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Life in Hitler’s Germany

Faith, family, fear and unforgettable memories

Ursula Hanneliese Tillberg Robinson has a pen in her hand. She begins to write, and the words just come. With her English/German translation dictionary close by, she’s bound and determined to tell her story of faith through times of trial and times of blessings.

Ursula Hanneliese Tillberg Robinson always has her dictionary with her and always wears a pin: I (heart) Jesus. She is pictured here before starting her night shift at Alexandria’s Hampton Inn and Suites. Also shown, her poet merit award and the book her work is published in. Photo by Rachel Barduson

Ursula Hanneliese Tillberg Robinson always has her dictionary with her and always wears a pin: I (heart) Jesus. She is pictured here before starting her night shift at Alexandria’s Hampton Inn and Suites. Also shown, her poet merit award and the book her work is published in. Photo by Rachel Barduson

“I don’t sit and chew on the pen waiting for the words to come, they are already there,” Ursula explained in her rich German brogue, continuing, “I stop and write on scraps of paper, I write in the middle of the night or whenever I feel the words coming.”

Ursala was born in Bochum, and grew up in Westpahalia, located in the central part of West Germany.

She lived in Germany under Adolph Hitler’s rein, and their family stuck together through World War II and the building of the Berlin Wall.

Ursala wrote down one of her first memories in a journal: Mother helped me undress my new doll and Jorg played with his new red truck and tried to load up his farm animals. Opa Wertmann called Jorg and me down for a fresh warm glass of goat milk. We ran downstairs, and of course, Ma gave us cookies too. I took two of the cookies and put them in the pocket of my apron. ‘What in the world is wrong with you, Alusru,’ asked Ma, astonished. ‘Don’t you like my cookies?’

‘Oh yes. I love your cookies.’

‘Well, why didn’t you eat those cookies?’

‘Oh! Those cookies belong to God. I made a deal with Him; if He would send Daddy home He would get the cookies. So you see, I can’t eat them now.’

‘Well Sweetheart, I think I’ll have to give you two more cookies.’

Opa Wertmann was Ursula’s stepgrandfather was who was living with the family while Ursula’s father was away at war. She explained, “Opa was a wonderful man. He was a police officer and helped many people because he loved the Lord and told me all the time that Jesus loves me even when I am naughty.”

Then one day a stranger appeared.

Alusru, Jorg! We heard the stranger call. Opa Wertmann took our hands, ‘I think the stranger knows you both. Who is it?’

Suddenly the stranger began to run toward us. He came closer and closer. I began to cry. Who was this man with a beard and such dirty clothes?

Pa Wertmann shouted, ‘Who are you? The children don’t know you, and the girl is terrified. Are you a relative?’

The man stopped for a few moments but he didn’t answer. He seemed to be at the end of his strength. He was only about five steps away from us, and we could see that he was exhausted. He reached out for help and Opa Wertmann took his arm. ‘Whoever you are, you need a warm bed and a good meal. Come, we have a room in our house.’

The stranger was Ursula’s daddy, home from the war. “I’ll never forget the moment when mother saw the stranger,’  Ursula said.

These are Ursala’s mother’s words of the memorable day:

She leaned against the door, her face turned white, her lips lost all their red color, and with a scream, mother fell to the floor. The stranger rushed to mother and began to kiss her, and with every kiss, repeated mother’s name. ‘Oh Anna, oh Anna, everything is good now. I found you and the children.’ Mother opened her eyes and suddenly she kissed the man and laughed and cried. ‘Alusru, Jorg, this is your daddy.’

God had answered her prayer, daddy was home. When I was very young he was not home because he had to fight under Adolf Hitler’s order. My mother tried to keep all the things away from us.

The day her father arrived at their doorstep on a bitterly cold night, Ursala’s family went to church to pray and give thanks. “This is a miracle, God is with us and we must thank Him,” Opa Wertmann said.

She tells of her father’s journey back home, in his words, written long ago:

I was on my way home for three days. When I was about ten miles away, I thought, ‘Soon I’ll be home and all the fear will be over.’ Suddenly I was surrounded by a strange group of American soldiers. Many machine guns were pointed at me and someone asked me for my passpaper. I didn’t have any so the commander shouted, ‘We have to shoot you.’ I agreed to it, but I asked the commander for one favor first. ‘You see, I have two children and before I die, let me look at their pictures one more time. I have it in my pocket.’ The commander didn’t trust me so he reached into my pocket. A letter fell to the ground along with the picture of you both. The commander saw the letter and asked me, ‘Is this a letter from the United States? Who is the writer?’

