I wanted to share this with all of my readers because my Oma (German for grandmother) is a really a fascinating and amazing human being. I truly hope that she is as proud of this sampling of her life and that I did her justice by writing about her experiences and showing who she is as a human being.
This is a profile story I wrote about my Oma for my Reporting and Writing (COMM 205) class at Loyola University Chicago. I’m extremely proud of this profile piece and I received an “A” from my professor, Beth Konrad. I also had a word limit of 1500 words and I had to cut a lot of the stories she told me. This was extremely difficult for me to pick and choose because there are some really fantastic stories, but I had to adhere to the limit. My plan is to extend this even further and write a “director’s cut” that includes all of her stories. I have a little something extra planned for it too, but in case my Oma happens to read this blog then I don’t wish to spoil the surprise!
By Darby Ellis
CHICAGO – Her name is Hildegard L. Wolfe and as far as she’s concerned, she always had a guardian angel. In 1953, her father escorted his blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter to the train that was to take her far from her home in Munich, Germany. While on the train, she looks out the window to see her father running alongside and waving to her. As she narrates her story, tears begin to well up in her bright blue eyes and she stumbles over her next word. She takes a minute to regain her composure, wiping her tears away before continuing. “I wanted to jump out of the train, but someone held me back and told me it was okay.” The train was moving faster at this time and her father couldn’t keep up.
When she saw the giant Navy ship that would be taking her across the ocean, she claimed that it scared the daylights out of her and that she wondered what on earth she was doing. She was leaving her country to come to America. As she stood on the railing while the ship pulled out, she was tempted to jump and swim back to shore, but a stranger stopped her and told her that he once felt as she did – lonely, scared, and not knowing what to expect. He told her that he understood how she felt and that there was someone on the other end waiting for her, someone who loved her. “That guardian angel was always with me, always showed up unexpectedly,” Hildegard said. Bing Crosby’s “Now is The Hour” played over the ship’s speakers and it was too late to turn back.
She sits in a swivel chair wearing a white long-sleeved shirt with purple designs, her blondish-white hair nicely curled. She speaks to the interviewer in fluent English, but with a definitive German accent. Sometimes she smiles while she remembers and recites good times and sometimes she can’t hold back the rush of tears in her eyes as she remembers the hard times of her past.
“Darby, we used to start school – over the door there was a cross hanging and we opened our school with prayers, but when Hitler took over, the cross came down and Hitler’s picture came up and instead of us turning toward the cross and saying the prayer, we had to say, ‘Heil Hitler!’ No more prayers, we had to say it.” She was around 9 years old then and her days consisted of going to school in the mornings, coming home to chores, and in the afternoons she spent her time in the Hitler Youth. This was an organization that forced all children to be indoctrinated into the Nazi beliefs. This wasn’t by choice, but rather through the demands of Adolf Hitler. One time her father refused to send his children to the Hitler Youth, but he was locked up until he agreed to go with Hitler’s directive. This was how it was in Germany in the 1940s. There was no choice and one couldn’t trust anyone out of fear that they were Nazis.
When asked what her childhood was like, Hildegard recounts all of the housekeepers that came and went because they couldn’t deal with the responsibilities that her family, which consisted of 10 children who had lost their mother, needed. One housekeeper, she recalls, traded all the ration stamps they had on the black market and left the children with nothing that would allow them to get food. However, there was one housekeeper, a nun named Sister Jutta, whom she remembered as being “perfect.” When Hildegard’s father returned from fighting on the front lines in Russia, he asked Sister Jutta to marry him, but she refused, saying that she could only be a caretaker for the children because she was already married to God. Not long after, Sister Jutta let the family know that she would be returning to the convent because she was feeling ill. A short time later, the family found out that Sister Jutta had passed away due to a lung disease. “We never forgot her. She was the most wonderful person. She had done what nobody else could. There was food on the table; where she got it we have no idea. We had clothes on because she would sew things. She was perfect, but from then on things went downhill.” More housekeepers came and went; most couldn’t deal with 10 children and the constant American air attacks on the city.
Food was scarce for the Germans and they had a staple diet of potatoes and cabbage, called “kraut” in German. If a family was poor, schools fed the children per a mandate from Hitler. Hildegard said that she looked forward to days she would get a “semmeln,” which she likened to a Kaiser roll, and a carton of milk. On Fridays they didn’t serve meat because they were Catholic and she especially looked forward to pancakes or whatever was cooked up that was sweet. To this day she still adheres to her meatless meals on Good Friday.
Her daughter, Elsa E. Ellis, said that when growing up, “She always wanted to make sure there was plenty to eat on the table. We could do without other things, but there would always be plenty to eat. She was always very conscious of needs versus wants.”
Hildegard’s next story was told with a very serious tone and just a hint of alarm in her voice. She said that in order to get things that they needed, Germans had to trade with one another. She, along with one of her sisters, was sent by their father with a pair of man’s shoes to go into town and trade for shoes which would fit Hildegard’s sister. As they were heading home, another American air attack consisting of gun fire and bombing began. The two young girls had to find shelter and ended up going through a tunnel which was about two blocks long. Hildegard remembers her fear and only wanting to get home, but the end of the tunnel was roped off and there was a guard posted not letting anyone through for fear they would be hit by flak or bombs.
She told her sister that when the guard moved to the other end that they would duck under the rope, run up the 13 steps, and continue running until they got home. When his attention was turned, she told her sister it was time and when they had made it about five steps up, the guard was yelling at them to come back because it was too dangerous. They ignored his shouts of warning and ran home to their father waiting, watching out the window, despite the danger. They all got into their basement. “It seemed like the basement was our second home because towards the end of the war we were living there every day because we were attacked every day.”
When they finally emerged after it was over, their house was gone. It had been blown to pieces by a dropped bomb, but that wasn’t the only bit of horror she experienced. “Coming back to the tunnel we escaped, the very next day, it’s hard for me to…” she pauses for a moment because she has started crying, “…to talk about that because there were about…” she says while choking over the last words as she wipes away her tears and tries to regain her composure. “I would say between 130 to 150 trapped under the tunnel and [it] was bombed…God spared our lives. We made it home; otherwise we wouldn’t be here today.”
Life during World War II was a daily struggle for survival, not just from hunger and betrayal of countrymen, but also from the war taking place on Germany’s front doorstep. The generation who lived through that adversity is slowly dying out and their time, stories, and advice for future generations are forgotten if they are not recorded. Hildegard is proud to have met and married her husband, Keith E. Wolfe, an American soldier she met in Germany while they were both helping to clean up concentration camps, and to have become an American citizen. Hildegard’s daughter Elsa said, “She still goes back once a year, but she considers America her home now. She loves going there to visit her family, but she’s always happy to come back home.”
When asked why America is so important to her, Hildegard said, “It was just my dream. What I heard and read about America – the country of freedom. You could do, you could speak, you could act the way you want to. You didn’t have to be afraid of speaking up. I don’t know what I would have done when I came here, but it was my dream and I was going to do it. There’s something I never regret and that’s,” she said while fighting back tears again, “coming to America.”
(Hildegard Wolfe photo taken by Elsa Ellis)