Wednesday 23 November 2016

Women Against Nazism: Elisabeth Abegg and her family, by Leslie Wilson.

Monument to deported Jews, Grunewald station Berlin.
Nazi-ruled Berlin, 1942: Jews were being 'deported' daily and taken off to the East, whence they never returned. Some went, if not obediently, at least hoping for the best, though their experience of what Germany under Nazism had become must have filled them with fear. Others were suspicious; perhaps they believed rumours they'd heard? In any case, the director of the Jewish kindergarten in Berlin, Liselotte Pereles, was concerned about one of the kindergarten workers, Eva Fleischmann. She wanted Eva to go 'underground' and live in hiding. She needed help, and the person she went to was a mild-looking, white-haired Quaker lady in her sixties. Elisabeth Abegg. She wasn't disappointed. The story that follows is taken from Liselotte Pereles's own words.

Elisabeth not only found a place for Eva to hide, but she also told Liselotte that she could come to her for help, if she needed it. Liselotte lived with a nine year-old niece, Susi Manasse, who was her ward; you might say she definitely needed help, but she was reluctant to take advantage of Elisabeth's 'simple and whole-hearted' offer of rescue. She didn't want to endanger her. However, one day, later in the year, Elisabeth called at Liselotte's house. Liselotte was at work, but little Susi was at home. Elisabeth said to Susi: 'It's time for you two to go underground. I'll be waiting for you.'

Liselotte still held out, but in the following February, when almost all her colleagues and all of the children had been taken away from the Jewish kindergarten, she heard about the great 'Action' which was meant to 'cleanse Berlin' of Jews, as a birthday present for Hitler. Worse, she was arrested and held in a Gestapo holding centre, but was able to get away. She rang Elisabeth from Charlottenburg station and let her know, using 'disguised words' that she'd gone underground. Presumably the words had been agreed in advance, because Elisabeth's reply was just as disguised. 'Say hello to my friend from the 'Ferdinand.'

That meant that Liselotte, with Susi, should go to the flat of a woman who was in hospital at the time, but had given permission for her home to be used. Liselotte hid there with another Jewish woman, Frau Collm, and a friend of Elisabeth's, Anita Schäfer, brought them food. Later, Elisabeth herself came 'always calm and kindly,' writes Liselotte, 'always only thinking of our welfare and our safety, fearless for herself.' They were moved round from hiding place to hiding place, sometimes staying in Elisabeth's own flat.

Snowdrops remind me of those brave, tough women
Elisabeth Abegg was an ex-teacher, but she had been dismissed from her post in 1940, denounced for political unreliability. She had grown up in Strassburg, and was first cousin to a well-known Social Democratic statesman; in her childhood, she was acquainted with Albert Schweitzer. At some stage in her life, almost certainly after World War 1, when Quaker feeding programmes in devastated Germany brought a small but significant number of Germans into the Quaker faith, she had joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). Thus she belonged to a religious grouping that had, and has, testimonies about equality simplicity of lifestyle, truthfulness, and peacemaking. It was a grouping that the Nazis suspected and loathed.

She lived, with her frail elderly mother and disabled sister Julie, in a block of flats where there were many active Nazis; some of them had denounced her for failing to put a flag out on special occasions, and she had even once been summoned for interrogation by the Gestapo. She was in many ways a marked woman, but that didn't frighten her into submission.
Memorial tablet to Elisabeth Abegg and her sister. By OTFW, Berlin (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Elisabeth, (the real-life counterpart of the Quaker woman who helped Raf, Jenny and her mother in 'Saving Rafael,' and the anti-Nazis in 'Last Train from Kummersdorf ) had a wide network of helpers; Quakers, ex-pupils, a disabled pastor's wife, also her brother and sister-in-law. All of these were willing to hide Jews and other persecuted people, and in some cases to help them to leave Germany. Old Frau Abegg and Julie Abegg were enthusiastic and staunch helpers in the work. In addition, as the bombing got worse, two of Elisabeth's neighbours left Berlin for safer areas, and gave her the keys to their flats so she could keep an eye on them. She used the flats as hiding places.

Most of the time, the hidden Jews had to stay up in the flats during air-raids, which was a terrifying experience, but Julie Abegg sometimes took them into the shelter, where they sat face to face with Nazis. I suppose Julie said they were her visitors, which of course they were; but the Nazis had no idea what kind of visitors.

