Widow's Lament

In 1956, Anna Elisabeth Colsch married a GI from the Frankfurt Army base and followed him to Minneapolis. He died in a car crash a few years later. Or so she was told.

The story, no matter where you start, gets better. So: 1954, an early summer evening in Frankfurt, Germany. The war was over, though not so long ago as to feel like history yet. People were out on the streets, strolling in the park, mixing with the American soldiers in uniform who'd come into the city from their nearby base for the night. Just off the main square was a nightclub called the Oasis--a swanky watering hole that catered to well-off locals and tourists, served strong highballs, closed at five in the morning for an hour break, and had a reputation as the place to see and be seen with the pretty German girls who worked the bar there. It happened that one of them, 24-year-old Anna Elisabeth Colsch, was at the Oasis that evening serving drinks and performing, singing torch songs of the day in a long black gown. That's when Johnny walked in.

John Phillip Swanson, 22, blond, nearly six feet tall, was the first American soldier in civilian clothing Anna had ever laid eyes on. "When I saw Johnny in the courtroom, many years later, he was an old man," she says now. "But that night, he was like a prince. Charming. Handsome. As if he'd stepped out of a fairy tale." Anna--who changed her name to Angelic after she immigrated to the U.S.--remembers the moment like a snapshot, in soft focus: He was wearing a dark suit, a pink silk tie that looked like frosting, and a trench coat. It was a windy night. When Johnny walked in the door, his coat blew back in the breeze like a great pair of wings. "Afterwards, after we became lovers, that's what I called him--Breeze," she says, starting in on another crying jag. "He came in on the wind and then he went out of my life on the wind."

The next night, Johnny was back at the Oasis. Anna offered him a free drink. They struck up a conversation, she remembers, in German. He'd been stationed at the military base for several months by then and, according to Anna, spoke fluent German, though years later he would deny this in court. She spoke no English, though in that same courtroom her sworn testimony would be given in a nearly perfect version of it. He was a soldier. She was a bar maid with a 6-year-old son--"a scandal, yes"--fathered by a German boxer her parents refused to let her marry. They talked. The next night he returned, and the next. By midsummer Johnny was a regular. Customers mistook him for the club's bouncer. Sometimes he'd bring food from the base, gifts of cake or meat that were still in short supply. In those days, it wasn't unusual for German girls to have American soldiers as boyfriends--it made a certain sense, Anna recalls, "because these were the men who had liberated us." Their romance, she informed me when I met her in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, would become "the most tragic love story ever told."

During the war Anna's father, a Catholic French national, had been deported first to Buchenwald and later to Auschwitz. She and her siblings were split up and taken to special camps for children in the countryside. Some nights she would steal a loaf of bread from the kitchen, take a bicycle from one of the guard's children, and ride for miles to the small town where her mother still lived. "This was near the end, when there was no food. I'd give her that bread and sneak back to the camp and pretend to sleep. Because of this, I was always tired. I got beaten many times and walked around the ground like a ghost." The day the camp surrendered, the children were rounded up and hidden in a cellar. Anna says she could hear trucks up above, orders given in strange languages, commotion, chains, and then the trap door opened and a man in uniform--an American soldier--came down the steps, "as if the sunlight behind him was a halo. He said they have come to rescue us. He told us we were to stay alive. It was a miracle, and we were free."

To the best of her memory, Johnny asked Anna to marry him in early 1955, shortly before his tour of duty ended and he transferred back to the states. He returned the following year via Paris, bringing with him a wedding dress he'd bought for her there. It's still in a suitcase of hers, stored out in Fridley along with stacks of yellowed documents--her passport application, her U.S. citizenship papers, their marriage certificate. The wedding, as Anna describes it, was held in a small chapel annex to the city of Darmstadt's government center. She wore a gold lace dress, a gold veil, black gloves, velvet shoes, and carried a red rose bouquet. He wore a light suit, a red tie and handkerchief, and a white carnation on his lapel. Anna's mother and brother-in-law stood up for them. At the ceremony, the minister delivered their vows in German, which were rendered--according to national law--into English by an official interpreter. All parties signed a marriage certificate dated March 29, 1956. The couple exchanged matching rings they'd bought at a jeweler's in town, two plain gold bands. Anna has long since lost hers; Johnny, she says, was wearing his the night he disappeared in Minneapolis in 1959.

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