Elisabeth and her Maternité

By Basil Howitt

Elisabeth Eidenbenz 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”).

“Le Nil”

Elisabeth 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, Elizabeth decided to convert an abandoned château into a maternity home.

Situated on the road to Montescot just outside Elne, and classed under Monuments Historiques since 2012, 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.

Maternité Suisse d'Elne“All was clean, clear and bright”

The château was in a lamentable state and Elisabeth, 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.

The only exception was the salle d’accouchement or the delivery room which (writes Hélène Legrais) the mothers christened Morocco on account of the agonies they experienced in labour.

Names of other rooms included Madrid (the nursery), Seville (for sick children), Cordoba (for expectant mothers), Barcelona, Bilbao, Santander, Zaragossa, San Sebastien …

The finished building was beautiful. 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 Canigou.

“A light in the hearth”

As regards all that happened there, I can obviously only scratch the surface here. Some highlights for me from Hélène Legrais’s beautifully written “true story” include:

The Christmas celebrations, including imaginative presents and magnificent roast chickens glazed to perfection with delicious aromas.

A visit of support and encouragement by Pablo Casals (“plump, small and balding, with a soft hat”), to this day one of the world’s finest-ever cellists. He had left his home in Spain after Franco’s pronunciamento or coup d’état in 1936 to live in nearby Prades. During his visit Casals made a substantial donation and promised to bring more money when he returned.

The celebration of Elizabeth’s 30th birthday on 12 June 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.”

The circumcision of Guy or Guitou Eckstein, son of Maurice and Hénya, for which a rabbi risked his life travelling some distance. Thanks to the humanity of the Capdet family in Thuir, Maurice Eckstein was given refuge in their hayloft and thus escaped La Rafle or Roundup. Guy Eckstein, now living in Geneva, has written a tribute to Elisabeth in his foreword to Hélène Legrais’s book.

Gestapo

The roundup of the Jews began in brutal earnest after the Germans occupied the so-called Free Zone in November 1942. However, the notoriously sordid and inhumane camp Joffre at Rivesaltes had become an “accommodation centre” for Tziganes, Spanish refugees and Jews since January 1941.

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.)

Ultimate sacrifices

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.

She 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 Elisabeth named Esther.

“Strict neutrality”

For me the most harrowing though understandable revelation of this book was the “strict neutrality” imposed by the Swiss Red Cross. Elisabeth received a circular from the executive committee ordering her “to give up Jews, Tziganes and Spanish refugees if you are requested and do nothing to shield them from the roundups.”

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. Among them were many who helped Hélène Legrais with her book: Remei, Ruben, Vladimir, Celia, Pepita, Juliette, Consuelo, Sergio, Andrea, Incarnació, Pedro, Narcisse (saved from the brink of death by a lick of mashed sweet potato), Pedro, Sylvie

*At the time of writing Elisabeth Eidenbenz is 97 and lives at Rekawinkel, some 50 kilometres west of Vienna. 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.

Future plans

On 1st July 2005 le château d’En Bardou was bought by the village of Elne, with funding by private subscriptions. The aim is to continue the work of Elisabeth Eidenbenz by creating an “auberge humanitaire” which will welcome women and children caught up in some of the world’s blood-drenched conflict zones.

*Elisabeth  died on May 23rd 2011 in Zürich (Switzerland) at the age of 98. She will always be remembered

 

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