Their romance began in 1939 – the same year Adolf Hitler started World War II in Europe.
They were teenagers who lived across the street from each other in a Berlin suburb, and they say their parents had sheltered them from the politics and brutality that had given rise to Hitler earlier in the decade.
Unlike many other youngsters, Elfriede “Elfi” Bendler and Gunter P. Heinze did not join the Hitler Youth Movement. Gunter was busy studying engineering and participating in sports. He dreamed of competing as a runner in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was not fast enough, but something better happened.
Because he spoke English, the then-15-year-old was assigned to serve as a guide and interpreter to Jesse Owens, the American track and field star. Gunter marveled at Owens’ athleticism. He was the fastest man alive, winning four gold medals.
At the time, Gunter and Elfi could not have imagined that America was in their future. But after the war, they married and ended up in Amherst, where Gunter helped win the race to the moon with a team of engineers at Bell Aerospace in Wheatfield.
The couple’s only son, Bernie, also went on to achieve the American dream, first dabbling in politics working for Rep. Jack Kemp and later Erie County Executive Edward Rutkowski, and finally becoming a lawyer and starting a law firm in the Philadelphia area.
Elfi, 92, and Gunter, 95, have lived through many chapters of history. Economic and political turmoil, the unprecedented rise of the American middle class, terrorism, and an ongoing presidential campaign season when the shrinking middle class has become a political issue.
Through it all, their love for each other and their adopted country has only grown stronger. In October, they will celebrate 70 years of marriage. And now, at the urging of their son, they are sharing their story, inspired by The Buffalo News’ Monday column, “Saluting Our War Heroes,” which often features local World War II veterans.
The couple’s recollections of World War II provide another perspective on the horror of war. They survived countless air raids and brutal punishment inflicted by Russian soldiers, the first to enter Berlin at the war’s end in May 1945. Their story also demonstrates how the human spirit can survive and conquer adversity.
In their living room on Willow Ridge in Amherst sits an autographed photo of Jesse Owens and an old news story telling of Gunter’s reunion with Owens. There is another picture, the spaceship that landed on the moon with astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing next to it and Aldrin’s autograph on the photo. There also is a self-published book Gunter wrote about his life, “To Da Moon,” and a plaque commemorating his 2001 induction into the Niagara Aerospace Museum Hall of Fame.
Elfi and Gunter’s home contains the proof.
Love and war
Elfi provided the details of their life. Gunter’s memory is fading.
Their families lived in a northwest suburb of Berlin, and their fathers both worked for Siemens. In time, Gunter was also granted a military deferment and went to work for the company, a major manufacturer of products that supplied the German war machine. Gunter’s work involved development of rockets.
A traditional courtship for the couple was not possible.
“I was 16 and he was 18 when we first started dating, but everything closed down when the war started and about the only thing you might do was go for a bicycle ride,” Elfi recalled.
Bombing raids became a way of life as the war progressed, she said.
“You just kind of adjusted. Toward the end of the war, you would not even undress before you went to bed. When the air raid alarms sounded, you would grab your little suitcase and run. We had two bunkers in our area. At this time, I was pretty close with Gunter, and I would take his mother to one of the bunkers and my younger sister would take my mother to another nearby bunker.
“Our fathers and Gunter stayed at the houses in case they caught fire from these little incendiary bombs the British were dropping. They would have to put out the fire. One time, when Gunter was in his house, an incendiary bomb came through the roof and it didn’t explode. He took it outside and put it in the sand,” Elfi said.
In February 1945, her father, Karl, lost his military deferment. Germany was desperate for soldiers as the Allied Forces were just months away from victory.
“They were taking anybody who could walk. He was 44 years old at that time. I never saw him again. He died in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. He’s buried in the Ukraine,” Elfi said. “We only found that out because another POW who knew my father later told my mother. It was word of mouth. The Russians would not tell you anything.”
Fall of Berlin
After the Russians entered Berlin as the war ended, Elfi said civilians experienced the brutality of their conquerors.
“They would enter your house. You could not lock the doors. They would bang open the doors with their bayonets. They would pull out the drawers of chests, dump them, and take what they liked.”
Even worse, women were raped, she said.
“Age did not matter. I would hear women screaming. I was lucky they never took me. My mother hid me and my sister in our attic.”
Many of the Russian troops were only teenagers, she said.
“Despite their age, life didn’t mean much to them.”
But with the passage of years, Elfi said she has taken a more philosophical view of what happened in what was a lawless free-for-all at the close of the war.
“War is horrible, no matter what country you are in, and all of the soldiers were forced to do what they had been told,” she said.
As for Hitler, she said he was a madman whose inhumanity remains incomprehensible to her and her husband.
When Berlin was divided into sectors controlled by different Allied countries, her family and Gunter’s lived in the section controlled by France. During that time, Gunter was recruited to work in England for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, an aviation research company. Elfi and Gunter married in October 1946 and moved to England.
Three years later, as Gunter’s work contract ended, an acquaintance asked if he would like to work in the United States.
“Gunter said to me, ‘How would you like to go to America?’
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course.’ That was a way out for us.”
In February 1951, they arrived in Chicago and were met by scientists working in the U.S. rocket industry.
“They wanted to see where we would best fit, and Gunter worked for five years in the Chicago area,” Elfi said.
In his book, Gunter wrote of how he and his wife were astounded by the freedom. And he recalled how, in a moment of fancy, he bought a cowboy hat, “which Elfi loved to wear.”
They later moved to the Cleveland area, and Gunter worked for what was then Bell Aerosystems. Fifteen years later, he relocated to Bell Aerospace’s plant in Wheatfield.
Elfi worked as a secretary and teacher’s aide in the Cheektowaga Central School District.
Reunited with Jesse Owens
At Bell, Gunter worked with a team of engineers that developed instruments used in the lunar module that landed on the moon in 1969. “Those instruments were also used in space crafts that have gone to Mars,” Elfi said.
But there has been more to life than flight.
Jesse Owens visited Buffalo in 1978, and Gunter had lunch with him.
“They ran toward each other and hugged like lost brothers and talked incessantly,” said Bernie Heinze, who had made arrangements for the reunion between his dad and Owens.
Now, 38 years later, a movie called “Race,” about Owens’ life and the 1936 Olympics, is showing in movie theaters. Gunter and Elfi say they look forward to watching it when it comes out on DVD. A trip to the movie theater is unlikely, given their ages.
But the biggest part of Gunter and Elfi’s story is their love.
On the final page of Gunter’s book, he wrote of how they survived a bombing raid toward the end of the war and expressed his wish to marry her:
“A few bombs came down very close to us and we dropped down to the sidewalk. I told Elfi that evening that she would be the girl I would like to share my life with after the war was over and, would you believe it, we are still married … ”