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ELISABETH EIDENBENZ

A LIFE MARKED BY THE GIFT OF SELF AND THE DUTY OF ASSISTANCE


The Senora “Isabel” thus named by the Spanish mothers of the maternity home, was born in Wila in the district of Zurich on the 12th. June 1913. She was one of the youngest of a large family whose father was a preacher. Many members of the “Secours Suisse aux Enfants” had a protestant education and shared the same type of background.

Elizabeth was a school teacher and taught for three years. During a year’s visit to a school for adult teachers in Denmark she received an offer from the International Civil Service to go to Spain. She agreed to go during the school holidays and she never returned. She found herself in a republican camp in Madrid where she distributed food in the canteens for the elderly ( these canteens were sometimes situated very near the front line) and in Valence where the evacuee children found refuge in large Spanish franquiste abandoned houses. Her free time was spent travelling and we can witness from her photographs a unique picture of Spain during the Civil War. 

For her, the humanitarian aid carried out in Spain was a fundamental experience which influenced her state of mind for the rest of her life. Her choice was made, her return to Denmark was cancelled. When Karl Ketterer a colleague from the “Ayuda Suiza” and of the Civil Service asked for help for the women and children of the “Retirada”, she answered present, it seemed natural for her even though she was exhausted from her work in Spain and had no training in child-care.

“It was a marvellous job for me because one cannot imagine what it means to provide help to people in danger”

All the experience gained in Spain was put to good use in France. The work she accomplished was imbibed with a strong sense of duty to help the population.

To the journalist Jacques Arnal who published an article on the maternity home, she declared the following in 1941 :
“We welcome women of all nationalities. neither misery nor unhappiness have a homeland”.

“Each birth is a great adventure, which is an moving experience for all of us. Even if the conditions for each woman are deplorable,
it generates a deep emotion.”

Her first confinement took place fortuitously on a day when the Elne maternity home.mid-wife had eczema on her hands. In fact Elizabeth delivered herself about forty women. She had the honour of delivering the 300th birth and it was twins.

The warm, peaceful atmosphere of the maternity home during a time of war was due to her personality.

“It was very important for me that there was a good atmosphere in the maternity home and we used to do many things together such as singing and dancing.”

Her patients said that she was extremely kind and gentle and discreet. Neither did she lack determination.

It was at her initiative that she welcomed at Elne women who were not pregnant, like a group of internees from the Bram camp who were suffering from typhoid in the autumn of 1940.

Understanding the situation of persecution that reigned on certain populations, she asked very few questions :
“I always told the authorities the names that the mothers gave me, even though I realise today that certain names were false; for example, a baby was called Antonio : I was told that his parents were Spanish but in fact they were German, Jews”.

Entirely devoted, she was only absent from the maternity home for very short periods of rest (in the Pyrénées in the summer of 1940) or when she went to Switzerland to visit her sick father (end of February -beginning of March 1941)

The time she spent in the maternity home of Elne represent the most memorable moments of her life, the first cries of the children and the joy of the mothers, remain the most beautiful souvenirs even if they were shadowed by difficult times, such as the darkest moments of the occupation when a young German Jewish woman was taken away by the Gestapo during the summer of 1943 and Elizabeth was a powerless onlooker. 

At the end of the war, Elizabeth spent all of her life in the service of humanitarian aid. As from 1946 she worked with the Swiss Evangelical Church to help refugees from eastern Europe.
In collaboration with an Austrian friend she directed a centre for the preparation for the professional reinsertion for women.
Time has not broken the ties between the Ayuda Suiza and the Secours Suisse contacts. They meet several times a year and have written a small book together of their memoirs to perpetuate the souvenir of their experiences of helping the populations who were victims of the war.
Following this point of view, Elizabeth nourished a strong attachment towards the organisation of the international Civil Service. As the
“ mainspring” of the Swiss humanitarian aid, in Spain and in France , she feels that the exceptional work of her helpers seems to her, to be too little known.
In the middle of the 1980s, during a trip to the South of France, Elizabeth and her companions rediscovered the château in ruins. She never dreamt that the day would come when one of her babies born in this place , Guy Eckstein, would knock on the door of her small house in the Viennese countryside. Thanks to the will of Guy to make known officially the achievements accomplished by the person who saved his life, the Swiss Maternity Home in Elne was reborn. 
Elizabeth did not imagine that she would return in 2002 to a château restored by François Charpentier a master builder, to receive the “Just amongst the Just between Nations” medal from the “ Yad Vashem” .institution and, in the company of men and women who she delivered in the château, she relived from room to room, the history of the past.
In 2006, Elizabeth also received the “Civil order and Solidarity” medal conferred by Queen Sophia of Spain as well as “The Cross of Saint Jordi” which is the highest distinction granted by the Generalitat de Catalunya. In May 2007 she was finally decorated with the “ Legion d’Honneur” by the French Republic.
This new rendezvous between Elizabeth and the Maternity Home is the start of a new story. That of the rebirth of the site for a project to create a welcome centre for women and children and to perpetuate its memory and history. 
 
 
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