I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree : A Memoir of a Schindler's List Survivor

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-02-19
  • Publisher: Simon Pulse

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"Tell me what you remember most about home," Dick asked me one evening. "A lilac tree," I said. "It bloomed every May, around the time of Mama's birthday. The memory is so vivid in mind, I can almost smell the lilacs now." In 1942 Hannelore Wolff's life changed forever. Her father had been arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Six weeks later he was dead, and Hannelore and the rest of her family were deported to the camps and a life of unbearable suffering. Yet despite the horrors she faced in various labour and concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Hannelore met and fell in love with Polish POW, Dick Hillman. After a few months they were seperated, but Dick promised Hannelore that he would find her again, wherever she was. He kept his promise, and when both their names appeared on Oskar Schindler's list, Dick and Hannelore were reunited and married. This is their incredible story of courage, love and hope during one of the most horrific times in history.


Chapter One

Since Hitler had come to power, it was dangerous for Jews to walk on public streets. In spite of the risk we walked along a tree-lined avenue in a suburb of Berlin, the ever-present yellow Stars of David sewn to our jackets.

Every now and then we stopped to admire spring flowers sprouting just above the ground. I especially admired the crocuses and daffodils, which reminded me of home. Irma, the tallest of us, was more interested in finding something to eat than looking at flowers, while Kaethe, the plump redhead, wanted adventure more than anything else.

This particular day Kaethe had come up with an idea. She knew of an ice-cream parlor where one could get a cone without a ration card.

"We've been cooped up at school too long," she said. "All we do is study. It drives me crazy! We should have more fun."

I shook my head. "Fun, is that all you can think about? Terrible things are happening to Jews. We should not even be on this street. They might take us away on one of those transports."

Kaethe paid little attention to what I had to say. She wanted ice cream. But there was still the matter of the yellow stars sewn to our clothes. No shopkeeper would serve us if he knew who we were. To Kaethe it was a minor problem. She showed us that by draping a shawl over the star it would be completely hidden. Not wanting to spoil her fun, I gave in.

Something else was troubling me that day. It had been over a month since I'd last heard from Mama and Papa. It wasn't like them to not write. Dear God, what if they had been deported? But for now I put aside my fears. Kaethe was right: What could possibly happen if we covered up the star?

We had not gone very far when two boys in the uniform of the Hitler Youth came around a corner. They were younger than we were, barely teens themselves. We tried hurrying past them, but the taller boy held up a hand and said, "We have not seen you around here before. Where are you from?"

Before we could answer, he invited us to come to a parade that night. To assure us how special this parade was, he added, "The Fuehrer himself will be there!"

I felt my legs buckling under me from fear. "See what you got us into," I whispered angrily. "What should we do now?"

"Start giggling, Hannelore," Kaethe said. "Pretend you are a moron. You too, Irma."

The second boy looked closely at our shawls. "Why are you wearing those silly things?" he asked.

Before I could think of an answer, he pulled at my shawl, exposing the yellow star.

"Look at this!" he shouted."Jews,hiding their identity. You filthy swine, we will teach you a lesson you'll never forget! Let's take them to Gestapo headquarters," he told his companion. "They will get what is coming to them, and we will get a medal for bringing them in."

His fist struck me in the face and bloodied my nose. I ignored the pain and bleeding. The wordGestapofrightened me more than my injuries.

The boy held on to my arm. He was hurting me, but I didn't let on how painful it was. When he loosened his grip just a little, I pulled free and shouted to my friends, "Run,run!"

I am not sure how we managed to get away from those boys. Perhaps they decided they had better things to do than torment girls, even Jewish girls. Somehow we reached the gate to our school and ran inside. To make us feel better, Kaethe brought out a bar of chocolate her parents had sent. Before long things returned to normal. We changed clothes and talked about the young teacher who had come to lecture us on the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, my favorite poet.

Kaethe began teasing me. "He had eyes only for you, Hannelore. The way you recited 'The Lute,' that was special. He stared at your lips throughout the entire poem."

Irma laughed. My face turned beet red. Yes, I did have a crush on the teacher. If only Kaethe wouldn't tease me about it so much.

"I wish I had your dreamy eyes," Kaethe continued. "Maybe then boys would look at me, too."

It was time to go down to the study hall. The room was crowded, which usually didn't bother me, but today I found it hard to concentrate. The encounter with the two Hitler Youth had troubled me more than I would admit to anyone. I decided I would be better able to concentrate on my studies in our room and returned there. Before long I was completely absorbed in my work. Then a girl entered.

"Mail," she said in a singsong voice, placing letters on the table.