Every Friday the Abeggs entertained Jews to lunch at their home. Elisabeth cooked the meal. 'But', writes Liselotte, 'you gave us far more than bodily food. For two hours we could talk about the world of art and science, and we were able to forget that we couldn’t live like human beings any more.' Another hidden Jew, Herr Schäfer, said later: 'I couldn't have stood my time underground without the Friday lunches at the Abegg sisters' flat.' My mind boggles at the though of the Abegg sisters calmly, audaciously bringing these proscribed people into their flat for lunch. Maybe the active Nazis were all out? Elisabeth also kept a school at her flat for hidden Jewish children, and for half-Jewish children, who weren't allowed in the state schools.

Liselotte writes that there were particular difficulties about hiding children. They had to be taught to lie, and to tell consistent lies, however young they were. They had to learn false names and birth-dates, and to pretend to illnesses they hadn't had, to cover up the fact that they hadn't been at school at all (having been excluded by Nazi persecution).

The children had to keep changing their religion, to match the religion of whoever was hiding them, Lutherans, Catholics; and had to attend children's services. A five year-old called Evi had spent a year at a Jewish school, and so, put in a Lutheran kindergarten, she prayed in Hebrew when the children started to pray. She had to be moved at once.

The Quakers have a testimony, as I've said, about speaking the truth, but there are times when that testimony has to give way to wider truths; like the truth that every human being, of whatever ethnicity, deserves life. So Elisabeth cheerfully lied to the Gestapo, to her neighbours, to whoever needed to be kept in the dark. False identities, false documents, were to her only the instruments of Light against the darkness.

But what she offered, as Liselotte wrote, was not only safety and protection, or food, but kindness and reassurance, goodness of heart, and warmth. She must often have been intensely stressed, but she never let her protegés see it. Once her briefcase was stolen, on the Berlin S-Bahn. It was stuffed full of ration vouchers for the hidden people, and a transcript of a speech by Thomas Mann (émigré anti-Nazi and Nobel laureate) that she'd heard on the BBC, but worst of all, her ID card was in there. Luckily, when the police arrested the thief, he'd thrown a lot of stolen stuff in together, so it wasn't clear which belonged to whom. Then once a Jewish woman, Rita, was arrested at her hiding place in a pastor's house (The old pastor's wife was arrested, but her daughter offered herself as a hostage instead, and the Gestapo released the old lady). But Rita had left behind a notebook with the addresses of all Elisabeth's helpers. Elisabeth 'did everything to stave off the danger for the helpers, before the Gestapo found the book.'

I would love to know what that involved. Did Elisabeth just go to the house and get hold of the book, or did she go round to all her helpers and move the Jews out? Only where would she put them? Pereles's account doesn't specify and Abegg herself didn't apparently think her actions needed to be written about.

Clearly, Elisabeth wouldn't have been able to do what she did if she hadn't had that network of helpers. Not all the helpers stayed the course; sometimes they were bombed out of their homes, sometimes they couldn't stand the stress any longer. But they contributed, and did so with courage. Elisabeth gave them leadership, though, and probably courage and hope, even in the deepest political and social darkness.

As we face what for many of us looks like an oncoming dark tide of renewed hideous bigotry, both at home and abroad, I feel it is well worth it to reflect on Elisabeth Abegg. Could I do what she did? I don't know, and I do hope things don't get so bad in England. Where did her amazing strength come from? I'm sure her mother's and sister's support were crucial, as well as that of all those helpers, but also there was her Quaker faith, and the deep silence of Quaker worship. Perhaps she drew strength from these words of George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, words which are perhaps relevant to us today:

'The Lord is at work in this thick night of Darkness that may be felt; and Truth doth flourish as the rose, and the lilies do grow among the thorns, and the plants atop of the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play. And never heed the temposts nor the storms, floods, nor rains, for the Seed Christ is over all and doth reign. And so, be of good faith and valiant for the Truth.'

If you want to look at a photograph of Elisabeth Abegg, you can find it by clicking this link to the photo archive at Yad Vashem,  .

This account of Elisabeth Abegg's life is drawn from: 'Die unbesungenen Helden: Menschen in Deutschlands dunklen Tagen', (Unsung Heroes; Human beings in Germany's Dark Days), edited by Kurt R Grossmann, first published by Ullstein Verlag in 1961.


Susan Price said...

I am speechless and humbled by the courage shown by these women. And, as an athiest, I am full of respect for the honesty, openness and simplicity of the Quaker faith.

Leslie Wilson said...

Quakers believe that there is that of God (which doesn't necessarily mean of good) in everyone: I think many Quakers nowadays believe that it is we who bring God into the world, which is a pretty scary responsibility. Certainly love was at work in Abegg's activity.

Thinking of the days said...

What a fascinating post, and I am full of admiration for the bravery and compassion that Elisabeth and her helpers showed in such dark times. A timely post........

Unknown said...

i would of told about her younger life.