First I didn’t understand his questions for my thoughts and my love were with you, and I was praying deep in my heart for help. The commander took the letter and looked at the blue envelope. Before I knew what was happening, the commander hugged me, and I heard him say, ‘This can’t be true! Do you know George?’ I was very puzzled, and I answered, ‘Well, George is my brother. He lives in Michigan and this is a picture of him. These are my two children, my boy Jorg, and my daughter Alusru.’

Ursula with her brother Jorge. Contributed photo

Ursula with her brother Jorge. Contributed photo

It was very still, and then the young, black commander looked at me, and with tears in his eyes, said, ‘George is my best friend. We’ve known each other for ten years. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. It is Christmas and your children and your wife are waiting for you. Soon the war will be over and we will all go back home. I have another uniform. It will fit you.’ He shouted for his jeep and gave a quick order for his troops.

The jeep brought us to a camp, and the commander and I passed through the control without any problems. He gave me a uniform in exchange for the one I had, and I was released.

Ten miles, and I would be home for Christmas. God was with me. The commander brought me to the main road. He promised to visit us when the war is over.’

Ursula’s young, formative years were during World War II and included her father’s absence because of having to fight for Hitler’s Nazi regime. Her grandfather, Kaspar, also known as King Kaspar (a nickname given to him by Urusula’s grandmother) was a soldier lost, killed in Siberia, during World War I.

The source of information in Ursula’s writing is from her mother’s own words, written in German. While reading and re-reading the notes many times, Ursula has begun to write her family’s story.

“When I read my mother’s notes I found out about the ‘KristalNight’ Nov. 9, 1938, when the Holocaust began. Every Jew was taken out of their home and brought to a high tower. The German SS poured gasoline over them and set them on fire and then tossed the bodies over the edge to the ground.”

Adolf Hitler had given the order to have the German people witness this and cheer the SS.

Ursula is a flower girl for her aunt Hanneliese and uncle Jacob. Her uncle is wearing the uniform for Hitler’s Nazi regime. Contributed photo

Ursula is a flower girl for her aunt Hanneliese and uncle Jacob. Her uncle is wearing the uniform for Hitler’s Nazi regime. Contributed photo

“My mom almost ended [being] be killed because she made a remark that one day Germany will pay for this. Many people were blindfolded and didn’t want to see the real truth about Hitler and so when he promised to put a stop to the inflation and give the people work and food, they gladly gave him the power to rule the country,” Ursula explained.

“Hitler began to rule with an iron fist and formed the Nazi regime and SS. He had a tremendous hate for the Jewish people because his mother worked for a Jewish family, and he began to hate every Jew. His first desire was to get rid of the Jewish people.”

Ursala believes Hitler became powerful because he gave the people food, and took care of the mothers and children.

“Mothers and children would spend time in other parts of the country, away from the cities, while the men had to stay home in the city. Step by step, Hitler began to pull them closer and closer to join his regime. The young boys in my dad’s sports team (track), loved the ‘Fuehrer’ (leader), they thought it would be an honor to die for the Fuehrer and nothing was more important in their life.”

Almost every boy became a member in Hitler’s young group.

“Most of the boys went to the front to fight and never came back. Hitler began to build streets (autobahn) so he could easily move from each side and fight to become more powerful. My dad had to join the army and was gone for three years. His brother was one of the first soldiers who never came back,” explained Ursula, adding that her mother and Opa tried to keep the war reality away from the children. That wasn’t always possible.

Ursula continued, “I remember when we had to rush to the bunker and sit on the benches for hours until the danger was over. But the day when we lost everything I never will forget because it was terrible. I still have a very difficult time [understanding] why kids like to watch war movies. I can only say that I am very thankful that Opa was with us and helped us to survive and never lose faith, to trust the Lord.”

After the war the country was in ashes. Ursula remembers her burning city under the rule of Adolf Hitler. She remembers the fear and pain of bombs falling and exploding, the screaming and the tears. The family had to leave their home and seek shelter in a bunker.

“To this day I am very afraid of thunder and lightning; it’s a reminder of the war,” she said, adding, “It took less than one hour to flatten a city that was approximately the size of Minneapolis. Not one house was left.”

The family found a “way through the fire” and moved to a small town where they settled.

“After the war Germany was divided into east and west. West Germany was led by a democratic government and East Germany was controlled by a communistic regime.”

