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Remembering Gilles Corcos

Gilles shared his life story in a presentation at the Fellowship in 2021

Gilles and his daughter Nadiya

"I was born in 1926 in France, where I lived until my 18th year. My youth was happy and uneventful. I lived in Paris when I was small and then moved with my family to the south of France, close to the border with Italy. In 1940, the Germans occupied part of northern and eastern France. Artillery was falling around our house, so we retreated westward to Antibes. After the Allied forces entered North Africa in 1942, the German occupation extended to the whole of France. As my ancestors were Jewish, we decided it wasn’t safe to stay in Antibes. My older brother and I went to live as boarders together in the Alps, in Briançon near the Italian border, until early 1944.

Gilles at an American Student World Federalist Meeting

When it seemed we might be caught, we headed toward Spain. With false ID papers we went through Llivia, a small Spanish enclave in France near the French/Spanish border. My brother and I hesitated: was there more risk in surrendering to the Spaniards in Llivia, hoping they wouldn’t take us to the Germans in Spain, or in trying to get into Spain proper? We decided to head for Spain with the aid of the girlfriend of the man who had fabricated our identities. My brother became suspicious, and we ran from that woman towards Llivia. She was taking us in the wrong direction as she was actually working with the Germans. We got into Spain by horse cart, hidden in the back of the cart. We didn’t know the Spanish policy, but we had a story to tell the authorities. We said we were Algerian; we were tired of the bombing in France and wanted to go back to our parents. We arrived in Spain and spent a couple of months in jails under Franco’s government. There were lots of people in jail at that time, including German deserters. In one jail, we couldn’t even lie down all at once; some had to stand up so that others could lie down. We ended up in Casablanca, which was our plan. In Casablanca, we joined the French Army, De Gaulle’s small North African army, and enlisted in the air force. Here I also completed my high school diploma. After a few months, I was sent to the US for pilot training. We arrived in Newark by military convoy and I began flight training and qualified as a bomber pilot. Luckily, my detachment wasn’t involved in the Asian conflict.

Gilles and his fellow student Martin in Ann Arbour

I decided to stay in the US saying that I escaped from France and hadn’t been in school for a while. I was admitted on a student visa and accepted into a small college in Pennsylvania, Lafayette College. They felt they had to have at least one Frenchman because of the name of the college! Afterwards I studied at the University of Michigan and received a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering. I worked for an aircraft company in Santa Monica and was a Post Doc student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for 2 yrs. I was a professor at Berkeley in California where I taught for 32 years in the school of Engineering and in the Department of Geophysics.

Gilles at work on an early project in Nicaragua

At around 62 years of age, I decided I needed to do something else. In 1986, I started an NGO foundation called Agua para la Vida to help rural Central American villages obtain drinking water. I had some training as an engineer in this domain, so began the project with a former student, and it’s still going on. This is one of the most memorable parts of my life, as much as my 30-year academic career. I also started a manufacturing enterprise, Dicon, making fiberoptic components for telecommunications, with a PhD student who was familiar with this. I wasn’t the boss, but I was active in Dicon for quite a while and am still Chairman of the Board. I was married in the States, and I have 3 daughters. One lives in Congers, one in Berkeley, and one in Bristol, England. My Berkeley daughter, from a small Western American Indian tribe, was handed to us when she was one day old; now she’s over 60, of course.

In 1990, I went back to France on a sabbatical leave and completed a second PhD in Physics. By this time I thought I was American, and I was interested to see if I still had some French identity. I started living like French people. In a patisserie, listening to a conversation between the baker and a woman at the counter, suddenly I realized: I’m French! To put down roots when you’re older is complicated—I’m still not finished.

I like mountains. I did technical climbing until I was 79. And skiing: I stopped that when I started having physical problems. I also enjoy talking about our life experiences." - Gilles Corocs

Gilles passed away on September 10, 2023, which was also his 96th birthday! He is fondly remembered around the Fellowship Community and is greatly missed.

Staff from APLV Nicaragua after they held a Mass for Gilles in September, 2023 after his passing.


To make a gift to the Fellowship Community in honor of Gilles Corcos please visit


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