A stand against cruelty

24 January 2020

Seventy-five years after Auschwitz was liberated, Tim Dowley celebrates Christians who risked their lives to protect Jews from the Holocaust

Elisabeth Abegg

Elisabeth Abegg

HOW the Quaker Dr Elisabeth Abegg avoided being arrested by the Nazis is a mystery. For her anti-Nazi opinions, she was twice forced to leave the Berlin school where she was teaching. She refused to fly the swastika from her flat, despite neighbours’ complaints. During the final three years of the Second World War, she concealed in her flat 12 Jewish fugitives. And she was at the hub of a network of people who hid Jews who were attempting to evade the Nazi authorities. Yet she was never caught.

Abegg, born in Strasbourg in 1882, was one of the first German women to obtain a university education. After the First World War, she moved to Berlin, where she taught history. In October 1941, the Nazis started to deport all German Jews to the East. Each month, sealed trains transported 1000-1500 Berlin Jews, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where gas chambers killed up to 10,000 people every day. To escape, many Berlin Jews went underground, calling themselves “U-boats” in self-mocking reference to German submarines.

Anna Hirschberg, a Christian of Jewish origin, had been Abegg’s close friend for years. Aged over 60, she was sent to Auschwitz, turning down her friend’s offer to conceal her. Abegg now recognised the stark reality of the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Despite being a carer for her disabled sister, Julie, and their 86-year-old mother, Abegg started to help Jews in Berlin to find shelter, building a rescue network with friends and former students. “U-boats” sheltered in her flat, or in empty properties near by. Most of those who knocked at her door asking for help were strangers, and yet she never failed to respond.

Abegg provided meals for people living “underground”, helped them financially, and provided forged ID. She spent many hours travelling around Berlin by tram and S-Bahn, visiting Jewish children concealed in secret locations, bringing food, money, and forged papers. Concerned that Jewish children were missing out on education because they were in hiding, she started to tutor some in her home. She helped a Jewish teacher, Liselotte Pereles, and her young foster-daughter, Susanne, who had to move frequently, hiding in several different flats under assumed names.

Courtesy of Norwich Record OfficeElsie Tilney

Abegg and her circle also concealed a young Jewish leader, Jizchak Schwersenz. Hearing thathe was about to be deported, he went underground, replacing his yellow star with a swastika. Abegg gave Schwersenz a valuable ring to help to pay for his escape to Switzerland, using a forged passport.

They also protected three young Jewish children. A helper, Hildegard Knies, took care of the children, teaching them to use assumed names and adopt false life-stories. Knies told the lively four-year-old Evi Goldstein not to reveal her real name to strangers, not to talk about her Jewish pre-school, and never to mention her family; but, when Evi started praying in Hebrew at a kindergarten, she had to be moved, quickly.

Ludwig Collm, sacked as a teacher because of his Jewish roots, was put in touch with Abegg: “With a beating heart I rang the bell. . . But I relaxed when a white-haired lady with benign features opened the door and immediately let me in. I didn’t have to tell her much about our suffering: she already knew. . . With tears in her eyes, my wife thanked her for her help. Dr Abegg demurred, saying: ‘We are in your debt! We have so much to atone for!’”


Every Friday, Jewish fugitives came to lunch at Abegg’s flat. “For two hours we could . . . forget we could no longer live like human beings,” one recalled. Abegg offered fugitives safety, protection, and food — but also kindness, reassurance, and goodness. Quakers believe in speaking the truth, and yet this courageous woman lied to the Gestapo. All told, Abegg and her friends helped an estimated 80 people with lodging, food, money, clothing, and forged documents. Most survived. Miraculously, Abegg’s activities were never discovered.

After the war, “white-haired and angelic”, she returned to teaching. In 1957, for her 75th birthday, survivors dedicated a collection of memoirs to her. They included the following tribute: “With Dr Abegg was revealed the truth that a life of love for one’s fellow human beings, together with respect for others, is the most elevated and eternal value.”

Schwersenz summed up the contribution of Abegg and her associates: “Through their Christian faith, conviction and humanity, the people who stood by us were strong enough to face fear . . . when their neighbours were driven off on trucks and their belongings dragged away.”

As the Rt Revd Lord Harries has written, “The vast majority of those living under Nazi control were either complicit or turned a blind eye to what was happening. Yet a few, at great risk to their own lives, did all they could to save Jews from capture and death.”

In 1967, Abegg was recognised as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”. She died in 1974, aged 92.

MY BOOK, Defying the Holocaust, tells ten stories of brave men and women who dared to stand up against the cruelty of the times. Elsie Tilney, a missionary from Ipswich, was interned at Vittel, France, together with Polish Jews about to be transported to death-camps in the East. At great danger to herself, for months, Tilney hid a young Polish Jew in her bathroom; she is another “unsung heroine” whose story has only recently come to light.

Another unlikely rescuer was a Roman Catholic priest, Don Bruno, who had previously devoted himself to early Christian theology. When he saw the perilous situation of Jews in Belgium, he threw aside his studies and spent much of the war finding secret hiding-places in monasteries, convents, and family homes for hundreds of Jewish children whose parents had been transported to death camps. Don Bruno was tireless, criss-crossing the country on his bicycle, locating children, taking them to a place of safety, and visiting them to ensure that they were well looked after.

Courtesy of the Archives of the Monastery of Amay-ChevetogneDon Bruno with children

Some of the courageous Christians who supported Jews died for their efforts. Jane Haining, a Church of Scotland matron at a hostel for Jewish schoolgirls in Budapest, remained in Hungary after war had been declared and her co-workers returned home. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered. Mother Maria of Paris, a larger-than-life Russian Orthodox nun, worked with the Resistance to help Jews, and was sent to Ravensbrück, where she paid with her life. The Dutch Christian, Corrie ten Boom suffered at Ravensbrück for standing in solidarity with her Jewish neighbours.

Over the course of the Second World War, the Nazis murdered approximately six million Jews, and at least five million non-Jews. More than one million children were murdered, many newborn or unborn. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and at a time when anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, it is vital that these facts are recorded and remembered.

Tim Dowley is a historian and author. Defying the Holocaust: Ten courageous Christians who supported Jews was published yesterday by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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