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Andrée Geulen

It was lucky that I still hadn’t rented an apartment in Brussels by the time Covid hit. I had been looking at a few places and, in the meantime, used Air B&B. Other MEPs had not been so lucky and were stuck paying rent for places that they rarely stayed in. In September 2021, I finally signed on the dotted line for a one-bed apartment in the Dansaert area.

I chose not to live close to the European Parliament preferring the centre of Brussels with its restaurants and coffee shops. By contrast, the European district is ok during the week but utterly lifeless at the weekend.

The Grand Place is a few minutes walk away and almost always packed with tourists. After that, Brussels is not famous for its landmark attractions like, say, Paris or London. A tiny bronze statue of a boy urinating attracts thousands every day, proving that not all attractions are attractive.

Even closer to my apartment is another small bronze statue of a dog urinating (not making this up) and this also attracts hundreds of visitors every day.

But, like all cities, it’s the stories that bring the place alive - some good stories and some bad.

Just a few hundred yards from my apartment is the Royal Atheneum secondary school. It was the first non-religious school for girls in Belgium, opening its doors for the first time in 1864. The school was set up by a 25-year-old Belgian pioneer named Isabel Gatti de Gamond, the daughter of an Italian artist and a Belgian feminist.

Among the teachers at the school were Marie Popelin, the first Belgian woman to receive a doctorate and Marie Janson, the first woman to serve in the Belgian senate.

In the 1940s during the Nazi occupation, the principal of the boarding school was Odile Henri-Ovart. On the 12th of June 1943, she and her husband Remi were arrested at the school and deported to Bergen Belsen. Odile died of typhus a few days before the liberation of the camp.

11 Jewish children were also arrested that day and subsequently murdered.

Also teaching there at the time was Andrée Geulen. The authorities questioned her and asked her was she not ashamed to be teaching Jewish children. She boldly asked them if they were not ashamed to be persecuting Jewish children.

They let her go not realising the extent of her involvement in helping to protect Jewish children.

At one point, a street photographer randomly took her picture a few steps ahead of Nazi officers while she was concealing the names of two Jewish children in the instep of her shoe.

Since 1942, had been part of a network of 12 women across Belgium finding safe hiding places for Jewish children. She had been shocked to see the kids having to wear a yellow star on their uniforms. The children were mortified and humiliated to have to wear the star so Andrée decided, in an act of solidarity, that all the children in the school would wear an apron over their uniforms.

After the war, she estimated that she was involved in saving 300 or 400 children among the 3000 saved by the network. The work to reunite them with survivors and relatives was painstaking and, of course, often unsuccessful.

She married a Roma survivor of the concentration camps in 1948 and had her own children and grandchildren.

She made regular appearances across international media in the years that followed and when asked whether she was a hero, she said that she didn’t see it that way and was satisfied that the experience gave her personal self-confidence for the rest of her life.

She died in a nursing home in Brussels on the 31st May 2022 aged 100. A life well lived and righteous among the nations.

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