Elda Davis: survived Nazi horrors, long-time Mt. Airy mom dies at 91

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Elda Davis, who lived in Mt. Airy for 35 years and then Chestnut Hill for 18 years after her family survived the Nazi destruction of her home town in central Europe during World War II, died Feb. 3 of Alzheimer's disease at Cathedral Village, a retirement home in upper Roxborough, where she had moved in 2013 with her husband, James.

Mrs. Davis was born to an ethnically Slovenian family and raised in northeast Italy. According to her children, she had an idyllic childhood sewing, cooking on a stove with firewood, picking flowers, making necklaces out of ivy leaves and dolls out of corn husks. Her village had no electricity, running water or automobiles. The life was simple but rewarding, but that all changed violently when the Nazis drove them from their home near Trieste in 1944.

“She would talk about hearing bombs dropped,” said her daughter, Miriam Lally. “The Nazis occupied her village and later burned it down to the ground. The Nazis would do house checks to make sure you were not harboring someone, and she remembered walking through the house with a gun to her back while those inspections were being done. She was about 13 at the time. But she would also tell stories about her early life in her village and stressed that although they were poor, they were still very happy with their simple life.”

Elda's 16-year-old brother fled the village to fight with the partisans in the surrounding hills against the Nazis. One sister was forced into local labor by the Germans while another sister became a courier, risking her life to carry letters to and from partisans. “Luckily,” said Miriam, “mom did not lose any of her parents or siblings to the war, but she lost fellow villagers, some who fought as partisans and others who were taken away by the Germans and never returned...”

In 1953 Elda was working in a restaurant in Italy when she met and later married James Davis, a North Jersey native serving in the U.S. Army. In 1954 they moved to the U.S. and in 1960 settled in West Mt. Airy after James became a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1995 they moved to Chestnut Hill. “My mother enjoyed both Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill,” said Miriam, “because she had friendly neighbors in both neighborhoods. She loved to talk to her neighbors.”

The Davises had two sons, David and Daniel, who both went to Central High School, and one daughter, Miriam, who went to Girls High School. Two attended the University of Pennsylvania, and one went to Temple University.

But according to Miriam, Elda “was a lucky woman because she chose a truly wonderful man, but her first impression of America was not a good one and led her to momentarily question her decision. Having just arrived exhausted and hungry in the U.S. after a long boat trip and meeting her in-laws for the first time, her new mother-in-law fed her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With disdain, she did not consider this to be real food. She never, ever forgot that sandwich, bur she soon realized she hit the jackpot of mothers-in-law. Until the end of her life, mom would bring up both the peanut butter sandwich and the fact that her mother-in-law was a wonderful person.”

Elda taught her children to speak Slovenian, which very few Americans can speak and which “only comes in handy when speaking to your mother.” But Elda expected her children to speak to her in Slovenian, not English. So in the house English, Slovenian and Italian were all spoken, but Elda was the only one who could speak all three.

When Elda and her husband did not want the children to know what they were saying, they would speak to each other in Italian, and when Elda did not want her husband to know what she was saying to the children, she would speak to them in Slovenian. “But,” said Miriam, “years later we learned that dad had picked up the Slovenian, too, so there was no putting anything over on him anymore.” James died in 2016 at Cathedral Village.

When asked what was her mom’s most endearing quality, Miriam replied, “I can't nail it down to one. She was warm, loved to laugh and was very friendly. She loved to tell stories about her childhood, reminisce about raising her children and share her vivid dreams. What we will all miss most about her is being greeted with a warm hug.”

A private service was held for Elda on Feb. 13. In addition to her children, she is survived by six grandchildren and other relatives.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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