Once the war was over it was time to get on with life.

“My dad was a physical education teacher (who ran track in the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and also worked for the railroad. When I went to school I had to walk about five miles, and we had school six days a week. It was very important to get a good basic education and to learn math and grammar and good handwriting. Germany was very strict with rules and regulations regarding food and health. Nothing was imported,” she explained, adding, “Mom and dad made the rules too, and we had to follow them or had to face the consequences. We were raised with love and discipline.”

Ursula remembers the good and the bad of post-war Germany.

“Every morning we had fresh rolls and Danish delivered to our home. Milk was brought by the milkman who was ringing a bell when he came. My mom made cheese and butter and cream. She made most of my dresses and sewed, knit and crocheted. Sometimes my dad would be gone for three days at a time (working on the railroad), and when he would return he’d have special treats for us.”

The special treats did make life a little easier; however, harsh memories are difficult to overcome. When describing the events of Aug. 12, 1961, Ursula’s voice quivers, “The Berlin Wall was built overnight. Overnight the people who were on the east side were unable to get to their families that were on the west side. It was unbelievable how the wall was built and went through homes and buildings. Anyone who tried to climb or break the wall was killed. I don’t know how many people lost their life.”

“After school I had to decide my future, and I chose to become a kindergarten teacher.”  Only a short time after she earned her diploma, “I became very ill and my kidneys stopped working. No one gave me hope and no one knew dialysis. Only blood transfusions kept me alive. I was in a deep coma when the Lord touched me. He spoke to me; my life was changed.  When I woke up I told everyone that I was okay.” Ursula left the hospital, ready to begin her next chapter.

A photo of Ursula, taken during the time she was a midwife in Germany. Contributed photo

A photo of Ursula, taken during the time she was a midwife in Germany. Contributed photo

Ursula was told that, because of her illness, she would never bear children. Upon that discovery she decided to become a midwife. She began that occupation in 1961 and delivered more than 5,000 babies in Germany. “I loved my occupation, and every delivery was a miracle,” she said, explaining that she had also been diagnosed, treated, and won the battle of breast cancer in 1959 at the age of 19.  She also began to write in earnest. To this day one of her favorite books is her English-German translation dictionary. “It has helped me to spell and to write,” Ursula explained, still speaking with a rich German accent, “I have written poetry and short stories in German, and I wrote several poems and stories also in English.”

Ursula was blessed with a good career calling in Germany as she worked in midwifery. And, she continued to put words on paper. Another new chapter was about to be written. Ursula had fallen in love with America. She reached New York City “by boat” in 1964 for a short visit with her aunt and uncle. In her words, “God had a new plan for me. When the Lord tells me to do something I don’t give Him an argument, I just do. I am totally committed.” Would America be her future?  She had been told she could never bear children, would children be in her future?

Ursula was still a midwife in Germany when, “One day I cried to the Lord to give me just one child. I wanted my own. God must have heard my cry because he sent me back to America, to Roosevelt, Minn.”

Ursula left Germany in 1970. She and Dennis Tillberg were married for more than 26 years before he passed away in 1996. The couple met and began their courtship with a six-month letter exchange during the first half of 1970. “Of course there was this language barrier,” laughed Ursula, at first using the translation office to decipher Dennis’ letters, but soon turning to her translation dictionary when the office became too expensive.

After the months-long letter courtship it was time to go to America. Ursula trudged down to the tourist office in Frankfurt, Germany, and told them she needed a ticket to Roosevelt, Minn. “They looked at me very strangely. They finally figured out the closest city to fly into would be Minneapolis. I only had a picture of Dennis, I didn’t really know what to look for when I arrived.”

The couple’s first meeting was somewhat of a comedy of errors. “He told me to wear a pink carnation to help him pick me out in the crowd. Everyone must have gotten the same idea because it was a sea of pink carnations! I looked for someone with black hair, like his picture. When I finally saw him he didn’t have as much hair as I had thought, and he had a black beard! He called me his ‘uschi’ which means sweetheart.”

Ursula and Dennis continued their courtship when she arrived in May of 1970, and the couple married in June. “I finally said to him, ‘why do you not talk of marriage? And he said, ‘I thought you’d never ask!’ He was so shy. I wanted to get married before I went back to Germany to get my things,” Ursula explained. She also wanted a real wedding with a real dress and real flowers. She set about sewing her dress, laughing, “I got enough material for curtains for the house too.” Her sister-in-law sent her a veil and gloves. She sewed 3,000 sequins on her dress, by hand, and got real roses from Thief River Falls.

