Monday, March 30, 2015



            A small sign “Elsa Brandstrom Street” near the Rhine in Bonn piqued my curiosity. Who was this woman? I learnt that there were many schools, institutions and streets named after her in Germany and Austria.
            Elsa was a Swedish nurse and philanthropist. She was born on March 26th, 1888, in St. Petersburg, when her father Edvard Brandstrom was posted as Military Attaché, at the Swedish Embassy in Russia. But she grew up in Sweden and completed her education at the Anna Sandstrom Teachers’ Training College in Stockholm.
            Years later, when her father now a General, was posted as Swedish Ambassador to the court of Tsar Nicholas II, Elsa returned to Russia and volunteered as a nurse in the Russian Army, during World War I.
            In 1915,Elsa was sent to Siberia under the Swedish Red Cross banner, to care for German and Austrian prisoners of war, as they were treated very badly by the Russians. This tall, blue eyed, blonde young woman brought solace to many ill and demoralized soldiers who suffered from malnutrition, Typhoid, and other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. It earned her the name “Angel of Siberia.” Elsa also started a Swedish Aid Organization for prisoners of war. But her work was curtailed during the October Revolution of 1917 -1918. However, she made many trips between Sweden and Siberia, but was arrested at Omsk in 1919, and convicted to death by a firing squad. To her good luck the death sentence was later revoked, though she had to languish in jail till the end of 1920.
            Back in Sweden, Elsa’s concern for the POWs saw her actively involved in fund raising for them. She soon moved to Germany and served at a Rehabilitation Centre for POWs in Marienbom-Schmekwitz. She even spent her own money and bought a mill (Schreibermuhl) surrounded by vast property, close to the Rehabilitation Centre. The fields, meadows and forests were used to grow potatoes and other crops, so that these men could earn their livelihood by cultivating the land.
            She was tireless in her efforts to better the lives of these men who had suffered in the war. In 1923, she went on a fund raising tour of the United States for six months, in her Swedish Red Cross uniform. People were interested to learn of her experiences in Siberia, during and after World War I. They were generous with their donations.
            In 1924, she started ‘Neusorge’ a home for orphaned children of POWs at Mitteida. It had the capacity to accommodate 200 children. But when she married Professor Heinrich Robert Ullich in 1929, she had to move to Dresden. So she sold the mill and donated the money to a welfare organization. She also handed over charge of the orphanage, when assured that they would run it efficiently.
            Elsa’s burden was always for the soldiers who had been prisoners of war, and who needed to be rehabilitated into civilian life. When she moved to Harvard with her husband for a few years, she continued to help German and Austrian soldiers who arrived in the United States as refugees, looking out for opportunities whereby they could work and sustain themselves.
            During World War II, Elsa raised funds for the starving and homeless women in Germany. Two organizations started by Her (CARE- Cooperative for American Relief in Europe, and CRALOG –Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany) brought in sizeable donations from Germans and Americans. ‘Save the Children’s Fund’ was also another of her interests. She travelled all over Europe giving lectures on the plight of children and their various needs.
            Elsa was honoured by the Silber Badge of the German Empire, The Royal Order of the Seraphim from Sweden, and was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. She died of bone cancer in 1948 and was buried in Sweden.
            At the Arne Karlsson Park in Vienna, after the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross on September 6th, 1965, a monument was erected here in gratitude for Elsa’s work among German and Austrian prisoners of war. The sculptor of the monument was Robert Ullman. Professor Hans Weiland an old POW, who had experienced her goodness, highlighted her life and work among the prisoners. He said, “It is in love for her neighbour that she perceived salvation for humanity.”
            The war brought many heroines in different nations. But Elsa’s unflinching devotion to soldiers, who spent the best years of their lives in the trenches of war, was something unique. She was worthy to be honoured.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015



Aston Hall is an old Jacobean mansion that was built between 1618- 1635. It is located in the inner city of Birmingham and is an interesting place to visit. It belonged to a local squire of Warwickshire Thomas Holte, a wealthy, vain, ambitious and influential man, who was knighted by King James I in 1603. In 1611, he bought for himself the title of Baronet.
The palatial mansion and property was sold by his descendants in 1868, to the Corporation of Birmingham, as it was too expensive to maintain. It is now under the administration of the Birmingham Museum Trust, and is open to the public during summer months.
Aston Hall is surrounded by well maintained parkland and extensive gardens. A guided tour through the mansion with its stunning interior, acquaints us with the magnificent history of the building and its original owners. But what makes our hair stand on end is the tragic story of Mary Holte, the daughter of Thomas Holte, an arrogant and heartless man. He was known to have disinherited his first son Edward because he married a girl of lower social status.
After we have seen enough of the magnificent interior, the opulence of the furniture and the large portraits of the early owners, our guide promises us some excitement. As we negotiate our way through narrow tortuous steps leading to the servants’ quarters, he points to a dark, windowless box like room where Mary Holte was held in solitary confinement for sixteen long years, because she fell in love with a servant and tried to elope with him. This cell is smaller than the ones which the Nazis used for solitary confinement of prisoners in their concentration camps. The spooky tales that follow makes one break out in cold sweat. Some say she died of malnutrition; others thought she escaped from her prison, ran down those narrow treacherous steps and broke her neck. Still others say that she ran out of the mansion and flung herself into a pond on the property which was filled with fish.
Ever since, Aston Hall is supposed to be haunted by the grey ghost of Mary Holte. She does not confine herself to the servants’ quarters but has the run of the entire mansion. She is in good company as there are two other resident ghosts in Aston Hall. One is of a house keeper who worked there in 1645. This ghost is always seen in a green dress and has her favourite reclining chair in the kitchen. The other is of a house boy who hung himself in the servants’ quarters because he was accused of stealing.

Every two years, a Christmas celebration called “Aston Hall by Candlelight” is held. Actors dress in period costumes and re enact 17th century festivities. Mary Holte is the uninvited guest at these celebrations. She moves among the actors in her grey faintly odorous gown. Her hurried footsteps and mournful voice may be lost in the noise of the festivities. But there are always a few of the actors who swear that their cheeks have been pinched.