I looked through the stack, picking up the one letter addressed to me. Thank God, a letter from Mama! Hastily, I tore open the envelope and began to read:

Dearest Hannelore,

I am sorry I didn't write to you sooner, but I have been terribly worried. Six weeks ago your papa was taken to Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar. He was on his way home from work, riding his bicycle, when the Gestapo stopped him and took him to their headquarters. The next day, when I inquired about where he was and asked if I could bring him a change of clothes, I was told he had already left the city and wouldn't need the clothes. You can imagine how concerned and upset I have been since. Day after day I prayed for his safe return.

Yesterday the postman brought a letter and a small box postmarked "Buchenwald." The letter said the following: "Martin Wolff died of unknown causes on March 14, 1942. Urn contains his ashes."

Hannelore, your papa is dead.

Nausea overwhelmed me, and I barely made it to the bathroom down the hall."They murdered him!"I cried."They murdered Papa! Why doesn't someone stop this killing? Dear God, doesn't anyone care?"

Sweat and tears streamed down my face. The room began to whirl."They murdered Papa!"I shrieked again. "How can they get away with this?"

I sobbed and sobbed as I staggered back to my room and fell on the bed. The next thing I remember was someone leaning over me.

"You left the study hall," Kaethe said, "so I came up to -- Hannelore, what's wrong? What happened?"

"Here." I handed her the letter. "I told you I was worried about my parents, but you made light of it and called me names!"

I began crying again. After finishing the letter, Kaethe also cried, and she held me for a few moments as the sobs threatened to shatter my body.

Finally I stopped sobbing. Kaethe remained sitting next to me. I began to talk, telling my friend why I believed Mama and Papa had not left Germany before it was too late. "Papa made himself believe he would be safe. After all, he served in the war in 1918, where he was wounded and decorated. On the night the Nazis burned our synagogue, Papa came home; all the other men were sent to Buchenwald."

I could never forget that horrible night.

It was November 9, 1938. The Germans called itKristallnacht-- the night of broken glass -- because not only did they burn our synagogue, they broke the windows in Jewish-owned businesses. I told Kaethe what it was like when Nazis in brown shirts and black boots stormed through our front door, ordering us out.

"You can't imagine the kind of foul language they used," I said, "while we stood to watch the synagogue burn. It was awful." Afterward we could no longer go to school; it too had been burned. Besides, from then on Jewish children all over Germany were not allowed to attend public schools. Papa found a Jewish school in Cologne for Wolfgang and Selly, my younger brothers, eleven and twelve at the time. The boys had to live in an orphanage there in order to attend. Thank God he didn't have to worry about Rosel and Hildegard, my older sisters. Both had left home a few years ago to work as mother's helpers for a Jewish family in the city of Fulda. In 1939 Rosel was able to leave for England. Hildegard went to Palestine in 1940. A year later we received a letter from the Red Cross, telling us Hildegard was living in Jerusalem. Papa and Mama were happy about that, and wished all their children could leave, but that was not possible now. Soon after Papa had taken care of the boys, he showed me a picture of Dr. Frenkel's Boarding School for Jewish Girls in a suburb of Berlin. He assured me I would be happy there.

"It...was the last time I saw him," I told Kaethe. "I wrote every week telling him how much the garden here reminded me of our garden at home in Aurich. But I missed the small forest behind our house, the one with the brook running through it. It wasn't really a brook -- just a trickle of water -- but we called it that. Wolfgang, Selly, and I played our favorite games there, games about the war made up from the stories Papa told us. We would pretend to be shot, and then, when confronted by a Russian bayonet, we would recite the prayer: 'Hear, O Israel...'"

The news of Papa's murder spread quickly. Classmates came to my room with small gifts. Spread out on my quilt were sugar cubes wrapped in cellophane, small pieces of chocolate, cookies, and wildflowers from the garden -- gifts only children know how to appreciate. Their kindness touched me. Surely the food had been saved over a long time, for delicacies like these were hard to come by. When the dinner bell rang, they all urged me to come with them, but I could not. The idea of not having a father anymore...It was all too raw. I wanted,neededto be alone. So many memories to confront...It would soon be Passover, but Papa would never preside over the feast again, never sing the songs of freedom or offer gratitude for our people having come out of Egypt. Papa, with his beautiful voice, always on key.

My eyes came to rest on the bookshelf. The first week at school, when I was terribly homesick, books had been my solace. I picked up a thin volume of Rilke's poems. Papa's artistic lettering was on the flyleaf.

October 16, 1940

To Hannelore,

on the occasion of your birthday.

With love from Mama and Papa

The slender volume fell open to page 77 and a favorite poem called "Before the Summer Rain." Reciting from memory, I heard myself chanting the lines:

"Suddenly in the park from all the green,

one knows not what,

but something real is gone..."

Drawn to the simplicity of the poem, I recited it with intense emotion. The words had a deeply personal meaning. Putting the book back in its place, I next lovingly ran my hands over the volumes of Heinrich Heine and was reminded of the essay contest that had earned me these works. When I was preparing to move to the boarding school, Mama suggested I take only a few of my books to Berlin. "But, Mama," I had argued, "I need them all."

I walked over to the window. The chirping birds nestling under the eaves of the roof usually delighted me. Today I did not even turn my head. The thought of Papa and how he might have died tormented me. If only I could be certain they had not tortured him...

I cried again as if my heart would break, soon knowing that, indeed, it had.

It always amazed me how three girls living in a tiny attic room stayed friends. But that's how it had been from the start. We teased one another a lot, but there was no viciousness to it. Sometimes I made fun of Kaethe's doll collection, to which she replied, "I am not letting go of my childhood yet. At sixteen I can still pretend."

Both Kaethe and Irma had come from small towns in Westphalia. Up until Hitler's rise to power they had happily coexisted with children in public school. Now the laws of the Third Reich didn't allow Jewish students to attend public schools. Since there was no Jewish school in their town, they, too, had come to Berlin to Dr. Frenkel's boarding school.

Irma was often homesick. She missed her young brothers. But still, she loved having fun, entertaining us with exotic dances. Kaethe was practical. "If it weren't for Hitler's laws," she proclaimed, "I would have been stuck in Lingen for the rest of my life."

Kaethe was like that. She could turn a bad situation into a good one.

When the girls returned from dinner, I had recovered some control of my emotions. I needed little encouragement from them to talk about my childhood, about the ivy-covered house we had lived in, in Aurich, Ostfriesland -- the house with the secret passageways. A faint smile creased my face when I talked about the storks nesting on top of the chimney and how as children we believed the story told us, that storks bring babies. But the best part was the friends I played hopscotch with, and hide-and-seek, and all the other games of childhood. And how it all changed when Hitler came to power.

The speeches Hitler made were mostly about his hatred for Jews. We told Papa of our fears, how afraid we were. He assured us that all this would blow over very soon. Yet oftentimes I saw him and my uncles having serious discussions.

Soon Wolfgang's and Selly's best friends didn't just stop coming to play, they repeated the slogans Hitler used in his speeches and what their parents, who now wore the uniform of the Brownshirts, the Nazi militamen, told them to say. Carl, who had been Wolfgang's best friend, shouted from across the street, "My father belongs to the SA. He says he can do whatever he wants to Jews and no one will stop him."

"Can you imagine how we felt when he said that?" I asked them. "Wolfgang tried to reason with him, reminding him that they were best friends, but Carl didn't listen."

Kaethe had similar stories about her little village: "One day we were friends, the next day they boycotted us. Nazis in brown shirts and black boots paraded around Father's sawmill, making sure no one entered. A few months from the time they first appeared, we were ordered to leave the village and our sawmill was given to a Nazi."

I told Kaethe and Irma about the time when a German friend of Papa's came one evening, after dark. He warned Papa to leave Germany as soon as he could. That was all he would say. But Papa still didn't listen.

"I fought for Germany," he told the man. "I am a decorated war veteran. They wouldn't harm me."

And yet in 1940 Mama and Papa, along with all the Jews of Aurich and of the entire region called Ostfriesland, were deported. They were no longer allowed to live there. Having to leave most of their possessions behind, they opted to go to Weimar, where Mama's married sister lived and where Grandmother Henriette, her mother, wanted to go. Not that they could have chosen any other place -- permission to live in other cities was limited.

Suddenly the undulating sound of sirens interrupted us. "Air raid! To the cellar!" the housemother cried as she ran from floor to floor.

"I am not going," I said. "Everyone will ask questions. I can't face that, not now. Go without me."

But Kaethe and Irma would not hear of leaving me. We crawled under the beds as a fireball exploded in the sky.

"It might have been wiser for you to go to the cellar," I whispered.

"And leave you up here alone?" Irma said.

She had barely finished her words when the thunder of another crash made us recoil. The wait was unbearable. Bomb after bomb exploded all around us. I was certain we would be hit at any moment.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Still, we remained under the beds until another siren officially announced the end of the raid.

Copyright © 2005 by Laura Hillman

Excerpted from I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree: A Memoir of a Schindler's List Survivor by Laura Hillman
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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