it is as if they’ve saved an entire world.” The teaching says “person”, not Jew, not Israeli, not Palestinian, or any other people group — just person.  When I look at my best friend’s husband, I do not see a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, even though that is who he is. I see my brother, my fellow Christian, my friend, a person.

Lois Gunden went to France in October of 1941 in her early twenties to work with refugee children. As deportations began, she protected the Jewish children from inevitable death at Auschwitz.  President Barak Obama stated at the event, “The four lives we honor tonight make a claim on our conscience, as well as our moral imagination.  We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act?  How would we answer God’s question, where are you? … Would we have the extraordinary compassion of Lois Gunden?  She wrote that she simply hoped to “add just another ray of love to the lives of these youngsters” who had already endured so much.  And by housing and feeding as many Jewish children as she could, her ray of love always shone through, and still burns within the families of those she saved.”

As we look to the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, as we go to the margins, as we live out being the peace church we are, sharing God’s love, may we acknowledge our own role good or bad in history and present day, may we learn from the past, and may we remember the story of Lois Gunden and others like her. As she did, may our rays of love always shine through, to all people in all places.

To read more about the life of Lois Gunden in France click here: https://themennonite.org/feature/righteous-gentile-lois-gunden-righteous-gentile/

For more on how Lois was nominated click here: http://franconiaconference.org/lois-gunden-clemens-named-righteous-among-the-nations/

For a transcript of the Presidents remarks visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/27/remarks-president-righteous-among-nations-award-ceremony

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