Defying the Holocaust by Tim Dowley

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. During the Second World War, a small number of people from many nations and denominations stepped forward with courage, ingenuity and determination to protect and rescue Jews from the Holocaust. In doing so they risked their lives, and many died. Some, such as Corrie ten Boom, are celebrated, but most have been ignored. In Defying the Holocaust, historian Tim Dowley tells ten stories of these extraordinary women and men. Tim gives us a look at one of these stories today.

Defying the Holocaust

How the Quaker 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 World War II, Abegg concealed in her flat twelve Jewish fugitives. And she was at the hub of a network of people who hid as many as eighty Jews who were attempting to evade the Nazi authorities. Yet she was never caught.

Dr Elisabeth Abegg, born in Strasbourg in 1882, was one of the first German women to obtain a university education. After World War I, she moved to Berlin where she taught history.


In October 1941, the Nazis started to deport all German Jews to the East, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where gas chambers killed up to 10,000 people every day. In order 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 Elisabeth Abegg’s close friend for many years. Aged over 60, she was transported to Auschwitz, turning down her friend’s offer to conceal her. Dr Abegg faced the stark reality of the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Elisabeth Abegg far right with friends after the war


Despite being carer for her disabled sister and their 86-year-old mother, Elisabeth Abegg began helping Jews in Berlin to find shelter, building a rescue network with friends and former students. ‘U-boats’ sheltered in her flat or in nearby empty properties. Most who knocked at her door asking for help were strangers – yet she never failed to respond.

Elisabeth 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 in hiding were missing out on education, she started to tutor some in her home.


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

Abegg’s group also protected three young Jewish children. A helper called Hildegard Knies told 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. When Evi started praying in Hebrew at her kindergarten, she had to be moved away quickly.

Ludwig Collm, sacked as a teacher because of his Jewish roots, was put in contact with Elisabeth 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!”’

Safety and kindness

Every Friday, Jewish fugitives came to lunch at Elisabeth’s flat. ‘For two hours we could. . . forget that we no longer lived like human beings,’ one recalled.

Elisabeth Abegg offered fugitives safety, protection, and food – but also kindness, reassurance, and goodness. All told, Elisabeth Abegg and her friends helped an estimated eighty people with lodging, food, money, clothing and forged documents. Most survived.

Quakers believe in speaking the truth, yet this courageous woman lied to the Gestapo. Miraculously, her rescue activities were never discovered.

After the war, ‘white-haired and angelic’, she returned to teaching. For her 75th birthday, survivors dedicated to her a collection of memoirs. They included the 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.

Jizchak Schwersenz summed up the contribution of Dr 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.’

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

Never again

My new book, Defying the Holocaust, tells ten stories of brave men and women who dared stand up against the cruelty of the times. Some of the courageous Christians who supported Jews died for their efforts. For example Jane Haining, Church of Scotland matron at a hostel for Jewish schoolgirls in Budapest, remained in Hungary after war was declared. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered.

Over the course of World War II, the Nazis murdered approximately six million Jews and at least five million non-Jews. They slaughtered more than one million children, many newborn or unborn.

75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and at a time when anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, it is vital these facts and stories are recorded and remembered.

Tim Dowley, a Londoner by birth, has written widely on history, music, religion and literature. He lives in Dulwich, south London, with his wife and three children. Defying the Holocaust: Ten courageous Christians who supported Jews is published by SPCK.

From the weekly bath to the daily shower

Today’s headline is one I never thought to have on A Writer of History!

Professor Peter Ward is the author of The Clean Body: A Modern History. From bathing maybe once every six months to shopping at Lush for regular luxurious bath experiences, Peter takes a fresh (pun intended), fascinating look into the history of cleanliness and explains how our relationship to bathing has progressed over the centuries and continues to change. Welcome to the blog, Peter.


“From the weekly bath to the daily shower” is an excerpt from a chapter in my recent book The Clean Body: A Modern History.  The book surveys the history of personal hygiene in Europe and North America over the past 4 centuries and the excerpt reviews changing bathing habits during the 20th century, particularly from mid century onward.  While the extract stands alone, it’s one of several closely related themes that the book explores at length.  It illustrates two interesting sets of research issues that characterize the entire book, one related to the task of writing a synthesis, the other emerging from the subject of personal hygiene habits itself.

