Elisabeth Eidenbenz

Elisabeth Eidenbenz  ( 1913 – 2011 ) –  Was a Swiss nurse who set up a maternity home for pregnant Spanish refugee mothers in SW France. She also flouted Swiss neutrality and risked her life to offer a haven to Jewish mothers escaping the Nazi Gestapo.

In 1939, an extraordinary woman Elizabeth Eidenbenz ( 1913 – 2011), opened Maternitat d’ Elne,( the maternity home of Elne). Elne is a small town in South East France. She wanted to offer a safe haven for pregnant women, many of whom were Spanish Republicans who’d escaped into France during ‘The Retirada’ or retreat as a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. The story of what had taken place there had been forgotten
Born on 12 June 1913, Elisabeth, the daughter of a Zurich pastor, first taught in Switzerland and Denmark before she decided to join the Asociación de Ayuda a los Niños en Guerra (“Association to Aid Children in War”). She arrived in Madrid on April 24, 1937 as a volunteer in an aid team but soon relocated to the South of France. Appalled by the situation of mothers and children amongst the Spanish refugees, treated abysmally by the French authorities, she decided to convert an abandoned château into a maternity home.                                                                                                                                                       A large house was found, situated on the road to Montescot and just outside Elne. It was known as the Château d’En Bardou because it had belonged to the Bardou-Job dynasty, creators of the famed “Le Nil” brand of cigarette paper. The château was in a lamentable state and Elizabeth, ever visionary, obtained 30,000 francs from the Swiss Red Cross (Aide Suisse aux enfants) for the repairs and renovations. A lovely touch in her creation of the hospital, completed in November 1939, was to name each different room after a city in Spain to remind the young mothers-to-be of their roots.  Names of other rooms included Madrid (the nursery), Seville (for sick children), Cordoba (for expectant mothers), Barcelona, Bilbao, Santander, Zaragossa, San Sebastien etc.

The building was beautiful when cleaned and made habitable. It was constructed in the form of a Greek cross on four levels, with light penetrating from a cupola and glass roof through three glass floors. At the lower garden level were communal rooms, the laundry, kitchen and storeroom. At ground level (at the top of the flight of steps leading to the entrance) was the grand octagonal room on one side where the women sat during the day, whilst on the other side was the dining room. On the first floor was the octagonal nursery facing south, the delivery room and another room for those who had just given birth. The second floor housed bedrooms, each with three or four beds apart from Elisabeth’s room which also served as an office. The stairs continued upwards through a wrought-ironed lantern, with magnificent views of the Roussillon plain and the peak of  Canigou, all territory which was formerly part of the Catalonia.

Hélène Legrais wrote about her in her book “A Light in the Hearth”, which describes how the home sought to provide entertainment, games for the children and wholesome food. The Catalan cellist  Pau ( Pablo) Casals (“plump, small and balding, with a soft hat”),  who  had left his home in Spain after Franco’s Coup d’Etat in 1936 to live in nearby Prades., visited and offered encouragement, money and support                                                      

On Elizabeth’s 30th birthday in 1943, when everyone was “no longer in Elne but somewhere in the mountains of Switzerland”, they sang the hymn of the Swiss Red Cross and messages arrived from many former mothers of the château. One moving tribute declared: “You are a light in the hearth, always your usual self with a warm and peaceful radiance. Your face never reveals your own feelings because you think only of others.”                                                                                                                           
However, Elizabeth showed her real bravery when she decided to block and conceal from the Gestapo and French any Jewish children and parents when they were rounded up in 1942. The notoriously sordid and inhumane camp at nearby Rivesaltes had become an “accommodation centre” since January 1941. Elisabeth received a circular from the executive committee of the Red Cross ordering her “to give up Jews, Tziganes and Spanish refugees if you are requested and do nothing to shield them from the roundups.” This shows how many organisations can and are compromised. We can make many comparisons today, but fortunately there are brave men and women, like Elizabeth, who stand up for humanity.                                                                                                                                        Maurice Eckstein, a Jewish father was also given refuge in the hayloft and thus escaped La Rafle or Roundup. His son, Guy Eckstein, now living in Geneva, has written a tribute to Elisabeth in his foreword to Hélène Legrais’s book. When the Gestapo in their black leather coats and grey-green soft hats came the first time to La Maternité looking for Jews, Elisabeth sent them packing. The second time, however, she was not so lucky. They came demanding to take away Lucie, a Jewish mother. (Her baby had not survived but she had stayed on to give her milk to other mothers.) The Kommandatur threatened that if Lucie was not produced they would take Elisabeth instead. So she asked for a few moments to pack her bags and re-emerged – but with Lucie also. Lucie had flatly refused to accept Elisabeth’s sacrifice and gave herself up.Elizabeth was soon on the train in a cattle wagon from Elne to Rivesaltes, whence she was transferred via Drancy to the gas chambers at Mauthausen – where some 20,000 others followed the same route, including at least one other protégée of Elizabeth named Esther. She fortunately managed to survive.

Not cut out for marriage Elizabeth once told her closest confidente at Elne, Teresa, that she had no romantic interest in men – “I don’t believe I have the qualities of a good wife.”As for having children? “I already have them”, she said.

On 22 March 2002 she made the journey for a moving ceremony, organised by Elne’s Mayor Nicolas Garcia and Guy Eckstein, at La Maternité. (It was then owned by Monsieur François Charpentier.) As well as meeting some 30 mothers from her former “family”, Elisabeth received the Medal of the Just among Nations from Israel’s Consul General based in Marseille. Later, in 2006, she would receive the Légion d’Honneur and La Médaille de l’Ordre Civil et de la Solidarité, as well as the Croix de Saint Jordi, from the Catalan Parliament who purchased it and opened it to the public as a memorial and museum in 2012. Elisabeth died on May 23rd 2011 in Zürich (Switzerland) at the age of  98, before the museum opened. It is interesting that she didn’t receive any recognition until the last few years of her life.

Acknowledgements, some references and follow up below;-

Homage to Catalonia (Penguin 1986) George Orwell. A vivid account of his experiences fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War

L’Accent Catalan (current official journal of the Conseil Général)

Museu Memorial de L’Exili, La Jonquera– one of the finest museums anywhere, and devoted entirely to La Retirada at the town La Jonquera in Catalonia

Helene Legrais French author of‘ Light of the Hearth’ about Elizabeth Eidenbenz’s life at Elne

Written for Sheroes of History by Sue Crampton.


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