Elsa Vogel describes the wartime experiences which led her to give up her career and work for change, particularly in Latin America.
I was born, brought up and studied in Paris.
During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, I was visiting a friend’s home. Two tanks – one German and one American – were facing each other in that street. I could not get home, and had to stay with my friend. Someone threw a bottle of alcohol into the German tank and it exploded. Petrified, we wondered what would happen next. Nothing did: but there was no food to buy in the locality.
The next morning my friend and I joined a queue of around 40 waiting for vegetables to be delivered to the corner shop. Suddenly a Volkswagen sedan appeared with two German soldiers. One got out and rapidly machine-gunned down the whole queue. We were the last – there were no bullets left for us! We ran and brought my friend’s father, a doctor, to the bloodied scene. My hatred of the Germans grew stronger than ever.
Next day, the Allied Forces arrived in Paris and we rushed to the Arc de Triomphe to welcome them. Suddenly, bullets came hailing onto the crowd from the nearby rooftops. The French militia ran up and dragged six German soldiers down to the street. They were killed on the spot and thrown into a lorry. I did not like the Germans, but I did not like this either.
There was such tremendous hatred in all of us French towards Germans, and vice versa. As a woman of 18, I wondered what kind of future there was for me.
Six months after these horrific incidents, I had the good fortune to meet people who were pioneering new ideas of a group called Moral Re-Armament (MRA – now Initiatives of Change) in France. At that time, MRA had involved itself in bringing reconciliation between France and Germany. They made it clear that change in society would have to start with change in the individual.
My new friends’ faith was practical and dynamic. I asked, ‘What is it you have that I do not seem to? I too have a faith.’ Their answer was, ‘It could be that we have learned to try and listen to the voice of God, who can speak to the hearts of people. Inner listening creates space to see where we and our attitude to life should change.’
They asked, ‘Would you like to be silent now and try for a while?’ Rather reluctantly I agreed! It turned out to be a moment of great truth. Thoughts and feelings I had kept secret for years overflowed.
I had had a complex upbringing. When I discovered that I was illegitimate, I experienced deep hurt and shame. I became rebellious and difficult to live with.
In that time of quiet the thought was, ‘You’ve been hurt but you have also hurt people around you. You need to apologise to your mother; thank her for not having given you up for adoption.’ I struggled with that; but it was the first step in my spiritual journey. My mother lived abroad and never responded, but for the first time, I felt free to be myself. A great burden fell from my shoulders.
After two more years of study, I felt the calling to dedicate myself to the work of MRA and ended up in Brazil.
There I met many young people born out of wedlock like me. As I heard their tales of pain, I saw I was still bitter and full of blame. I gave God an ultimatum: ‘Either you take away all this bitterness or I stop working for you!’ He did not wait long to give me his answer: ‘If you still feel hurt and bitter it is because you blame everyone but yourself and do not take any responsibility.’
I did not like that, but God showed me how I had closed my heart when I was eight. That choice was not the responsibility of my parents. It was mine. That was as serious as the circumstances of my birth. It was hard to ‘hear’ this but finally I accepted it wholeheartedly. The bitterness went, and never came back. And 12 years later, I had the chance to talk the whole thing over with my mother.
Over the last 70 years work with IofC has taken me and my husband all over the world. We spent 40 years in Latin America, especially in Brazil. We saw some amazing changes in people’s living conditions resulting from change in attitudes. About 20 years ago, we came back to Europe, first to London then Birmingham, where my husband died in 2010. I still live there and am especially involved in building bridges with other faiths and particularly with the Muslim community.
I have had, and still have, a fascinating life – with no regrets.
Photo: Agnese Aljena and Madara Lazdina
This article is abridged from ‘Beyond Walls through Initiatives of Change’, a collection of first person experiences collected by Suresh Khatri. Available for £6.00 from shop.iofc.org