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100-year-old Groton woman leaves legacy of wartime service and resistance

Groton — Liliane Coucke Smith, whose service as a wartime nurse, member of the Belgian resistance effort and organizer of refugee resettlement camps in Germany was recognized on the U.S. Senate floor in September on the occasion of her 100th birthday, died Thursday at her home in Groton Long Point.

She was "rather modest" but enjoyed talking about her World War II experiences, said Dudley Smith, her husband of 64 years.

The couple met when Dudley Smith, a New Jersey native serving as a cryptographer for the U.S. Navy, was assigned as an aide to the deputy commander of the Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy. 

Liliane, who was fluent in many languages, was assigned to the same admiral, who instructed Dudley Smith, a lieutenant, that she was the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel — a higher rank than Smith's — and he should walk three steps behind her.

"And that's what I did for 64 years," Dudley Smith said, in jest, by phone Friday morning. They were married in Naples in 1956, but not before he had proposed several times. They had three children: Dudley Smith of North Carolina, Michelle Lambeaux of Arizona and Craig Smith of Stonington.

She was born in Paris in 1920. She was raised in Brussels, Belgium, by a single mother, who would have her hide under the stairs when people came to their home because it was scandalous that the mother was unmarried, said Liliane Smith's daughter-in-law, Kelly Reardon.

While attending school, she met Jacques Leten, a member of a prominent Belgian family. After graduation from high school, she enrolled in nursing school and became engaged to Leten, who was a law student. In 1940, at the age of 20, they joined the Belgian Resistance, an underground movement opposed to the German occupation of Belgium.

Liliane Smith told amazing stories of her time in the Resistance, Reardon said. Once, while moving a printing press that members used to disseminate information clandestinely to one another, she encountered a Nazi soldier who asked if he could help her carry the two heavy suitcases that held the printing press. 

"She said, 'Certainly,'" Reardon recalled. "And he picked them up and he said, 'These are very heavy. What are they?'"

Smith told him they were nursing supplies, and the soldier believed her. He carried them onto the train and rode with her to the next station.

"She was terrified, because she would have been executed" if found out, Reardon said. She got off the train and was able to go on her way.

Some time later, she went to a cafe to meet her fiancé. She arrived before him, and a mutual friend of theirs gave her a look and told her she had to leave immediately, Reardon said. Nazis had discovered that members of the Resistance met at the cafe. Her fiancé was captured when he arrived, and she never saw him again. She learned later that he was brought to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he died while being tortured during an experiment to see how long somebody could survive in ice water.

She went into Germany in April 1945, serving as a nurse with the advancing Allied Forces.

After the war, she joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and helped establish six camps to provide medical and resettlement services to Jews coming out of concentration camps.

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Brussels extended its condolences to Liliane Smith's family, noting in a Facebook post that she had helped to save hundreds of lives in the aftermath of World War II, and that she and her husband had been guests of honor for many years at Belgium Memorial Day ceremonies.

In 1950, she was sent to Italy to see what care she could provide for children who were being sent to the United States, her husband said. She was working there when the Korean War started, and that's when she was asked to be an interpreter and translator for the Sixth Fleet.

The couple moved to the United States, where Dudley Smith worked in the management consulting field, and they started their family. In 1970, they relocated to her native Brussels, where his company was opening an office, and they lived there for 35 years, with stints in 19 different countries.

"Those were good times," Dudley Smith recalled.

While in Brussels, Liliane Smith co-founded a group to help ex-patriate American women adjust to Belgian life.

They returned to New York in 2003, and eventually retired to Groton Long Point. Dudley Smith had spent summers there as a child, and Liliane Smith fell in love with the area.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaking on the Senate floor on Sept. 22, 2020, said her "tireless dedication to helping others in even the most arduous times is a credit to her generous spirit."

"Mrs. Smith sets an inspiring model for all of us through her readiness to embrace new challenges and serve those in need," Blumenthal said. "Her incredible legacy will be enduring."

To view a 2016 video of Liliane Smith describing her career, go to bit.ly/lilianesmith.

k.florin@theday.com

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