Jeanne Daman was not a Jew. She had never broken any laws or been in any trouble. She was by all accounts a model Belgian citizen, professional, helpful, and law abiding. A young schoolteacher used to minding her own business. But Daman was raised Catholic with a strong sense of right and wrong, and that moral clarity helped guide her when the world she lived in slipped into madness and prejudice.
In 1942 in Nazi occupied Brussels, Jewish children were barred from normal public schools in a discriminatory decree by the Nazis designed to fracture, weaken, and punish the Jewish community. Of course, Jewish families living in Brussels didn’t take this lying down and they raced to set up their own alternative schooling for their children. As a schoolteacher Daman saw this naked discrimination for what it was and understood the damage it would do to both young children developmentally, and their families having the extra burden of daytime child care thrust on them. When Fela Perelman, an organizer dedicated to helping Jewish children, asked if she would be interested in helping with a Jewish kindergarten, she readily accepted the offer with no hesitation.
Daman joined "Nos Petits,” an alternative Jewish school educating around 325 children. It was an act she was proud of, but being in close contact with Jewish children and their families was to be confronted with the full terrible reality of what was happening in her country. She could see these were mere ordinary children, with ordinary parents who worried about the same things as French or English or even German parents, and they were persecuted for no reason and with no mercy. Each day another child or two would fail to attend and every time they investigated why they were met with the same grim story – their family was rounded up.
Orphans began to collect along the margins of society. Jewish children who by mistake or miracle were not arrested and deported with their parents who were left adrift and lost with nowhere to go. Daman and her fellow teachers took in these children and tried to find them homes. Soon, Jewish parents who understood what was likely to happen began approaching them in advance, asking Daman and Perelman to help protect or hide their children. These were acts of pure desperation, no parent wants to willfully give up their child. But they saw it as a choice between that or death.
Seeing the brutality and cruelty of the Nazis’ persecution against the Jews up close changed Daman. Her already strong convictions hardened to pure steel. She became more and more involved in efforts to save these children and disrupt the Nazi occupation.
Before too long the school was closed. It had ceased to be a safe place to send Jewish children and instead became a tempting target of harassment and arrests. Working with the ONE (l'Oeuvre Nationale de l'Enfance) resistance group, plans were made and carried out to smuggle many of the children attending the school to willing Belgian families. These children would be coolly plucked from a train station one day and suddenly arrive in another with a new name, ethnicity, and family, the Nazis none the wiser.
With the school closed and the majority of students either safely placed with new families or returned to their own, Daman could have walked away. She had already played a huge role in helping many families and taken a lot of risk. No one would have faulted her if she decided she had done her part and spent the rest of the occupation keeping her head down. But that’s not with she did.
Daman only ramped up her efforts to safeguard and protect innocent Jewish children. She traveled across Belgium making connections and finding trusted sympathizers to help organize the protection these orphans would need. She made connections with churches, wealthy families, and more to get Jewish children new identities, ration cards, and shelter.
As the occupation became more brutal Daman found herself helping more and more adult Jews. The desperation was palpable and so was the risk. Working with resistance friends, Daman helped Jewish women procure new identities and join respectable Belgian families as "maids” and "domestic help.” It’s unknown how many lives she helped save with these clandestine maneuvers.
All the while, Daman was keeping tabs on hundreds of children she had helped save. She would ferry messages between them and maintained a small but vital line of communication between them and their surviving relatives. If not for this, many of these children might never have found a way home after the war.
Eventually Daman joined full-fledged resistance efforts. While she previously limited her activities helping Jewish children and vulnerable adults (particularly women) her distain for the Nazis and their Belgian collaborators grew. It wasn’t enough to protect people from harm, she had to start preventing the harm from occurring in the first place. And the easiest place to start was with collaborators.
With the distance of history, it is easy to forget what an absolute abomination the collaborator was. These were Belgians who saw the Nazis kill their own sons and husbands in battle, trample over their corpses, plant their swastika flag on their land, and install a system of brutal oppressive laws targeting the most vulnerable among them. Instead of having the courage to resist, or the resolve to bear the injustice of the occupation while giving the Nazis as little aid or deference as possible, the collaborator raced to put themselves first. They would send an entire family to a concentration camp just for a few extra ration cards from the Nazis. Imagine the horror of your neighbor effectively sentencing you and your children to death all for an extra half pound of butter - unimaginable selfishness and evil.
Daman helped resistance members identify and isolate collaborators. Finding employment as a social worker with the Secours D’Hiver welfare organization, Daman used her role and small amount of authority to travel freely and access documents that would otherwise be out of reach for the resistance. While she never pulled the trigger herself, she pointed the resistance in the right direction and played a role in luring some collaborators to discrete locations where they could be handled without attention.
Daman became more brazenly involved in open resistance operations. She would smuggle weapons to different resistance members on her bicycle, peddling past the watchful eye of the Gestapo. She relayed intelligence and messages between cells, organizing ways for the people to fight back against the Nazis.
Her journal heartbreakingly illustrates why she was driven to such lengths. The deep well of anger, sadness, and even guilt that pushed her on, day after day, to risk her life for others.
"…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.”
Daman was never caught. She saved untold hundreds of Jewish children, women, and men. Her clandestine efforts with the resistance to route out collaborators and disrupt the occupying Nazis no doubt saved many lives as well. After the war she worked diligently to reunite as many young Jews with their surviving families as possible, and to raise funds for Israel so they would have a safe land to call their own with the UJA (United Jewish Appeal). Her great works were recognized both by the Belgian government and in Israel. She was inducted into Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations in 1972, a well-deserved recognition for someone who did so much for the least of her neighbors.