“I told Dennis we were getting married in a church,” Ursula explained. They had gotten married by the Justice of the Peace, however, since Ursula really wanted a church wedding the pastor had to get permission from the bishop to go forth with the church ceremony. And, because, as she explains, she is persistent, they had the church ceremony.

Ursula needed to return to Germany to get her things, and in 1971 gave birth to the couple’s first child, while still in Germany. Dennis did not have a chance to see his new daughter, Pam, until eight months later when Ursula was able to return to Minnesota with the baby. The couple settled into their new life on a 240-acre farm, in a small trailer house, with a Roosevelt address, near Warroad, home of Marvin Windows. Dennis farmed and worked for Marvin Windows.

And, God answered her prayer to bear children… four more times. Dennis and Ursula had four sons, Michael, Christian, Daniel and Ricky, to make their family complete.  While raising her family, Ursula worked as a front desk clerk in Thief River Falls, Warroad and Roseau, totaling 26 years of employment in northern Minnesota.

Through the years Ursula has faced hardship and loneliness, job loss and struggles. Yet, she has persevered with the love and strength provided her through God. Her biggest struggle came in December of 1984 when she lost her youngest son, little Ricky, to leukemia. “I stood in the chapel at the U of M hospital and I cursed the Lord,” Ursula said, and the Lord answered me and asked, “Have you asked what your child wants? Have you asked Ricky what he wants?”

When life is bright it’s easy to love the Lord When darkness turns to light. It’s easy to thank the Lord When love and peace fill the day. When He carries us all the way. It’s easy to walk with the Lord, It’s easy to talk to the Lord When He answers without delay, But will you still love the Lord When doubt fills your mind one day, When God doesn’t answer when you pray? Will you follow the Lord to Calvary, See your cross, the hill, feel death’s icy chill? Will you follow the Lord, give Him your life? Call Jesus, remember His promise and grace, Have faith, glorify His holy name. Surrender yourself and nothing, Absolutely nothing, will be the same.

They had tried everything to save Ricky. He was unconscious, four weeks on a respirator. His heart was still beating.

“After I had been in the chapel, cursing the Lord, I went back to Ricky’s room to ask him what he wanted. I took Ricky’s little hand in mine and said, ‘Mommy loves you very much. Do you want to come home with mommy? If you do, just squeeze my finger. If you want to stay with Jesus, move your hand, let me know and mommy will say good-bye. You take your wings and fly.”

Ricky did not squeeze his mommy’s finger. Instead, he not only moved his hand, his arm reached across his chest. Explained Ursula, “His arm flew across his chest, over to the side I was sitting. The Lord had answered Ricky’s prayer. He answered my prayer. I had to let him go be, to be with the Lord. He had a big smile on his face. Mommy had to say good-bye.” Ricky passed away at the University of Minnesota Hospital on Dec. 11, 1984. He was 3 ½ years old.

Although Ursula had written before, both poetry and prose, she now knew that her writing would take on a new light.

“I need to give God the glory. I needed to know Him better and I started to write for Him,” adding, “Poetry gives me strength and God’s answers. Poetry is a gift, a communication with God. When I write, I feel His love. I cannot count how many poems I have written.”

There is more to Ursula’s story; she has only touched the surface of putting it all on paper. Yet, she has pages and pages written. She has the story of her grandpa’s “miracle letter,” more stories of war-time Germany and coming to America. She has the story of surviving a tornado. She’s fought for her rights, and she has fought for the rights of her children. She has fulfilled a dream and traveled to Jerusalem where she “walked where Jesus walked.”

As she continues the journey of her life Ursula Tillberg Robinson works as a front desk/night clerk at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Alexandria. She and her new husband, Jay, were married in 2011 and she has a new step-daughter, Brenda.

Ursala has had poems featured in several publications, including, as a member of the Famous Poets Society, Best Famous Poems of 1996.

With pen in hand Ursula has her translation dictionary, and her Lord, beside her. “I stand my ground in my belief. There have been so many times, places and circumstances where the Lord has been there for me. If He had not, I wouldn’t be here today. I’ve had many tests. I keep saying, you know, Lord, it’s up to you. There is a God, and all things are through Him.”

