After six months of dancing for the German military during World War II, Elfi Hornby recalls coming home to see her community starving.
“You think you see those people in the concentration camps, there were people walking in the cities like that, no kidding,” Hornby said. “Because we had no food in Germany.”
The Federal Way resident has come a long way since then. Speaking with a thick German accent, she sits in her dining room as her husband mows the lawn on a sunny Friday afternoon.
Her white house, side cottage, garage and garden nestled in Federal Way make up her paradise now. She even has a place set up downstairs that she calls her Bavarian corner.
But it wasn’t always so peaceful. At 88 years old, she remembers her life during WWII like it was yesterday.
Outlined in her three books — “Dancing to War,” “Shadow of Defeat,” and “So, This is America” — the longtime dancer, dance teacher and author has a compelling story but wants people to take away the concept that there’s “good people and bad people but most people are good.”
“People can be brainwashed,” she said. “If they hear one message, they get to believe it whether it’s religion or politics, whatever it is.”
Growing up in southern Germany, or Bavaria, Hornby and her family were poor. Her father refused to join the Nazi party because he saw it for what it was — another world war. As a result, he could only get part-time work, Hornby said.
During an odd job posing for art students at an academy, Hornby joined her father to help out her family. She was only 4 years old.
“It was nice, they had a beautiful area, a yard with a pond and all those statues,” she said, “big, life-size statues — all nude. It was something else.”
The opportunity led to another and she found herself taking dance lessons at the art academy.
At age 14, Hornby signed up with a ballet company from Berlin and they traveled the country until the winter of 1942.
“We get an order to immediately report to the military in Poland and we already knew what was going to be in the works,” she said. “… We had to drop everything, cancel our tour and get on a train.”
It was time to go to the Russian front.
At 16 years old, Hornby remembered that train packed full of soldiers. So much that “you could hardly walk along the aisles.”
Once there, Hornby would dine with the general, as she was the soloist.
Although her parents were afraid she wouldn’t come back alive, Hornby said the six months she spent there had sad times, such as the Katyn Massacre and when her brother died as a German soldier.
But there were also times that are quite funny to her now.
“We were in danger most of those times,” she said. “Some of those experiences, I’ll never forget.”
Hornby and her peers were brought to the front lines of the trenches because the soldiers had been sitting there for a long time.
While there, she remembers the Germans and Russians would trade cigarettes for vodka.
“There was a lull in the war and nobody could move,” she said. “It was winter and then came the thaw … They wanted to celebrate, they were so happy, but they had no booze and said ‘Ah’ so one got down on the megaphone and said, ‘Hey Ruski, got vodka? Have cigarette!’ and then the Russians answer back, ‘How many cigarettes?’ Isn’t that weird?”
And they raised the white flag and exchanged.
“However, if you would stick your head above that trench, you would get a bullet,” Hornby said. “It’s a paradox.”
Hornby and her dance team went to the south of France after that but she got sick and had to be sent home.
It was then that she saw the true devastation war had caused. To survive, she thought she had to dance for the Americans, as an agent was there organizing shows.
But with no costumes from her ballet company and no money to buy something on the black market, Hornby found herself desperate for a costume.
People plundered the Nazi warehouses for food, whatever they could find. But by the time she got there, there was hardly anything left.
“The only thing they left was gigantic Hitler flags on the walls,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that would make a terrific costume. So I tore down that Hitler flag and brought it home and mother said ‘Get the heck out of here, all this time we never had a flag and you come home with the biggest one ever made, they’re gonna kill us!’”
Hornby’s neighbor seamstress helped her make a red Spanish costume from the flag. It had a lot of ruffles with black trimming and some sequins.
Although she was able to get the job dancing for the Americans, it didn’t last too long because some threatened to kick them out during the curfew Americans had in Germany if they did not perform topless, and also because there wasn’t stable housing in the American tours.
She soon met a Hungarian circus-like group that traveled as a family. She became one of them and describes the experiences as “great.”
But then she met a man who would her become her first husband.
