It was a story Elfi Hornby knew she had to tell, even when she was 16 and was dancing as entertainment for German troops on the Russian front during World War II.
Now 79, Hornby has written two books about her life and is in the process of completing the third in a trilogy on how she survived the war and came to the United States as a young war bride, later heading the dance department at Reed College in Portland, Ore., before retiring in 1968.
Elfi Hornby, of Federal Way, Wash., who was born and raised in Germany, posed next to a photograph of herself at age 18 in one of her dancing costumes. She was 16 when she was sent to the Russian Front during World War II to entertain German troops. She later danced for American troops.
Hornby and her second husband, Jim, a 1949 Brainerd High School graduate, have been in the Brainerd lakes area visiting family for the past week and plan to stay until Sunday when they return home to Federal Way, Wash. They have been staying with Jim's brother and sister-in-law, Gene and Rita Hornby, in Nokay Lake Township.
Elfi spoke Monday at the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center and planned to speak Wednesday for the Golden K Kiwanis Club and Thursday for the Crow Wing County genealogy club.
She said she didn't write her books to gain fame or fortune, but to dispel misconceptions Americans may have about the German people during World War II. Many Germans, like her parents, despised Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, but many young German men had no choice but to join the military.
"For the last 50 years, we certainly didn't get very good press," Hornby said of average Germans during World War II. "I think there were less people for Hitler than there were for (President) Bush."
Hornby, who was born and raised in Munich, Germany, was 4 when her mother enrolled her in dancing lessons. By the time she was 6, she was performing on stage. By 10, Hornby was dancing in solo concerts throughout Bavaria's elite alpine resorts until she reached her teens. She also performed in German movies.
Elfi Hornby wrote "Dancing to War" and "Shadow of Defeat." She now is nearly done writing her third book about her life and how she survived World War II as a girl in Germany.
After the war started, Hornby got a job in a revue in Munich, rather than get drafted into work at the local munitions factory. When the show closed in her hometown, she traveled with the production to Berlin.
When air attacks began and theaters began to shut down, Hornby joined the Molkow Ballet, a traveling company. She was 15 and her parents signed a three-year contract for her, not knowing that they also signed away their parental rights. She traveled throughout Germany and German-occupied zones during the war, performing everything from classical to folk dancing. It was a company of about eight to 10 girls, all under age 21.
Hornby's father was a pacifist and wanted no part of the Nazi party, she said. She was one of only three students in her school not involved with Hitler youth activities. She spent most of her time dancing.
When she and her dancing troupe were forced to perform on the Russian front, Hornby got a unique perspective on the war. She was a young girl, a civilian, who many times nearly died in bombing raids. A few times they came close to being captured by the Russians. The German soldiers who traveled with them always saved one bullet in their guns for the girls so they couldn't be taken by the Russians.
She and her fellow dancers performed at Auschwitz, which she was told was a top-secret underground factory. In her book, "Dancing to War," Hornby recalled seeing a row of men digging a ditch in the dark, the site lighted by spotlights. The teenager told her military escort that the men must be doing important work if they had to dig ditches at night in the rain.
"Just a bunch of Jews digging a ditch," the man told Hornby. "When it's deep enough, we line them up and shoot them in."
Hornby thought the man said that only to shock her. She said she never suspected what he said could be true. She learned the truth about Auschwitz years later.
While in the ballet company, Hornby performed in war-occupied zones, including France, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria. She was riding on a train in France when it was blown up by the French Underground.
"It's amazing I'm still around," said Hornby. "It's a miracle I survived the front."
She was forced to leave the ballet company in 1944 and return home because of illness. She was 18 when the war ended and started to dance for American troops in Munich. She used material from a large Nazi flag to make her first costume, because the ballet company owned all of her previous costumes. Her mother was furious when she came home carrying the Nazi flag.
She got paid in cigarettes and sold them on the black market. She moved to Omaha, Neb., in 1949, where she raised two children with her American G.I. husband and opened a ballet school. She often took vacations in the Nisswa area because her first husband's family had summer cabins here.
She got divorced in 1962 and moved to Portland, Ore., in 1963, securing a job at Reed College as director of the dance program. She suffered a back injury in 1968 and decided to retire.
Her first book, "Dancing to War," was published in 2000 while her second book, "Shadow of Defeat," was published in 2003. But Hornby said she has been writing her autobiography for the past 60 years. She is nearly done with her third book and hopes to finish it by her 80th birthday on Jan. 20.
Hornby met Jim at a Bavarian weekend in the mountains in Portland, Ore. They've been married 37 years.
Hornby said there were few books about German civilians and how they suffered during World War II, which is why she felt the need to tell her story. There were many good young men -- German and American -- whose bones are scattered throughout the battlefields of Europe. Hornby's stepbrother, Willy, was killed in the war. He had been an Olympic runner and competed in the 1936 Olympics.
"People have to realize the insanity of war," said Hornby. "I've learned that revenge, such as war, is not justice. It always befalls the innocent. We all can be brainwashed if you only hear one side of the story. That's why I had to write my story."
Hornby said when she watches the news and sees stories about the war in Iraq and its impact on Iraqi civilians, it brings her back to her experiences during World War II. She also feels for Hurricane Katrina survivors. She and her family lost much during the war. She felt she lost her childhood. After the war her school was gone, so were her friends, scattered to destinations unknown. Munich, the city she loved, was destroyed.
"Every time someone beats the drum, another generation starts to march again," Hornby said of war. "We never learn because history is being manipulated."
Hornby said despite the horror she has seen in her lifetime, she feels fortunate.
"I feel very lucky. I feel no bitterness," said Hornby. "I feel joy every day of my life."
Those interested in buying copies of Hornby's books may visit her Web site, www.elfihornby.com, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Books are $16.95 each.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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