Jewish woman pays tribute to Catholic saviours

Esther Graham, née Lass, flanked by sisters Madeleine and Yvonne Gustin, right, in wartime Belgium

Esther Graham, née Lass, flanked by sisters Madeleine and Yvonne Gustin, right, in wartime Belgium

A British woman who was saved from the Nazis during the war has paid tribute to the Catholic family who gave her shelter — and who were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem last week.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose father spent time in camps with the British Righteous Gentile Charles Coward, presented 90-year-old Yvonne Gustin with the award, honouring her entire family, at a ceremony at the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels.

Belgian-born Esther Lass, 76, was sheltered by the Gustin family when she was six-years-old. She stayed with the family until 1946 and later married a British Jew, Raymond Graham. Today she lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north-west London.

Mrs Graham recalled her escape in 1942. “A German officer, who used to buy from my father’s grocery store in Mons, took a liking to the family,” she said.

Esther Graham, née Lass

Esther Graham, née Lass

“He would sometimes look at me and say ‘I have a little girl like her’ — there were a few good ones I suppose.”

The officer had seen the Lass family’s name on a list of people who were to be arrested by the Nazis. “The officer went to my father and said we should leave. We didn’t ask any questions and left in the middle of the night. The Gestapo were at the shop the next afternoon.”

Mrs Graham’s father was also part of the Belgian resistance and managed to find refuge with the Gustin family. While Esther was sheltered by Joseph and Elize Gustin, her parents were hidden in another village about 10km away.

“I remember my parents walking me through the woods to the Gustins’ wheat and flour mill — it was completely isolated. My parents explained that they still loved me and reminded me to say Shema Yisrael. They said it was safer to live here and this family were very kind and brave to look after me,” she said.

Joseph and Elize Gustin, well-known resistance fighters, sheltered fellow comrades at their home. Mrs Graham recalled: “There was a camp behind the mill that many men used to hide in, and at night, the men would come to the house and take food.”

Mrs Graham was passed off as Elize Gustin’s illegitimate daughter “Etty” — “I never thought of myself as a survivor,” she said. “I was so lucky and so well looked after — I even got to see my family from time to time.

“I used to go to church on Sundays. We had to make it look normal. My parents had already explained this to me. They were practising Catholics and mass was something you had to do. In the bedroom at night, I would say the Shema.”

She attended the awards ceremony in Brussels and said: “I looked at Yvonne’s face when she received the award for the whole family, and she was so proud. They were part of my family then, and I still regard them as part of my family now.”

Yvonne is the youngest daughter of the Gustin family. She received the honour on behalf of her parents who were recognised as Righteous Gentiles in November 2011.

A Yad Vashem spokesperson said: “We continue to recognise and honour Righteous Gentiles with posthumous medals if they’re no longer with us”.

Last updated: 2:45pm, March 14 2013