When refugees fled the Spanish Civil War and World War II, a brave Swiss nurse provided crucial help in southwest France to a niche group of displaced persons — pregnant women and their children.
Despite hostility from Vichy France and Nazi Germany, Elisabeth Eidenbenz is credited with saving the lives of almost 600 children — 400 Spanish refugees and 200 Jewish refugees — through the Maternity of Elne, her maternity hospital in the French municipality of Elne.
Relatively little-known, Eidenbenz (1913-2011) lived to be nearly 100 and was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2002. A new historical dramatic film aims to amplify her heroism.
The 2018 Spanish film “The Light of Hope” shares Eidenbenz’ story with audiences across the US this year. It made its New York premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival in January, and was screened at the Chicago JCC Jewish Film Festival on March 9.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Spanish director Sílvia Quer called Eidenbenz a woman and a heroine “silenced by society.”
“I felt that it was necessary to make this film,” she said.
Quer read an interview between the then-90-year-old Eidenbenz and Catalan journalist Assumpta Montellà, and also found an inspirational quote from a child who had lived in the Maternity of Elne: “My mother gave me life, motherhood gave me milk, and Elisabeth gave me the hope.”
To play Eidenbenz, Quer found Swiss actress Noémie Schmidt, a 2015 nominee for a French César award for best supporting actress.
“For the character of Elisabeth, it was important that the nationality of the actress be Swiss,” Quer said, adding, “Noémie read the script and had no hesitation in participating.”
The other cast members, Quer said, include acclaimed Catalan actresses along with the talented child actors who portray three friends living at the Maternity: Pat, Neus and David.
Pat, the most innocent of this trio, is the narrator of the film. Neus is a witness to the horrors of the notorious Rivesaltes concentration camp in France, and David is a Jewish refugee whose pregnant mother, Maya, is acutely aware of the particular dangers her family faces.
Of the three children, Quer said, “Through their games [which we see in the movie] they complement each other and learn from one another.”
The same can be said for the others living at the Maternity as the film unfolds.
Shot in Catalonia to evoke southwestern France, “The Light of Hope” depicts Eidenbenz trying to help the women she cares for: Maya, who fears for her son and newborn daughter; Victoria, who considers giving military aid to the Resistance, which is prohibited at the Maternity; and Aurora, who suffers the tragedy of a stillbirth.
Beyond the hospital walls, its existence is threatened by a persistent Vichy commissioner and his Nazi overlords. The Maternity is ordered to close. Eidenbenz comes up with a plan to save the hospital, which hinges on her exposing a scandal to France — the atrocities of the Rivesaltes concentration camp.
Civilians including Catalans, Jews and Algerians were detained at the camp in its grim history spanning 70 years. In 1942, the year the film opens, 2,251 Jews, including 110 children, were transferred from Rivesaltes to the Drancy concentration camp and then to Auschwitz.
Throughout these tensions, Eidenbenz tries to preserve a measure of community for the hospital with a midsummer celebration on St. James’ Day. The ensuing climax reveals tragedy and valor by adults and children alike.
The real-life Eidenbenz showed plenty of courage in trying circumstances.
“Elisabeth was only 25 years old when she founded [and] opened [the] Maternity,” Quer said. “You have to be very brave to accept this work.”
The daughter of a Swiss Protestant minister, Eidenbenz initially volunteered to help the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War — a cause that became desperate with the fall of Barcelona in 1938. In January and February of 1939, a half-million Republican refugees fled on foot to France. On the way, they were bombed by Nationalist and Italian planes — an exodus, termed “La Retirada” (The Retreat), that is being commemorated this year, eight decades later.
French authorities allowed refugees to cross the border but interned them at camps with names that became infamous: Argelés-sur-Mer, Rivesaltes and Saint-Cyprien.
“There was nothing at most but barbed wire and guards,” said Soledad Fox Maura, a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College whose specialties include the Spanish Civil War, and Women’s and Gender Studies. “Spanish Republicans interned in the camps had to build very basic shelters to protect themselves, try to survive on cold beaches in the middle of winter.”