Preparing to writing a book

Ursula plans to publish a book entitled ALUSRU (her name spelled backwards) that will include a compilation of the history of growing up in war-torn Germany during World War II, “the miracle letter” (see below as explained through Ursula’s translation of a letter written by her grandfather during World War I) and other letters, poems and memories. As Ursula sifts through her notes, she realizes that the history of two world wars will be central in a chiseled story of trials and triumph. Her family has endured much pain.  She said, “WAR (Krieg), what a word! The dictionary said the meaning is fighting with weapons like guns and killing the enemy, to have more freedom and gain more power.”

One of the most incredible chapters of Ursula’s story includes what she calls “the miracle letter.”

Ursula no longer has the original letter. She explained, “I wish I still would have this miracle letter,”  as she gazed off into space, “Mom had treasured this for such a long time. I can’t remember how many times I took this miracle letter out of mom’s silver chest….”

According to the memories through conversations and notes by her mother,  Ursula has pieced together the story. Her mother was born at the exact same time that the miracle letter was written. In the letter the baby, Ursula’s mother, had blue eyes and beautiful blonde hair. Said Ursula, “It was only God who made it possible that this letter reached its destination. God heard KK’s (King Kaspar’s) last prayer to take care of his family, and lifted him up to Heaven because he never came home.” He never saw his daughter here on earth, yet, had a vision of her in his heart.

The miracle letter (translated in part) by ALUSRU: It was 1914 and the word, “WAR” (Krieg) was written all over. The people in the cities and villages didn’t know the real meaning. They talked about it and no one believed that the war would change the whole world and would destroy everyone’s life. The young people didn’t believe that soon they would be the first soldiers fighting for the freedom of Germany.

It is September and in a small village in the east part of Germany Anna (Ursula’s grandmother) Weppler gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. Anna is happy but also very sad. She wished that Kaspar (Anna’s husband/Ursula’s grandfather) would be here and could see his sweet little girl which she had named Margret. But, he is somewhere in Siberia, fighting for his country. Anna did not know that Kaspar (she called him King Kaspar) would never see his daughter.

Four years later, Anna received a letter from Kaspar.

When the military officer stopped at the house, Anna knew that it was bad or good news because she would hear something about Kaspar. The officer gave her a letter and said that the letter was addressed to her. Anna recognized Kaspar’s handwriting.

Anna began to cry and held the letter close to her heart. She picked up her little girl Margret. Heinz, her little 6-year-old son, put his hand up and asked, “Is daddy coming home mommy? Why are you crying?”

Anna thought to herself, “I need to be strong.” She wiped away tears and slowly unfolded the letter.    She began to read.

Sept. 19, 1914

My dear Anna, Today is the last day I can tell you how much I love you and how much I miss you and our little son Heinz. But most of all how much I miss to kiss and hold our little baby girl. I know that you give birth to my beautiful girl Margret. Take good care of her and tell her every day that her daddy loves her very much. The commander told us to write home today because tomorrow we will have to fight and might not be able to have any more chances to write. I pray that you will receive this letter and that you know how much I love you and our children. You will always be my dream queen and Margret is my dream princess. I will put three kisses in this letter. The first is for you my queen, the second one is for our little soldier, son Heinz, and the last one is for our sweet princess Margret. I know in my heart I will hold you in my arms if not on this earth, then it will be in Heaven. I love you and I pray that God will be on your side. Anna, my dear queen, you need to promise me that if I can’t come home, please marry a good man who will love you and be a good father to our children. Keep your eyes on the Lord, He will watch over you and guide you. He let me see our girl, and I know she has blue eyes and will have blonde hair. Remember, I will always be close to you and talk to you in your dreams. Love KK (King Kaspar)

God did send a wonderful man to Ursula’s grandmother Anna. He sent Opa Wertmann, who was mentioned earlier in this article and referred to as Ursula’s stepgrandfather.

“I remember when Opa lived with us because my mother (Margret) needed help when it was time for her husband to go off to a war Germany had caused. My father had to leave to fight a war, just like my mother’s father had to leave, to fight a war,” adding, “When the war started in September of 1939 it was just the beginning of an unforgettable Holocaust. This war would leave a bloody trail in Germany’s history. I tried to find answers, WHY?”

Ursula may never be able to answer the question completely. She can only find her own peace by writing her own words.

“If you think you can’t take it anymore you can feel the hand of the Lord guiding you, and all the stars will shine brighter if you can’t see any light.” Words to live by. Words written by Ursula Hanneliese Tillberg Robinson (aka Alusru).

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