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Many experts say that we’re all just a product of our environments – the sum total of our experiences. Yet there seem to be people who rise above their beginnings, people untouched by the things going on around them. These people are remarkable. Elsa was such a person. She survived deprivation most of us can’t imagine, lived among some of the most despicable villains in history, and emerged untouched. I didn’t know her well and I know I can’t do justice to her story. I didn’t know her well, but what I did know of her touched me. This is what she told me.

I want to tell a story about a neighbour I had back when I lived in Boston, a woman that I consider to be remarkable in her own way – I’ve certainly never met anyone else like her. She was originally from Germany and lived through WWII, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was a time of my life that wasn’t all that great – it was when I was doing heroin and, like most people in that situation, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself. My neighbour, Elsa, would hear me coming up the stairs and she would open her door saying, “You don’t look so good”. She would sit me down at her table and make a soup out of very hearty beef broth, egg whites, and crusts of bread. But her generosity and compassion, as exceptional as it was, aren’t what set her apart.

After I ate, she would tell me about her life in Germany. After the First World War, most of the German people were unimaginably poor. In America today, with all of our government programs, people don’t really understand deprivation. Elsa told me that during the late 1920s and early 1930s, the time leading up to WWII, she, her mother, and little brother would go into abandoned buildings and peel wallpaper from the walls to boil the glue off to make a sort of porridge – the glue, made mostly of animal renderings, contained protein. This was the sort of life she had until Hitler came to power.

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She talked about communists and anti-fascists, she said they were gangs of communist street thugs that destroyed property and accosted people on the streets, most often robbing them. When Hitler came to power, all of that behavior ended and law and order were restored. Before the Nazis, it was unsafe for her and her brother to go out even during the day. Imagine having to battle gangs of street thugs on your way to get wallpaper to boil down and eat. No wonder the German people tolerated Hitler and his Nazis.

She was chosen to join the Helferinnen (women’s auxiliary) called euphemistically ‘Hitler’s Handmaidens’. Her job was to act as an escort for the German hierarchy – a hostess at gatherings of the top brass. She had pictures of herself and other girls, all in their late teens and early twenties, with all of the Nazi notables… Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, and others I didn’t recognize. She told me that neither she nor the other girls even knew what a Nazi was, they had an opportunity to eat every day, send some money home to their families, and they were all treated very well. Sexual relations with any of the men were strictly verboten, they were hostesses, nothing more.

It’s easy in today’s atmosphere of intolerance to look back on history and judge the past, a luxury only afforded the victors. But there’s an old saying about not judging others unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I think that in retrospect Elsa had a sense of guilt for what she learned after the fact, there was never any sort of braggadocio in her voice when she told me the stories, merely stating facts. For me, it was fascinating seeing people I had read about brought to life. There was never any judgment in her voice when Elsa spoke of any of these people, only that they had always treated her in a gentlemanly manner.

I think about Elsa from time to time, her kindness and humility, not to mention her delicious soup. Sometimes she would play her piano and sing, then laugh in a self-deprecating manner and turn red with embarrassment afterward – the photos of some of history’s worst villains looking on from their perch atop the piano.

She was a beauty in her youth, a beauty that shone forth from her eyes and her heart even in middle age and beyond. She remained totally untouched by the evil that had surrounded her, she spoke pleasantly about everyone she had met, never a trace of judgment in her voice. I learned from Elsa… I learned that people are just people, individuals to be judged for themselves and their actions, not where they came from or the things desperation forced them to do. We all have a story to tell. Elsa’s story is one of kindness and generosity, even to a junkie, and a story of loneliness too, I think.

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