From Berlin to Broadalbin
Elfriede Cromling, a retired ballet teacher and homemaker who has spent most of her life in rural Broadalbin, has come a long way from her youth in wartime Berlin.
Cromling grew up in the German capital and survived the destruction of World War II?and the hardships of the Russian occupation, and after the war, she performed internationally as a dancer before settling down in her American husband’s hometown.
“I was right in the middle of Berlin where the shooting and everything was going on,” she said of her teenage years during World War II.
Born Elfriede Synowski in 1926, she was one of three children in a blue-collar family. Her father was a construction laborer of Polish descent.
“Under Hitler, we had to have always our Aryan paperwork,” she said. “So I have [family records] from my great-great grandmother, from the 1800s.”
“My parents lived in the eastern part of Germany,” she said. “They lived on a farm, and they wanted to move to the city … When I was 1 year old, we moved to Berlin.”
Life was good for her family during her childhood, she recalls, though perhaps their living conditions would seem harsh to young Americans today.
“We didn’t have the luxury like we have now here,” she said. “Now the kids all have to have their own bedrooms, but we were crowded all into one room.”
The Nazi government imposed food rationing after the start of the war, when Germany invaded Poland, but for the first few years of the war, the fighting was hundreds of miles away from Berlin.
“It was 1939 when the war broke out,” Cromling said. “We didn’t really miss the daily living. It was nothing different – we could still go to the movies, there was rationing, but it wasn’t bad until the last year of the war …”
In 1944, Allied attacks wreaked destruction on Berlin, and the Synowski family had to flee their home.
“We were bombed out three times, and I had nothing,” Cromling remembers. “We always had one suitcase with one new dress, new shoes … We would say, ‘That’s for after the war.'”
She was preparing food for her own birthday party the first night her family had to flee to a shelter outside Berlin.
“I grabbed my salami and we went,” she said. “We stayed in the shelter for five days. No water, no washing, no nothing until the Russians came in.”
Cromling remembers seeing a woman with a suitcase who was sitting eerily still. Looking closer, she saw the woman was dead, with a bullet hole in her neck.
“I never understand why she didn’t fall over,” she said.
In many ways, life was even harder for a few years after the war ended, especially in the Russian-occupied section of Berlin, where food was scarcest. Cromling recalls seeing a horse dropping dead on the street, and within moments it was butchered and its meat carried off by hungry Berliners.
Georgia Baldwin, Cromling’s elder daughter, said her mother has told her many stories of the hardships of that time.
“My favorite story is making whipped cream out of potatoes,” Baldwin said, prompting her mother to tell of the ways people made the most of their meager rations before conditions improved with the Berlin Airlift in 1948.
Cromling said her impression was that most Berliners didn’t know about the genocide carried out by Hitler’s regime, and most Germans thought the rumors about the mass killings of Jews were merely Russian propaganda.
“I didn’t know about the Holocaust,” she said. “They were so secret that nobody knew … They only said they had to take them to a work camp.”
She recalls having tea with a Jewish friend who lived in the same apartment building.
“One night, the SS came, and they took her away,” Cromling said. “She only looked at me, and she couldn’t do nothing.”
Everyone in Cromling’s immediate family survived the war, though her sister was raped by Russian soldiers after Berlin fell. Despite the violence, destruction and hunger she experienced, Cromling said she doesn’t feel she was necessarily traumatized by the war, saying perhaps she was too young to appreciate the magnitude of it.
“I took dancing lessons before the war,” Cromling says, telling of her ballet training and – at the age or 12 or 13 – her auditions to perform in children’s shows at some of Berlin’s grand theaters.
“That was my dream,” she said. “When I was young and I saw that Shirley Temple, I wanted to be Shirley Temple.”
But with the start of the war, Hitler closed the theaters for most entertainment purposes, and she went to work as a secretary in the office of a munitions factory. After the war, she got a chance to revive her career as a performer, when she was invited to join a troupe performing in Italy. Later, she went with the company to perform in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.
She spent two or three years performing in a variety show at a theater in Istanbul.
“Istanbul was pretty European,” she said, though she found conditions in some areas outside that city were somewhat primitive. “I liked Italy the most,” she said. “Italy was my favorite … it was happy, it was nice.”
But in Istanbul, she met George Cromling, an American construction engineer working for NATO. They married, and in 1956, she visited the United States with him. The following year, she became an American citizen, though they continued to live in Turkey.
In 1960, they were expecting the birth of their daughter, and George’s health started to fail, so they came back to the United States and started building a home in Broadalbin, near the homes of several of Cromling’s relatives.
Shortly after Elfriede’s first child was born, her husband died – leaving her alone with a baby to care for, in a half-finished house.
“I couldn’t speak real good English, I couldn’t drive a car, and I didn’t have insurance … it was a real hard time,” she said.
Baldwin says she’s always been surprised and impressed that her mother decided to stay in Broadalbin despite her circumstances.
“If that were me, I would have gone home to my mother,” she said. “I would have been on the first plane out of here. But not her.”
Elfriede said she got by with the help of her late husband’s relatives, including his nephew, Albert Cromling, who made good on a promise to complete the construction of her house.
“He finished the house, and then I married him,” Elfriede said. She and Albert had a daughter, Sylvia, who now lives across the road from Elfriede’s home on County Highway 138.
Though her career as a performer ended when she settled down in Broadalbin, Elfriede stayed involved in dance by serving as an instructor at Verlene’s Dance Studio in the 1960s and ’70s.
“That was nice, because I was still in it,” she recalls.
Baldwin said many of the girls who took dance lessons from her mother remember her fondly by her nickname, “Miss Elfi.”
“She taught there for a long, long time,” Baldwin said.
Cromling often visited Germany every few years, but it’s been 20 years since her last visit. Her brother and sister are no longer living, but she stays in touch with in-laws in her home country.
“When I first came here to America, I had to go once a year to New York City,” she said. “I was a city girl. I had to have that hustle and bustle.”
But these days, she’s happy to be a homebody, spending time with family and relaxing in her living room, where the walls are decorated with photographs from her performing career and a large painting of a scene from “Swan Lake.”
“I’m happy,” she says, admitting that occasionally, when nobody’s looking, she puts on some music and takes a twirl around the room, reliving her time in the spotlight.
Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.