“When I heard the door close behind me, I was terrified,” Gerda Zinn recalled, describing her meeting with Adolf Hitler and his flunky Joseph Goebbels. A drop-dead gorgeous actress of the German stage, Zinn had been summoned to perform for the Fuhrer. Although known for her steely nerves and bottomless self-confidence, Zinn was anxious. By then, many of her theater friends — Jews and gays — had fled Germany or simply vanished.
Zinn had watched Hitler’s own entrance. He seemed shrunken, almost nerd-like to Zinn — “a small, forgettable man” surrounded by acolytes. But once he surveyed the room, clocking his audience, she watched a transformation. Suddenly, Hitler ballooned in stature — and was fearsome and formidable.
Zinn carefully recited a monologue. Afterward, Goebbels kissed her hand, but Hitler, a germ-phobe, took her hand in his and then kissed the air above her wrist.
In the early 1940s, Zinn’s husband, a fellow actor, was drafted into the German Army. Zinn continued to support herself working in theater and film in Berlin and Hamburg. “And then came the complete breakdown of Germany,” she said, “and even the actors and actresses had to go into the re-armament business.” Rather than do so, Zinn returned to her suburban home in Dresden.
In the last days of the war, the Allies firebombed Dresden. For three days, Zinn and her mother were trapped under the rubble in her cellar. “So we had to be dug out.” The ordeal left Zinn with a head tremor. Next, she had to escape the Russians, who had quickly taken over the city. On her third attempt, Zinn unleashed her considerable charms along with a bottle of vodka that she had hidden in her coat and which she exchanged for her freedom. In West Berlin, Zinn again rustled up jobs in theater, film, and radio — working for all four occupational forces.
One day, in a bombed-out bookstore, the clerk recommended Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda. “I read and I read and I read Vivekananda,” she related. ”Every question I had asked the Lord, Vivekananda answered. I started to cry and cry and cry. I cried my heart out.
”And Vivekananda said that the only purpose of life is to find God. It was 1952, and I was 38 years old. And I thought, ‘I have wasted all these years.’ My life changed just as you [would] turn your hand over.”
The same clerk put Zinn in touch with Franz Dispeker. A German Jewish banker who had escaped the Nazis, Dispeker had translated into German The Eternal Companion by Swami Prabhavananda, the charismatic monk who started the Vedanta Society in the Hollywood Hills and later established the temple and convent in Montecito on Ladera Lane. The following year, Zinn met up with Prabhavananda at Dispeker’s home in Switzerland. He initiated her as a devotee and gave her the Sanskrit name of Ambika — for the Divine Mother.
In 1955, Ambika found her way to the U.S. and settled into the Hollywood Vedanta Society, where she lived for two months. There she worked in the kitchen — preparing “healthy Swiss breakfasts” of raw, grated carrots. “She was the only person that Swami P. ever removed from the kitchen,” said Anandaprana, 89, one of the nuns who knew Ambika there and at the Montecito Vedanta temple, where Ambika relocated in the late 1950s.
No one ever said that Ambika was an easy person. She was an unusual amalgam of sheer grit and resolute faith. “She could be very sweet,” said Anandaprana, who is also German, “and difficult, as well. But her devotion to Swamp P. and Vedanta was total.”
Rather than live at the convent in Santa Barbara, Ambika found work to support herself, including waitressing, “because I couldn’t face living with people,” she said. She amassed some savings: She sued the German government for her Dresden trauma and collected social security from at least one country. In the early 1980s Ambika decided to build a home on Bella Vista Drive, on a corner slice of property owned by the Vedanta Society. The nuns and monks said it was a bad idea because of the fire danger — but Ambika responded that she had no fear and was not to be swayed. Nor would she evacuate when fires did strike — despite the pleas of firefighters.
For the next 30 years, Ambika, often dressed in a floor-length red velvet gown and looking like a Wagnerian goddess, went to vespers at the Vedanta Temple almost daily from 6 to 7 p.m. and meditated.
She became an accomplished stained-glass artist and avid gardener. “Her roses grew to perfection,” said one of the nuns. “They were too scared not to.”
Although she was receiving hospice care for more than a year, Ambika was in no rush to leave. She would exit the stage of life auspiciously — on February 26, during a celebration of the birthday of Ramakrishna, who is revered as an avatar and saint by Vedantists.
Ambika’s last 15 minutes of life were spent gazing directly at the photograph of Ramakrishna on the wall across from her bed. And then she sighed and passed on. She was 98.
A.L. Bardach is writing a biography of Vivekananda which was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal's magazine.