While researching my first novel Lilac Girls I discovered the story of Sister Elise Rivet and have been researching her life for my sixth novel and wanted to share her deeply moving story.
Born in Algeria to an Alsatian mother and a French naval officer father, Élise Rivet grew up in Lyon, France. As a young adult she worked as a hairdresser and then joined the convent of the medical sisters of Notre Dame de Compassion in Lyon in 1912. In 1933 she became the Mother Superior of the convent and took the name Mère Marie Élisabeth de l’Eucharistie.
After France fell to Nazi Germany in World War II she she participated in the Mouvements Unis de Résistance (MUR) and l’Armée Secrète, and hid their archives inside the convent. She also sheltered Jews and a British soldier, gave them identity papers and stored guns and ammunition. On March 24, 1944, Mother Elisabeth was arrested by the Gestapo, along with her assistant Sister Mary Jésus, and taken to Prison in Lyon where she met fellow detainee Andrée Rivière. “It was in the refectory that I saw Mother Elisabeth for the first time, whose personality and radiance came from the most depressed. She welcomed the new boarders with her calm smile which comforted us after the shock of the arrest and prison. All gathered with our Mother, as we called her, we felt a security, a moral support, a supernatural ray of hope and thought that nothing more could happen to us.”
Mother Elisabeth was deported to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp and there, stripped of her religious garments and forced into hard labor, she ministered to her fellow prisoners and helped them turn to prayer to fight their despair.
“Sister Elisabeth was the soul of the camp,” Andrée Rivière said. “In this universe of murderous madness, she was a pole of serenity and hope, of loving presence with her companions.”
Mother Elisabeth spent a year at the camp and just two weeks before Germany surrendered, on March 30, Good Friday, she volunteered to go to the gas chamber in the place of a woman who had children waiting for her at home, saying to her fellow prisoners as they marched: Let we go together. I will help you to die in peace.
She was fifty-five years old.
In 1961 the French government honored Mother Elisabeth with a Heroes of the Resitance postage stamp and a street in Lyon and a lecture hall at the Institut des Sciences he l’Homme in Lyon are named for her.