As a little girl growing up in Germany under the Third Reich, Eleanor Drechsler Isaacson would see Nazi youths gathering in churchyards.
The message, however, was not about God or Jesus Christ, but about a new savior.
“The church doors would be open and the chimes would be ringing,” she said Sunday during a Memorial Day weekend address at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church near Quarryville. “But the subliminal message was: ‘Listen ... you’re smart. You don’t want to go in there and worship some dead savior hanging on a cross, do you? You want to be out here and you want to worship your new savior, Adolf Hitler.’ ”
Isaacson, 84, lives at Willow Valley. A motivational speaker, author and competitive ballroom dancer, she was invited to speak about growing up under the Nazis. Along the way, she shared how she discovered God and how life’s struggles can provide a path to strengthen a person’s resolve.
Moving to Germany
Eleanor Drechsler was born in the United States in 1935. When she was 2, however, her mother, a native of Germany, sent her to live with an aunt in Plauen, Germany.
She described her school as “a military experience. We would have to say ‘Heil Hitler,’ at the age of 6, and stand at attention.”
If a student’s salute was deemed insufficient, “you had to stand up, hold out your fingertips and you were hit across your fingertips.”
She never failed to perform the salute correctly, but the following year, she omitted a comma in a composition about Hitler and faced the repercussions.
“I had to hold out my fingertips and I was hit.”
The war, German people were told, was necessary to regain lands taken from Germany at the end of World War I. The justification was that more land was needed for the master race. Concentration camps housing Jews, gypsies and the infirmed were called “work camps” by German propagandists, who claimed the workers were aiding the Third Reich. She said she only learned about the Holocaust at war’s end when Russian soldiers told her what they had found.
A turning point
As a resident of Plauen in eastern Germany, the war rarely entered her mind. That changed on Sept. 9, 1944, when allied bombers attacked.
“I ran into the basement,” she said. “When I got to the bottom of those steps, I aged 60 years.”
The town was bombed, but her aunt’s house was spared. And she wondered why.
“Maybe,” she thought to herself, “someone is watching over me.” Looking skyward, she asked, “Who are you?”
For a 9-year-old, such thoughts seemed crazy.
“Let me tell you something,” she said, pointedly. “I never heard of God. I never saw a Bible. I never heard of Jesus. I never saw a cross. Hitler didn’t like people going to church.”
Instead, she referred to God as her “invisible friend,” and vowed to “find him” if she survived.
It was the first of what she calls the three turning points in her spiritual life.
Second turning point
The second occurred on Christmas Eve 1944. When she and her aunt heard the sound of allied bombers, they ran to one of two caves that housed townspeople during bombings. As they approached the cave entrance, Isaacson suddenly decided they needed to go to a different cave.
When they emerged from that cave, they discovered the first cave had been struck by a bomb and nearly 300 people had died.
“My aunt said, ‘Well, Eleanor, I guess God didn’t want us to die tonight.”
It was the first time she had heard the word “God.” And it sparked a conversation in her mind.
“How did you do that?” she asked. “How did you tell me not to go (to that cave) tonight?
And in that moment, she decided God wanted her to live. Again, she reiterated her desire to “find him.”
In 1948, she returned to the United States and was reunited with her mother. She married Dr. Robert Isaacson and life was good.
But, she told the congregation, she still was searching for a personal relationship with God. “Now that I have everything,” she recalls saying, “I want you even more, because life is really empty.”
She sought out other religions to no avail. Then a secretary recited John 3:16 to her — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son and that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
“Sounds nice,” Isaacson said, “but it’s too easy.”
To which the secretary replied, “Jesus died for you. It doesn’t do anybody any good unless you put your name in there.”
So Isaacson repeated: “For God so loved Eleanor that he gave his only begotten son, that if Eleanor believes in him she shall not perish.”
And on that date — Feb. 25, 1954, at 8:45 a.m. — Isaacson opened her heart to Jesus.
“That, she said, “was my third turning point.”
She has since experienced many different careers — as a singer, competitive ballroom dancer, fashion model and insurance agent. She is involved in mentoring students at McCaskey High School. But on Memorial Day weekend, she focused on a dark time in her life when the light she was searching for found her.
In an interview before addressing the congregation, Isaacson said as a child, she saw two men chopping ice who were wearing the Star of David.
“I remember asking, ‘Why is it that the people with the pretty star always look so sad, but the people with the ugly spider (swastika) are always so angry?’ ”
She was told “Hitler doesn’t like the people with the pretty star.”
“I made eye contact with the men with the star,” she said, “and I said in my heart, ‘Some day I’m gonna show that Hitler, ’cause I’m gonna marry one of these people with a pretty star. And when I was walking down the aisle to marry Dr. Robert Isaacson, I said ‘Adolf, piffle-poof to you.’ ”