Elsbeth Wolffheim, née Dittmann, was born in Stettin, Germany (present-day Szczecin, Poland). She studied German and Slavic studies with scholars who included Hans Wolffheim, whom she later married. She worked as a translator and literary critic, and became a literary historian specializing in German exile literature and Slavic Russian literature. She was a founding member of Literaturhaus Hamburg and served on its board for 12 years, and was a vice president of German PEN. Among other projects, she led support for persecuted writers and artists and initiated a PEN program for writers in exile. The city of Darmstadt, where German PEN has its headquarters, created an annual literary award with stipend for persecuted writers named in her honor.