A teacher offers lessons in standing up to evil
Retired social studies teacher Arlette deMonceau Michaelis often shared with her sixth-grade students her stories of sheltering Jews and brazenly defying the Nazis when she was a teenager in Belgium.
They always found her stories more captivating than anything they could learn from a book.
“Even now,” writes Michaelis, “when I bump into…my former students, they recall with undue clarity the pranks we played on the Nazis but have forgotten the precious moments I spent teaching them about [Evangelista] Torricelli and the fabulous experiments we performed to illustrate his discovery of air pressure.”
“[M]y life as a teenager during the Nazi occupation had that special cachet which gave me the opportunity to connect with my students in a very concrete way.”
Michaelis’s tribute to her students appears in the introduction of a book she wrote to share that connection with a much wider circle.
Four years ago, retired after a career of teaching in schools in Cape May County, Michaelis began to write her wartime memoir, Beyond the Ouija Board: A WW II Teenager in Occupied Belgium. Today she speaks at schools throughout the state, and on Thursday, Jan. 20, Michaelis will appear at Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen.
In her book and her talks, Michaelis relates how she, the oldest of three children, joined her family in resisting the Germans in Brussels. They would smuggle home contraband food from the countryside, harass Nazis on street cars, publish anti-Nazi newsletters, and shelter Jews in their apartment. These activities landed her parents and brother, Guy, in Saint Gilles Prison in Brussels.
Michaelis told NJJN in a phone interview that when Jews were hidden in the deMonceau family apartment, her father “always gave the children he rescued our last name to protect them.”
Left alone, the young Arlette and her sister, Ginette, dealt with frigid temperatures and meager food rations. Arlette became a courier and aide to Father Bruno Reynders, the Belgian monk who rescued and sheltered Jews and has been honored by Yad Vashem.
As a courier, Michaelis would bring supplies to Jews hidden in safe houses and convents and help ferry those in need of medical assistance to a doctor or dentist.
“I would go shopping for them, bring them food and groceries, and Father Bruno would give me the money,” she told NJJN.
In April, Michaelis will be honored at the Israeli embassy by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Last year, she received the Anti-Defamation League’s “Courage to Care” award.
In accepting the award, Michaelis said it should be shared with her family and the Belgian neighbors who chose not to expose the family to the Nazis.
Michaelis has said that she never expected to be recognized for “doing what was the human thing to do.”
“You must help your fellow human beings no matter who they are,” she told NJJN. “No matter what, all human beings deserve your help, and when you see somebody with a need you must come to their rescue. But, perhaps the most difficult thing to do is to learn to forgive your enemy.”