“I am a Russian concentration camp survivor of World War II,” she said as she approached me.
In under five seconds, Elsa had completely captured my attention with her greeting. I noted to myself, her English was not that of a native Kansan. My ear detected a faint accent indicating German ancestry.
My friend Virginia, a riveter for Boeing during World War II, had escorted Elsa over to meet me. However, it was clear to all three of us the introduction was merely a formality. We were kindred spirits, divinely connected, predestined to hold space for Elsa and her story.
Wide-eyed, I took her hand in mine and asked if I could record our conversation. She agreed, telling me her name was Elsa Boston and her children have asked her to document her story.
“We were in Poland when we were captured…we were captured in Poland. The Russians invaded Poland and surprised Hitler. Thank God,” she exclaimed as she looked to Heaven.
“Oh my …” started Virginia.
And, without hesitation Elsa interrupted my thoughts and Virginia’s words.
“Yes, I have met Hitler, he was the ugliest person there ever was, with pitted face, just awful. And his girlfriend, she was terrible. She cut off tattoos from dead people and made lampshades off of them.”
I wondered, as she spoke, if the story of tattoo lampshades was true or rather something the guards told prisoners as a tactic to instill fear and inspire obedience.
“The war was over but the Russians weren’t agreeing to that so we were in the concentration camp two and a half years,” she said.
After a pause, she added, “I never knew what a toothbrush was for two and a half years.”
Before I could fully absorb her statement, she continued her story.
“My brother Wally, he was born in the concentration camp. My mother, she was pregnant when we were captured. I was seven and a half. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I close my eyes and World War II is right there, like yesterday. Something that you don’t forget,” she said as she placed her hand over her heart and continued, ”but it happened, but I’m just thankful that God had a reason to keep us alive.”
“When we were captured, my oldest brother David was wounded. They asked whose boy this was out there in the snow, crying. Mom said that was [her] son, so the Russian soldiers took us outside. David said ‘Help me, Mom, help me’ and the soldier took out his gun and just killed him.”
I had been unconsciously holding my breath and I slowly exhaled it. And Elsa confidently continued her story.
“But we know he’s with God. I was born in a Christian home and I’ve lived in a Christian home all my life and without God there’s nothing, nothing at all. Everything I have is a gift from God and here I am.”
I knew Elsa meant what she said. I could see her strength was girded by her faith.
“One thing about a concentration camp I found out,” she continued, “Vietnam did the same thing [to POW’s]. Our staple diet was pumpkin soup.”
And with her hands, she indicated as she spoke, “Mashed pumpkin, cooked in water. No seasoning. That was it.”
Then, in a confessional tone, she said, “I stole a lot of food out of trash cans at night, because I was a good climber, so I climbed down.”
She paused, inhaling as if swallowing back tears and said, “It was sad that happened but God had a plan for me and he brought me here.”
Rhetorically, she asked, “What more can I say?”
But Elsa had plenty more she wanted to say. So she continued her story.
“Well when the war was over officially, except for the Russians, my dad had been drafted into the German Army and through the underground we found each other, and through Radio Free Europe and the Red Cross. And dad came over [to Russia] when he found us, bribed the guards with pantyhose, lady stockings, and cigarettes.
“One of the guards on our way out [of the camp] said ‘Get over [the border] quick because the next [shift of camp guards] are not gonna be so nice.’ So dad bribed them again with stockings and cigarettes and they helped us across the border which was just barbwire fence across the little creek and they helped us across it and told us to go deep into the woods because the next guards would shoot at everything they hear.”
I witnessed the relief in her face as she recalled the next part of the story.
“We applied, after the war when we were in West Germany. Dad went to the county seat to do some business and they had flyers out for South America and different countries and dad said ‘I’m gonna apply for America. I don’t know if we’ll get accepted or not.’
But we were, and we stayed six weeks in a camp where they taught us. We had to go to school to learn basic English and all the Constitution and bylaws and we got a stamp every time we came to class.
“Then, after six weeks, we came to America. We landed at Ellis Island November 4, 1951.
“I’ve been through hell and back,” she said with Truth ringing in her statement.
Raising her hand to her heart, again, she smiled and said, “But I’m an American now and that’s where I’m gonna stay and there’s nothing better than America!”
I decided it was a good time to ask a few questions. I asked what her maiden name was.
“It is pronounced ‘Boo-nk’ in Germany, but in America they say Bunk. My dad’s name was Jacob, spelled with a K, and mom’s name is Emilie. I had a brother David; a brother, Erick; a sister, Elfriede; a little brother, Wally, born in the concentration camp; and a younger brother, Ewald, was born in West Germany, and he’s a Marine,” she exalted.
Virginia asked about her children, and Elsa proudly told us about each one and their military service.
“I have a son, Larry, and he retired from the Pentagon. When 9-11 happened, the Pentagon had just been remodeled and they were in a temporary quarters. He was walking back, which was four miles from the Pentagon, because he’s a walker and a runner. His office was hit first, so God spared him because I just lost my oldest son the month before. My daughter she was in the Army. My son-in-law was General Bradley’s personal aid, until he died. One brother was in the Marines and one brother was in the Army.”
She proudly added, “I am totally military, and these veterans,” pointing over her shoulder, “are the most beautiful people, they are just beautiful.”
The veterans Elsa referred to were a group of volunteers from the Department of Kansas American Legion, American Legion Riders, American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion, who were attending for an event at Fort Riley, serving current soldiers and their families.
“There’s nothing better than the good ol’ USA,” she said. “I’ve been a Legion Auxiliary member for 58 years. I’m also a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and I love this, I love this (indicating the gathering of veterans and soldiers and their families). I made a lot of friends and I am proud to be American.
“That’s all I can say.”
You must be logged in to post a comment.