“People died of disease, hypothermia, the cold,” said Alejandro Baer, the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, adding that “it was common to see bodies piled up, left out in the open, in the area of the camp.”
“Being on beaches, there was not proper hygiene, warmth, any kind of health care — at first, at least,” Fox Maura said. “Many people died, many babies and children,” with an infant mortality rate of over 95 percent.
She said that “eventually it really became a scandal in the French press. Women were being mistreated, many raped by guards. There were just horrific conditions for women.”
Eidenbenz initially helped these refugees through the organization Swiss Aid. Fellow volunteer Karl Ketterer bought a castle that was “half in ruins,” Fox Maura said. It would become the Maternity, with each room named after a Spanish city including Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao.
The first pregnant woman arrived in January 1939. There would be many more under the care of Eidenbenz and her staff of 12. Expectant mothers arrived four weeks before their delivery date; they could stay up to four weeks after giving birth, after which Eidenbenz would look to place them in a job to keep them out of the camps. The hospital would see 20 births each month in 1940 and 1941.
By this time, the Spanish Civil War had given way to WWII, and the Maternity became funded by the Red Cross. New refugee populations needed help, but Eidenbenz was constrained by the Red Cross’ policy of not aiding political refugees, which excluded Jews.
“She hid the identities of most of the refugees to circumvent these laws,” Fox Maura said, describing the hospital as “funded by the Red Cross and at the same time working around it.”
The Nazis were harder to overcome.
“Elisabeth had many threats from the Gestapo but did not go down,” Quer said. “[She] hid Jewish women and their children when they were banned. Elisabeth faced the head of the police, fought for deported women.”
The Germans ultimately ordered the Maternity closed in 1944. Eidenbenz returned to Switzerland but continued fighting on behalf of “unprotected children,” according to Quer.
On Easter 2002, 60 former refugees who had lived as children at the Maternity of Elne returned to the town for a celebration of their rescuer, Eidenbenz.
“They all gathered to honor her,” Fox Maura said. “It was very moving.”
In 2006, University of Minnesota professor Baer, a native of Spain, visited the site of the Maternity. Taking a tour of the building with a group of Spanish educators, he said that it still had an “incredible aura” of “la memoria del bien,” the memory of good.
“It’s very moving to visit that place,” Baer said. “It’s why I think it should be known more, especially by those who are close by, and also by people who visit Spain.”
“Fortunately, nowadays school groups are going there,” he said. “I think the effort should be much more, it should multiply. The kind of lessons from that time are worth remembering. There was so much evil — and light in the midst of evil.
“As an educator, [regarding the] way we should remember the Holocaust, WWII, the [Spanish] Civil War, they are completely different historical events.” But, Baer added, in “figures like Eidenbenz, we see a common, incredible value. We can recognize one history in one person. There’s so much to learn.”
Fox Maura notes that “exiles last so much longer than we give credit for, unfortunately. It’s always more recent than we think it is in terms of consequences. The Spanish Civil War ‘ended’ in 1939; [but] it didn’t end in 1939 for the refugees, it ended a lot later.”
Eighty years after La Retirada, and the events that precipitated the Maternity of Elne, many people might not recognize Eidenbenz’s name or her work with refugees. Baer said that “stories of helpers, saviors … unless there’s a specific effort by certain individuals and organizations to bring [these stories] to the public, they will go unnoticed.”
Individuals like Eidenbenz “did what they thought was normal,” Baer said. “They did not think they were heroic. We think and look back at it as heroic, an incredible act.”
And, he said, such people did not personally try to publicize their story: “Others need to shed light. It’s an important task. Eidenbenz and others are not visible to the general public. It’s a task for scholars, activists, organizations and advocates, to pursue efforts that mean so much. They embody crucial lessons for our time.”
Quer illustrates one such lesson in the closing credits, connecting Eidenbenz with volunteers helping refugees in Europe today. She said that humanity “does not learn from the acts of the past.”
As she explained Eidenbenz’s heroism 80 years ago: “Elisabeth did not make distinctions between nationalities, race, religion. She wanted to help all women who were pregnant to maintain self-esteem, to fight for the children they had in exile, far from home.”