The Clean Body is a synthesis of works on a range of topics related to the hygiene revolution over the past two centuries or so.  Much of what has been published on the subject examines aspects of the history of cleanliness in a single country, with topics ranging from the intimacies of the bathroom to the urban planning that brought water supplies and sewer systems to mass housing in the new industrial age.   Because I intended to write a synthesis, my research was largely based on the work of many others, though I supplemented it with the occasional inclusion of primary source material. By their very nature syntheses raise research issues that differ in important respects from those of documentary research.  A synthesis isn’t a historiography – a history of historical writing – but rather a drawing together and a reinterpretation of earlier research. Invariably historians who write syntheses depend on the work of earlier investigators. As a result they need to be sensitive to the breadth, the reliability and the interpretive insights of their predecessors’ efforts.  They also need to read and judge these earlier works carefully, appraising their authors’ professional skills. And when they cite or quote material from previous studies, they need to respect the integrity of their sources rather than simply reshape their borrowings to their own interpretive ends.

The Clean Body is a history of personal habits.  Its subject is long-term change in the mundane matter of body care.  The sheer ordinariness of the subject makes it difficult to investigate in earlier times because it deals with something so unremarkable that it didn’t generate abundant records at any point in the past.  With the exception of occasional diary entries and remarks in correspondence, our ancestors didn’t note their ablutions. One major reason in the deeper past was that they very seldom – if ever – bathed their entire bodies, merely rinsing the skin that showed from time to time.  Their ideas about cleanliness had little to do with washing themselves so there was little for them to record. In fact many of them probably laundered their clothing more often than they washed their faces and hands, though practices varied widely according to wealth and social status.  Later, as bathing slowly became accepted among the upper classes, it soon became common enough that it attracted little notice, and for the most part this has remained true ever since.

As a result we need to devise further research strategies in order learn more about bathing practices and the ideas on which they rested.  The most helpful – and unfortunately the most elusive as well – are the occasional bits of anecdotal evidence left by individuals who were preoccupied enough by their own lives, or those of their family members, that they occasionally recorded their bathing practices.  In addition, since the 1930s, social surveys have sometimes asked respondents whether or not they washed themselves, what parts of their bodies they did clean when they happened to wash, and how often they did so. So we do have some first hand accounts of personal hygiene practices.

Otherwise we need to turn to observers of other people’s behaviour for comments on cleanliness.  In this case the sources are much more abundant, but they’re more problematic as well because, overwhelmingly, the commentators were critical of those whose conduct they surveyed.  The critics, of course, considered themselves clean and believed that those they observed were not. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, they were drawn from the ranks of social privilege and they shared a broad consensus on the conduct they recommended for their social inferiors.  Some of the less favoured shared the same beliefs about cleanliness but they lacked the means to keep themselves clean, or at least to do so easily. Still others clung to more traditional beliefs about body care that placed little or no emphasis on regular washing.  In these varied circumstances, questions about cleanliness, its meanings and its practices, were refracted through the twin lenses of social class and ideology, requiring caution when exploring the meanings of our sources.

The Clean Body explores one of the most fundamental and pervasive cultural changes in Western history since the seventeenth century: the personal hygiene revolution. In the age of Louis XIV bathing was rare and hygiene was mainly a matter of wearing clean underclothes. By the late twentieth century frequent – often daily – bathing had become the norm and wearing freshly laundered clothing the general practice. Cleanliness, once simply a requirement for good health, became an essential element of beauty. Beneath this transformation lay a sea change in understandings, motives, ideologies, technologies, and practices, all of which shaped popular habits over time. Peter Ward explains that what began as an urban bourgeois phenomenon in the later eighteenth century became a universal condition by the end of the twentieth, touching young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and country residents alike.

Based on a wealth of sources in English, French, German, and Italian, The Clean Body surveys the great hygienic transformation that took place across Europe and North America over the course of four centuries.

Many thanks, Peter. Your post illustrates the challenges of historical research into more intimate and personal matters. It’s intriguing to see how something as basic as bathing has evolved over the centuries. 


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Husband and Wife Authors Damani and Ife Keene

I’m delighted to welcome Damani and Ife Keene, the husband-wife authors of Clandestine: The Times and Secret Life of Mariah Otey Reddick. They have a fascinating story to tell. Perhaps next time, they’ll tell us about how they write together 🙂


To say that challenges are enormous in African-American family heritage research is well beyond a clichéd understatement.