The man courted her, almost stalked her, she said, until he eventually took her sarcasm to be married seriously. After discovering a pastor in the hotel lobby, she ran up to her hotel room and locked the door. But the man would eventually bribe the clerk to let him in.
“It was a rape,” she said. “I was a trophy to bring back.”
Fearful that she may be pregnant and also that she would get in trouble for pretending she was Hungarian, Hornby went with him back to Omaha, Nebraska in 1949.
Her husband was the son of a prominent, church-going family in Nebraska and found her, a German dancer, to be scandalous.
“Every German was a Nazi,” she said, sarcastically. “They were socially conscious of everything. I couldn’t buy into it.”
Although her husband “adored her from the outside” he had no respect for her in their marriage. He didn’t have a job and got bigger and bigger, “Nothing attractive,” she said.
But because Hornby was forced to find a way to make money, she was able to find her joy in life.
She opened a ballet school and founded the Children’s Dance Theater, which would be later known as the Omaha Dance Theater.
She directed and choreographed original ballets, such as Esmeralda, River Gold, The Little Match Girl, The Lonely Crowd and classics, such as Firebird and pieces of Swan Lake.
“I’m very proud of [my students],” she said. “Half a dozen made it to Hollywood, the American Ballet theater, New York, the Opera. That was my joy.”
But Hornby’s world came crashing down when a work problem and a personal problem collided.
During that time, her Jewish friend’s husband alleged Hornby had a “Mein Kampf” and Bible together on her bookshelf. Her business was “dissolved overnight.” Hornby said it was her husband’s signed copy as a “souvenir” of his time there, but her businesses ceased, nevertheless. At the same time, she was battling one of the worst things any mother could.
Her husband had been sexually abusing their daughter as a child.
With no help from police, some council members agreed to have someone send her husband away to a psychiatric ward for two to three weeks, in which time she would have to file for divorce, sell the house and auction her belongings.
“He had a gun and threatened me several times,” she said. “We would have all been dead.”
With just $2,000 as a single mother, she took her son and daughter west. It was 1963.
Hornby said she knew one family in the west but the area attracted her because the mountains and woods reminded her of her homeland.
“These were things I needed,” she said.
Hornby was hired at Reed College in Portland, Oregon as an artist in residence for minimum salary. But the dance department grew and she was able to make a life for herself.
“I worked the hell out of my students and they would go around the campus ‘Ahh, she worked us out again,’” she laughed. “That was advertisement, then all the other students came. Reed was a fun place, a funny place. It was during the hippie era and they came in all kinds of getups and stuff.”
Eventually, she stopped teaching dance at 42 years old in 1968 because she needed to have a spinal fusion to fix injuries from a car accident. During that time, she met her husband, Jim, and they moved to the Seattle area. Her first book was published in the 1990s after having started it as a 16-year-old.
“What 16-year-old girl would have an experience, how many women at that time would have the experience to know and live like soldiers did, up in front, see it from an entirely different point of view than a solider does?”
The other two books followed in the early 2000s.
“The funny thing is every time I was in a writing group, every time there was a Jewish person, I’d run into problems because I’m German and they want some kind of an apology and it’s annoying but I can understand where they’re coming from,” she said. “It always takes time where I can break the barrier and we become friends, really good friends and we can talk to one another and we can understand one another.”
Hornby notes that while she had bad experiences being German in the anti-Nazi propaganda era of America, she wholeheartedly believes there are good people and bad people in all groups of people.
While she hopes to have the chance to write one last book explaining this concept, she doubts she’ll have the time.
“I get tired and I’m slow, I don’t remember things like I used to,” she said. “It took so many turns, but you just go with the flow. You have to change course when it doesn’t work. Then you have to take another road. I’m glad and proud of my accomplishments. I’m not proud of all the mistakes I made, hopefully I learned from them. But I did. And I still have the urge to write my last word, a summation of what I have learned because times have changed so much … The world has changed but nothing has changed in the human condition.”
For more information on Hornby’s books, visit www.elfihornby.com.