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How a gift of kindness from WWII lives on, more than 80 years later

Brenda Arnold in 1980, the year of her story.
Brenda Arnold
Brenda Arnold in 1980, the year of her story.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


About 40 years ago, when she was 18, Brenda Arnold planned a trip to visit her sister in Germany. The only information she had was her sister's address, at an apartment building.

Her journey took about 30 hours, and by the end she was hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. So when she finally arrived at her sister's door, she was thrilled.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I've got this whole thing behind me finally,' " she recalled.

But when she rang the bell, no one answered. After she rang it a few more times, she began to realize what was happening.

"I started to get this sinking feeling and I thought, 'Oh no, wait, she's not here. She's at work. She doesn't know that I'm here and I have no way to reach her,'" Arnold said.

"My world just came crashing down around me."

Arnold felt like she was going to cry. She sat down on her suitcase, on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building, wondering what to do. After a while, a few people stopped and tried to talk to her. But Arnold had to tell them that she didn't speak German, so they kept on walking.

Brenda Arnold today.
/ Brenda Arnold
/
Brenda Arnold
Brenda Arnold today.

Eventually, the woman who would become Arnold's unsung hero walked over. Like the others, she began in German, but when she realized Arnold didn't speak the language, she switched to English. The woman asked her if she was OK, and Arnold told the woman her tale of woe.

"She said, 'Oh, well, would you like to come home with me and I can fix you something to eat?' "

Arnold was amazed at the woman's generosity, and she agreed. It turned out the woman lived in the same building as Arnold's sister.

In her kitchen, the woman offered Arnold a sandwich and a piece of cake, and then she told Arnold her own story.

Some 40 years earlier, during World War II, the woman's husband had been a prisoner of war in the United States. He was held captive for about two years. Despite his prisoner status, the Americans he encountered treated him well. So when her husband finally came home to Germany, the couple made a pact.

"They vowed anytime they met an American, that they would be extremely nice to them and treat them kindly," Arnold said.

"So that's what happened to me that day. I was the recipient of this kindness that had been extended to this woman's husband 40 years earlier."

Today, Arnold is humbled by the ripple effects of that initial act of generosity, some 80 years later.

"It really left a really deep impression on me because she took me into her home and she'd never seen me before," Arnold said. "And it also gave me a very deep sense of how interconnected the world is."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
Ryan Katz