So, imagine my moist-eyed amazement when I discovered, after years of on-and-off amateur sleuthing, that my enslaved great-grandmother Mariah was a human wedding gift at ten-years-old. As an African history buff, that heartless circumstance was not a surprise, but my emotions were raw. After all, this is by no means ancient history. Mariah, my mother’s grandmother lived next door to my Mom’s family on Columbia Avenue in Franklin, TN.

Family lore portrayed Mariah (1838-1922) as a courageous woman who became a spy for the Union during the U.S. Civil War. The Census confirmed oral history that Mariah’s second husband Bolen, my great-grandfather, served time in jail for “killing a man over her.”

But it was the other voluminous confirmed information that inspired Ife, my wife of 53 years, and me to write a historical novel about Mariah and her family.

For example, we have seen an 1862 handwritten note from Colonel John McGavock of Franklin, TN — he was the husband of Mariah’s putative owner — to Confederate General Breckinridge. McGavock refers to “my negroes” being transported south under military escort. That relocation would reduce their chances of escape and prevent them from becoming confiscated as contraband by Union troops.

November 10th, 1862 note is signed:
‘Your Obt Servant, Jon McGavock’

Mariah was sent to Montgomery, AL, where it is verified that she worked in the household of Confederate President Jeff Davis before the South’s capital was relocated to Richmond. Unfortunately, Alan Pinkerton, espionage chief for President Abraham Lincoln destroyed all of his records to avoid violent retribution, and – so far – no documentary evidence of espionage by Mariah has emerged.  If it ever does, she will join the ranks of Mary Bowser – the African/Black spy in the Confederate White House in Richmond. Ms. Bowser’s role was preserved and documented because her “spy master” Elizabeth Van Lew wrote about it and Ms. Bowser lectured publicly later.

Nonetheless, the last thing we would have expected is that Mariah would have given a deposition about the “Franklin Riot” of 1867 – an armed and deadly confrontation between Conservatives/ex-Confederates and the Union League/Loyal League. She pinpointed which side (the Conservatives) fired first. Or, that she would be a key supporting character in a New York Times best-seller, Widow of the South, which focused on her owner, Carrie McGavock. We became friendly with the author Robert Hicks. After meeting him, other preservationists and historians in Franklin, we decided to write a novel to tell the story of Mariah’s forebears, her family and her descendants from the perspective of enslaved and free Africans/Blacks and their Native American and Euro-American allies.

And, so, CLANDESTINE: The Times and Secret Life of Mariah Otey Reddick has come to life as a self-published eBook in pdf format after five years of focused research and writing, interrupted by a term as an Alumni Trustee (2014-17) on the Board of our Alma Mater, Howard University in Washington, DC.

We – my wife and I – initially planned to tell a simple family story of an enslaved and emancipated twice-widowed mid-wife (to the “finest families”), seamstress, spy and freedom-fighter. It evolved into a saga of resistance and resilience covering historical events from 1739 and continuing through the years following the First World War, and including lookbacks from a Spanish character to his family’s experiences in Moorish Andalusia on the Iberian Peninsula.

CLANDESTINE draws on universal themes such as the unquenchable human thirst for freedom, while uplifting African culture and highlighting what are often-marginalized perspectives as well as little-known historical events.

CLANDESTINE relates an exciting, surprising and cascading tale of: resistance & espionage, freedom & terror, loyalty & betrayal, blackmail & death, guilt & dignity, valiant freedom fighters & cruel slavers. Captured within its 350 plus pages are grief & joy, faith & love, sacrifice & accomplishment, crime & impunity, vengeance & justice, battlefield bravery & principled desertion, treachery & unexpected allies, painful choices & flagrant hypocrisy, depravity & innocence as well as spirituality and devotion.

These days, on the site of my granddad’s home on Columbia Avenue, a proud Franklin, TN displays mural panels depicting Mariah, her husband Bolen and her last child, my granddad John W. Reddick, his wife and my mother Thelma as a child. Two housing developments and a street in Franklin are named after John W. Reddick (1880-1941), who rose to prominence as a community and state-wide leader and a proponent of education for “Negro” children. We strive to keep the legacy alive.


One panel of the mural;
another focuses on my Papa, John W. Reddick

Ife, a twice-published fiction author, and I hope we have written a book that is a memorable gift to its readers – and as valuable as it was a labor of love for us.

Thank you, Damani and Ife. What a remarkable and rewarding story. I wish you both every success with your novel.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website