Life: March 3, 1882 – August 8, 1974
Why you should know her: A German Christian and schoolteacher, Abegg joined the Resistance against the Nazis and rescued at least 80 Jews from certain death.
Born in Strassbourg, the capital of Alsace, Elisabeth Abegg was greatly influenced by the renowned Alsatian theologian and physician, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, whose teachings stressed equality and the sanctity of human life.
Abegg taught history at a Berlin girls’ school, passing her beliefs on to her students, many of whom were Jewish. When Hitler came to power, Abegg came into conflict with the school’s Nazi director. She was first moved to a lesser school, before being forced to retire early, all because of her Christian and anti-Nazi views.
Nazi authorities classified Abegg as politically unreliable and even brought her in for interrogation. Undeterred, though, the now-retired schoolteacher kept in contact with her Jewish students and friends. When a close Jewish friend of forty years was deported, Abegg realized the true murderous intent of the Nazis. It was too late to save her friend, Anna Hirschberg, but Abegg knew she could save other Jews.
Elisabeth shared a small three-room apartment with her 86-year-old mother and her disabled sister, but soon turned the cramped living space into a shelter for Jews who were hiding in the Berlin underground. Working with Quaker friends who also opposed the Nazis, she offered many Jews temporary shelter and directed more to other hiding places. She skimped on her own nourishment – and that of her family – in order to provide food ration cards to Jews in hiding. Knowing the importance of the Sabbath, she also invited Jews to special dinners at her home on Fridays. No one who came to the Abegg home’s door – most of them complete strangers – was turned away. From hiding places to food to forged identification papers, all in need found respite in the tiny Berlin apartment. Miraculously, all of this clandestine activity took place even though many neighbors were active Nazis.
But Elisabeth took even greater risks than opening her home to endangered Jews. The Jewish director of a Berlin daycare center was in hiding with her nine-year-old niece. At the last minute, as the Gestapo rounded up the last remaining Jews in Berlin, Abegg helped them go underground, saving their lives. In another instance, she sold her jewelry in order to smuggle another Jew to safety in neutral Switzerland.
After the war, many of the survivors who were saved by Elisabeth Abegg celebrated the brave woman’s 75th birthday by giving her a collection of their memoirs, titled When One Light Pierced the Darkness.
Her light having pierced the darkness – and saved scores of Jewish lives – Elisabeth Abegg was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1967.Tags: Advocates and Allies