Monsieur Renaud crossed the garden of Château Bardou, carrying a fir destined to be decorated as a Christmas tree. It was cold outside the imposing mansion, which had been converted into a maternity hospital for war refugees in Elne, a French Catalan village near the Mediterranean and just 10 miles north of the Spanish border. Inside, dozens of mothers with their babies greeted the railway guard and offered him some of their hot chocolate and cheese — rare treats in a country at war.
It was December 1940, and most of the women in the maternity ward were Spanish Republicans who had fled across the border in February 1939 at the end of their country’s civil war. Soon they were joined by French, Eastern European, Jewish and Gypsy women fleeing the advancing Nazi war machine.
We can never thank la señorita Isabel enough for saving our lives.
Célia López, quoting her mother, who gave birth to her at the Elne maternity hospital
From December 1939 to April 1944, Elisabeth Eidenbenz — a Swiss teacher whom the Spanish women in the château called la señorita Isabel — created an oasis where mothers could give birth in peace. In all, 597 babies of more than 20 nationalities were born at the château, which was operated by the Swiss Children’s Aid Society. “This is the positive side of a very negative story,” French historian Grégory Tuban tells OZY. “The maternity was hope in the middle of tragedy.”
That inspirational story faded from memory in the decades following the war. Then, in the 1990s, adults who had been born at the château led the effort to preserve the place where la señorita Isabel had “created a harbor of peace amid an ocean of suffering,” according to the foreword to a collection of essays published in 2016. A chapter in the book notes the gentle gesture of Monsieur Renaud, one of Eidenbenz’s volunteers.
Eidenbenz’s humanitarian work began in April 1937 when she left her comfortable teaching position to join volunteers helping civilians during the Spanish Civil War, which had been sparked the previous July by Gen. Francisco Franco’s coup that toppled the Republican government. By the time Franco’s forces triumphed and hostilities ended, half a million refugees had fled the fascists in a massive exodus known as la retirada. When these displaced civilians crossed the French border, many were branded as communists and placed in camps in the south of France.
For young Eidenbenz, born near Zurich in 1913, that meant there was much work to do on the French side of the border. Providing a safe environment for pregnant women and their children became her mission. And the abandoned château, which was built in 1902 by an industrialist who made his fortune manufacturing cigarette paper, seemed the ideal spot to accomplish it.
In the winter of 1941, Célia García became one of those refugee babies.
Her mother’s journey to Eidenbenz’s haven had been long and arduous — from bombed Madrid to Valencia, where a first baby died, to the refugee camp of Le Barcarès, east of Elne. French collaborators deported her father, José María García, an officer in the Spanish Republican army, to a Nazi-run camp, and her mother, weak and pregnant, was left on her own. Eidenbenz brought her to the château, where Célia was born.
Now 76, Célia shares with OZY the story of her mother, who died in 2008. “She told me two things. First, in case of war, it’s better to die in your country than to live in exile. Second, we can never thank la señorita Isabel enough for saving our lives,” she says at her home in Perpignan, northwest of Elne, as she leafs through her mother’s photo album.
After giving birth, Eidenbenz asked Célia’s mother to stay and work in the maternity ward, where she remained until 1944. “That was much better than going back to the camps,” her daughter notes.
By 1942 the Germans occupied all of France, and their control on Eidenbenz and her team became tighter. Being on an official humanitarian mission, the maternity hospital was bound to comply with the laws of the territory it worked in, but Eidenbenz often crossed the line of legality. “She hid mothers and gave false Spanish names to Jewish children,” Tuban says. ”She knew the dangers, and she did her best to save and help as many women and babies as she could.”
During Easter 1944, as the war entered its final stages, the Gestapo requisitioned the château and gave Eidenbenz three days to move her operation to central France, where she continued her humanitarian work. After the war, she moved to Austria; her maternity hospital was forgotten and the château fell into decay.
In the 1990s, Guy Eckstein, a Belgian U.N. official who was born in the maternity in 1941 as his father hid in a nearby barn, led the efforts to recognize the woman who had saved his life. In 2001, with the help of others who had been born at the château, he saw Eidenbenz given the status of Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific granted by Israel to non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust. She also received France’s Legion of Honor and high distinctions by the Spanish and Catalan governments. She died in 2011.
The town of Elne bought and restored the château in 2005. It is now a museum and designated historic site, a memorial of exile. There, Eidenbenz’s words resonate today as they did 80 years ago: “We welcome women of all nationalities. Neither misery nor unhappiness have a homeland.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the baby born in 1941 at the maternity hospital, the hospital’s compliance with the laws of occupied France and Guy Eckstein’s role at the U.N.
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