German native finds new life in America after World War II
Life for young Ilse Glaus growing up in Palmnicken, East Prussia, a former German province, was a cheerful one. Nestled on the edge of the Baltic Sea was her childhood home, a modest house built by hand by her father, in which she and her parents and three siblings lived.
Ilse was born in 1934, the same year that Adolf Hitler became Fuhrer of Germany. Despite that, she was born into a childhood full of wonder and laughter, blessed with two loving parents who taught her everything she knew. Ten years later, in 1944, everything began to change as World War II was coming to an end and the Russians were advancing in on Ilse’s life as she knew it.
Ilse has many fond memories of her mother and father, but one that sticks out to her was her father’s love for gardening.
“I think I inherited that from my father,” she said. “He loved to be in a garden, to work and grow fruit and potatoes. And he had a real orchard planted, my father, with apples and pears and plums and raspberries. When I buy raspberries now, sometimes, they don’t even taste half as good as they did in my childhood. And he gave us freedom to plant what we wanted in our own plots — we were four children and I was the youngest. My father was my one and only; I adored him.”
Ilse’s mother later gave birth to a fifth child, a son.
Every night the family would sit down at the dinner table together, a tradition that Ilse believes should make a comeback.
“That binds us together. We can say our likes and also our dislikes, and the food tastes better when we eat in company,” she said. “I still remember our togetherness, and I always looked forward to Sundays when my father was home all day long.”
As the youngest of four children, Ilse remembers crawling up onto her father’s lap as he sang to her.
“We had a cute little rhyme for children: ‘Hop, hop, hop, horsy and gallop, over stocks
and over stone, but, be careful, don’t break your bones. Hop, hop, hop, horsy and gallop.’ That’s what my father always sang to me (in German) because I was the youngest,” Ilse said. “He was a mentor for me, and my mother was the loving spirit.”
In 1944, the full impact of World War II was spreading throughout the country of Germany. It became clear that the Nazi army was retreating and the war would inevitably end with a Nazi defeat. Ilse’s older brother was on the front lines, fighting with the Nazis against the French.
Ilse and her family had heard of the atrocities being committed all around them by the advancing and occupying Russians. Her father illegally possessed a shortwave radio, so the family knew what was coming.
The family was faced with the decision to flee their home or stay and take their chances with the Russians. Ilse’s father urged the family to leave immediately, but with an infant and her two elder parents, Ilse’s mother refused. Ilse’s father left the home that day and would not be seen or heard from for several years.
“We were all sitting together in the kitchen and all of a sudden we saw German trucks and tanks and the German soldiers running. They were trying to run away from the Russians, so we knew they were right behind them. Then, we saw one or two houses in our neighborhood starting to burn,” Ilse said. “We heard now the Russian trucks coming behind the Germans. They had an awful, ugly smell of oil and gasoline. That smell, I will never forget it in my life. The Germans didn’t have it, America doesn’t have it. It was a penetrating smoke.”
Without warning, the front door of the house sprung open and in walked a sharply dressed Russian officer.
“He said to us, ‘Don’t be afraid. Everything will be OK. Don’t be afraid, don’t fear,’” Ilserecalled. “He looked around a little bit and went into our bedroom, and in our bedroom my little baby brother was sleeping there. He walked in there and closed the door. My mother was so scared, she opened the door and was very cautious and walked in, and I walked to her, and I saw that man bending over our baby, standing there and admiring our little baby. He saw us coming, and he said, ‘I have the same baby at my home.’ So nice, he was.”
Ilse said the officer walked through all the rooms in the house. He exited one of the rooms carrying her uncle’s leather jacket.
“All of a sudden comes that wonderful soldier out of the second room carrying my uncle’s leather coat. That was the first thing he stole from us. He knew what it was worth, so he took the leather coat and had it draped over his arm and said, ‘Goodbye, don’t be afraid,’” Ilse recalled, laughing. “And we all started to laugh because that good officer stole that leather coat!”
Ten minutes later, two more Russian soldiers entered the house, “and then hell broke loose,” Ilse said.
They ordered her sister and aunt upstairs by gunpoint and proceeded to rape both of them.
“My sister was 17 years old. Never had a man before. She came down as if she was in a spell or something. She was shaking and had big eyes and then my mother ran to her and hugged her and screamed, and she cried. And then after that, my aunt came out. That was the first big shock,” Ilse said.
That same day, the entire family was forced from their home.
