Elisabeth Abegg, born on May 3, 1882, was a first cousin of William Abegg , the well-known Social Democratic statesman. She grew up in Strassbourg, the capital of Alsace, which was also the home town of Albert Schweitzer, the great Alsatian theologian, humanist, musician, and medical doctor. His Christian-universalistic teaching, centering on the equality of man and the sanctity of human life, had a life-long influence on Abegg.
As a history teacher at the fashionable Berlin girls’ school, the Luisen Mädchenschule, Abegg endeavored to impress her humanistic beliefs on her students, many of whom came from Jewish homes. After Hitler’s accession to power, she soon came into conflict with the newly Nazi-appointed director of the Luisen Mädchenschule and had to move to another, less fashionable school. In 1940, she was forced to retire prematurely following a denunciation.
Marked by the authorities as politically unreliable, Abegg was once summoned by the Gestapo for interrogation. She could not be deterred, however, from maintaining contact with her former Jewish students and friends. With the deportation to the East of Anna Hirschberg, her close friend of forty years, she understood the true import of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Although it was too late to save her friend, Abegg felt she could still be instrumental in saving other Jews from the murderous clutches of the Gestapo. For that purpose, she turned the three-and-a-half-room apartment that she shared with her eighty-six-year-old mother and invalid sister Julie into a temporary shelter and assembly point for Jews who had gone underground. Working with her friends in the Quaker movement, Abegg helped her many Jewish protégés by offering them temporary accommodation in her own home or directing them to hiding places elsewhere. She skimped on her own food and that of her sister in order to supply them with food-ration cards; she also invited them each Friday to special meals in her house and procured forged papers for them. Most of those who knocked on her door asking for help were complete strangers. All this activity took place under her neighbors’ noses, even though some tenants in the apartment house were active Nazis.
Abegg did not hesitate to take even further risks. In one case Liselottte Perles, the director of the day-care center in Berlin, could not decide whether to go into hiding with her nine-year-old niece, Susie. Abegg visited them in late January 1943, in the “Jews’ House” to which they been moved. Three of the apartments had already been sealed off after the residents had been deported to the East. Abegg succeeded in persuading them that it was time to go underground, and, indeed, it was the last possible moment, as this was the eve of the last large Gestapo round-up of the Jews of Berlin.
In another case, Abegg offered her own jewelry for sale in order to organize the smuggling of Jizchak Schwerzenz into Switzerland.
Some of the survivors who remained in contact with her after the war dedicated to Abegg on her seventy-fifth birthday, in 1957, a mimeographed collection of memoirs entitled “When One Light Pierced the Darkness.”
On May 23, 1967, Yad Vashem recognized Elisabeth Abegg as Righteous Among the Nations.