One of the people I have worked with over the years, who’s story really touched me, was Elsa Lundh. Hers was a life filled with struggles and degradation, but ended in triumph.
Elsa was born in 1921 on the west coast of Sweden in a small cabin with a dirt floor. Her father, who was a sailor, left the family when the four children were still young. Her mother helped out on neighboring farms but had trouble providing for her family. Some days all they had to eat was a slice of rye bread each.
Elsa had no trouble learning reading, writing and arithmetic in school but she did have a small handicap that would have disastrous consequences – she stuttered. At that time people who stuttered were considered to be less intelligent, when in reality they were simply quiet and reserved, especially as children, since it was harder to communicate and be part of the gang.
Elsa had few friends but on midsummer’s eve, 1936, just a few weeks before her 15th birthday, she and a couple of friends were together playing in the forest. Her mother had told her she needed to come home at 10 o’clock, but it was such a lovely evening. The air was warm and smelled of flowers and summer and the sun was still shining. For once in her life Elsa was having fun. None of the children had a watch and they lost track of time.
When Elsa finally came back to the cabin it was 1 o’clock in the morning and the door was locked. Her mother had gone to bed and wouldn’t let her in. Elsa sat curled up by the door and tried to sleep but was too upset and frightened. Why had her mother locked the door?
The next morning, when her mother opened the door, her joy and relief was soon replaced by a new terror and bewilderment. Elsa’s mother took her by the hand and led her over to the neighbors where she explained that she could no longer handle her daughter and wanted Child Services to come and take her away. When the authorities came to pick up young Elsa it was the beginning of decades of torture and degradation.
Elsa was first taken into custody and then committed to various asylums. She was used for numerous medical experiments, sterilized and degraded by the personnel. Her mother never came to visit.
In all the years that Elsa was confined to institutions she had one visitor. Her little sister came to visit for a couple of days and they had so much fun together. Before leaving she gave Elsa a beautiful postcard with colorful flowers. Elsa was not allowed to have any personal belongings so she hid the postcard under the mattress. When the Head Nurse found the postcard a few days later she tore it up and threw it in the trashcan. Not long after her visit Anna died from leukemia. Elsa told me that she could forgive the doctors who performed terrible experiments on her, and the other personnel. She could even forgive her mother, but she could never forgive the Head Nurse who tore up her beautiful postcard.
Decades past before Elsa heard anything from her mother. When she had been locked up in institutions for 32 years her mother wrote to the Chief Psychiatrist at Restad Mental Hospital in Vänersborg. (Elsa had been in Restad for five years. Of the three institutions where she had been held, Restad was the worst.) Her mother asked the doctor to return her daughter to her since she was now old and needed someone who could carry water, chop wood and cook food. The Chief Psychiatrist deemed Elsa to be cured and released her to her mother who was now living in a small cabin outside of the town where I grew up, Vårgårda. It was a dilapidated old house with no running water or electricity. In the winter it was as cold inside as it was outside.
But this is not the end of Elsa’s story; it was actually just the beginning. I’ll write next about the time I first met Elsa and what happened later in her life.
The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .