The Greatest Generation: Elli
I am not a New Mexican by birth, but after having followed my soldier husband to Albuquerque, I am a New Mexican in my heart. I left the Old World as a Bride and have settled in the New World as an adult.
Because of my past, I have a wonderful present, and I owe that very much to a woman who belonged to that so-called “greatest generation”. Her name was Elizabeth Menzel and she had a profound impact on me as a child.
She was my governess, and our family housekeeper– but these words do not do her justice–she was my friend, my ersatz grandmother, my second mother and a really close confidant.
I can only aspire to be as good and is content as she was when I knew her. She was the type of person who always seemed satisfied and happy. She rarely complained. She had a great sense of humor and was a friend to all who interacted with her. She often “made do”. She was resourceful and a shrewd bargainer. She was the kind of person who knew who to ask for what, and how to get almost anything, at any time, and at a fair price. If you needed something found, or done, or fixed, Frau Elizabeth Menzel was your woman.
As a child, I really felt safe with her. She could tend to wounds or wash dirty faces with just a little bit of spit on a handkerchief. She could fix anything with a needle, thread or glue. She knitted all her own sweaters and socks.
When I was sick or scared, she’d cluck and fuss and reassure me that everything was going to be okay and she could heal almost anything with a good schnitzel or goulash or chicken soup or bread and butter. She’d sneak me chocolates or candy when my mom wasn’t looking.
She laughed a lot, hugged often and kissed me loudly, often to my embarrassment. She scolded the TV whenever her soccer team was losing, and many times, she had to have bracing schnapps to endure the actual loss.
She seemed to love her life, was self-sufficient, but was appreciative of the things my parents provided her, like the occasional American goods from the commissary or PX.
My parents took me everywhere, and wherever I went, Frau Menzel went, too. We were quite a team. She really did seem to enjoy being with me. Of course, I was just a small child and may not have fully realized what she really felt, but she was part of my life, fully, for 16 years, and then remotely, for another 15. She loved me unconditionally.
Over the years, I’ve asked myself why was Elizabeth Menzel content with being our housekeeper, my governess; and later my friend? Why didn’t she complain or find other work—not working with American families, but something else?
It probably boils down to her experiences during, and immediately after, World War II.
Frau Menzel had a very interesting story, which she told me in a diluted form as I was growing up.
She was from Silesia, which now is Poland, but back when she was young, it was part of Germany.
Her brothers had died in World War I and she was living near her parents, or possibly with her parents near the end of World War II. She was young and married with three small children ages three, two and one. Her husband was in the Luftwaffe and he had promised her that if she were ever in danger, he would fly there in his airplane and rescue her.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
When the Russians invaded her town of Sagan, the German residents, for the most part, fled.
Her father swore that no Russian was going to take over his house, and he refused to leave. So she, her 80-year-old mother and three small children set out on foot– fleeing the Russians and heading into the interior of Germany.
They never saw him again.
Now that I’m an adult, I’d want to know more of the details, but all I have memorized are the stories she told me when I was young.
According to Wikipedia, “late in the war, as the Red Army advanced westward, many Germans were apprehensive about the impending Soviet occupation. Most were aware of the Soviet reprisals against German civilians. Soviet soldiers committed numerous rapes and other crimes.
Plans to evacuate the ethnic German population westwards further into Germany, from Eastern Europe and the eastern territories of Germany, were prepared by various Nazi authorities towards the end of the war. In most cases, however, implementation was delayed until Soviet and Allied forces had defeated the German forces and advanced into the areas to be evacuated.
The first mass exodus of German civilians from the eastern territories was composed of both spontaneous flight and organized evacuation, starting in the summer of 1944 and continuing through the early spring of 1945. Conditions turned chaotic during the winter, when kilometers-long queues of refugees pushed their carts through the snow trying to stay ahead of the advancing Red Army.
The evacuation of the 4.7 million population of Silesia began on January 19, 1945. The first orders concerned the elderly, women and children of Upper Silesia.
About 85% of the Lower Silesian population was evacuated in 1945, first across Oder River and then to Saxony or to Bohemia. However, many of the Silesians ignored the evacuation orders, believing that their knowledge of Polish and their Polish provenance would spare them the horrors feared by Germans.
During one poorly organized evacuation in early March 1945, 18,000 people froze to death in icy snowstorms and -20°C weather.”
As, I recall she said very few people would give them food along the road, and that she had to feed her children bread moistened with spit, grass and whatever else they could scrounge.But, they survived.
Elli, as she was called, managed to get her mother and three children from Sagan to Frankfurt, hundreds of kilometers away.
Once in Frankfurt, she got a job with the Americans– as a waitress in the Enlisted Men’s club.
She and her husband were eventually reunited, but their marriage didn’t last, and she again, became breadwinner for her mother and children. In addition to waitressing, she cleaned houses part-time or the American families on post.
Soon, she was referred as a nanny to an officer’s family stationed in Frankfurt, and when they PCS’d, she was referred to another family, and so on.
When I first met her, she had moved to Karlsruhe and her children were grown-ups with children of their own. She had never remarried.
I was four years old.
I grew up playing with her grandchildren, attending weddings and parties with her relatives in Hagenbach and Durlach, and visiting with her elderly friends in their tiny coal-heated walk-up apartments.
When I got married, Frau Menzel was there, and when our son Erik was born in the States, she could hardly wait for us to get transferred to Germany so she could meet him.
She visited us in our quarters in Bad Hersfeld and offered me parenting advice when my wits were frazzled. She rummaged through my closet, declaring that one can always know the true person by the condition of his or her closet. She taught me that there are left socks and right socks, and my socks were balled up wrong. She showed me how to make all of her recipes I had loved while growing up.
She was also there when, Iain, our youngest was born, and came up on the train to visit, even though by that time, she was living in an assisted living in Karlsruhe.
When we moved to the States, we kept in touch by letter—I could barely read her “old German” handwriting, but I treasured every word.
We were in Puerto Rico when she died at age 77. He daughter wrote us a letter and sent the obituary.
I was stunned. Frau Menzel was supposed to be there forever—the loss was immense.
Years later, I realize she is still here—she is reflected in my character—in the memories of me and the many other American children she helped rear. She is there when I make German food, when we unknowingly slip a German word into our conversations or when we look through the old photos.
She is with us always—and I want to thank the folks at the Enlisted Men’s Club in Frankfurt, Germany, for taking a chance in hiring the young refugee, and by that, introducing her to me.
I’d like to think that there is some old soldier out there, somewhere, who remembers young Elli—my Frau Menzel—with fondness, just as I do.