“The first three days (under the Russians) were inhuman. My sister and aunt lived through what they did, and on the same day they threw us out of our house. I had to leave my beloved house. I don’t know what it was, but I think I was the one who loved my house and the yard and the homestead the most from all my family. And I still love it, I still long for it sometimes. That was the worst, that I had to leave our wonderful house because I had a wonderful childhood until then,” Ilse said.
They spent nearly three years under Russian rule.
An excerpt from Ilse’s memoir, “Nightmares of an East Prussian Childhood,” states:
“Turmoil followed the German defeat by the Russians and the subsequent occupation. In 31 months under the Russians, Ilse’s family is driven from their home, she mourns her missing father, witnesses her mother’s rape, sees her grandparents and baby brother succumb to the brutal conditions, and hears of her oldest sister’s capture and death in a work prison. Fighting starvation, Ilse crafts ways to coexist with the Russians, scavenging, begging and stealing to help the family survive.”
Fast forward almost three years, in November 1947, and what was left of Ilse’s family was freed from under the Russians. They were put into cargo trains and sent to East Germany, to a large school building with 500-600 other refugees.
Ilse was able to take her first shower in almost three years.
“That was really nice. And the clothes we had on, they were dirty and full of lice. Mostly everybody had lice. They disinfected our clothes to kill the lice, then they fed us. They gave us white bread and even some desserts. We had real food, finally,” she said.
The family soon discovered that Ilse’s father was in Berlin after being in Russian captivity, and they were eventually reunited with him.
The family then separated, going wherever they could to find work.
Ilse’s father found another wife, and he and her mother divorced.
“That was actually my greatest, greatest pain,” Ilse said, “because I loved my father and I thought he was the greatest man.”
Little did Ilse know that she would soon meet the man of her dreams.
Ilse and her mother moved to Stuttgart, Germany, and 19-year-old Ilse was introduced to a youth group for refugees who had escaped from the Russians. She attended one of the group’s meetings with a friend.
“I went there, and there I met my husband, on the very first day,” Ilse said.
His name was Gerd Stritzke.
“I had boys before that wanted to be girlfriend/boyfriend with me, but I was so bound up that I couldn’t even look at men for a while. Even the young ones, I was very cautious, because of the Russians. I didn’t trust men anymore, not at all. I was once raped by a Russian officer,” she recalled. “But when I saw Gerd, my heart said, ‘Well, he is different.’ I felt something right away.”
Gerd’s feelings were mutual. The two began a relationship and, a year and a half later, were married. Ilse Glaus was now Ilse Stritzke.
After a relative advised the couple to move to America, they began thinking about it.
In Ilse’s memoir, she said, “After hearing this advice, Gerd said to me, ‘What future do we have here? Let’s go to America.’”
Ilse said she and her father always dreamed of what America would be like. The land of opportunity.
The couple departed Germany for America in February 1956 and several weeks later
landed in a harbor in New York.
Though excited about her new life, Ilse described the boat ride to America as “a nightmare.”
“There were about 400-500 people on the boat. I was sick most of the time; I lost 15 pounds on that trip,” she said. “As soon as we finally got to the harbor in New York, I finally felt well, and I praised God. I said, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ My husband, too, we both thanked God to be in America. That was our first thing. Then we were amazed at how wonderful the people were. They were so organized.”
Once on the streets of New York, Ilse and Gerd had some time to kill before boarding a train to Chicago, which would be their final destination.
“We had time to walk around a little bit, so we walked around and it was all buildings and buildings, we couldn’t see much, and then we saw something that we never saw in Germany. It was a cart and he had a big sign that said ‘Fresh chicken,’ and the smell was wonderful. My husband, he loved chicken. We had never seen anything like that, where you could buy chicken from the street! We walked over there and they knew we had come from the boat, so they gave us a big piece. My husband took a bite and said, ‘Well, I like America already!’ They were so good to take care of us,” Ilse said.
Ilse and Gerd lived a good life in Chicago until relocating to Hot Springs in 1994. Gerd had severe arthritis and liked the warm water and the lakes that Hot Springs had to offer, and the couple had German friends that had also emigrated to Hot Springs.
“In a way, Hot Springs reminds me a little bit like Germany. They have everything here. The beautiful greenery, they have the wonderful lake, they have rivers, they have, on the left side, these beautiful mountains. And then the people. It was such a cozy living here. Not the city rushing, pushing and pulling, not the high traffic and everything. The people were nice, and we felt well. We never regret it.”
Ilse’s husband died over a decade ago, but his memory still lives on. Ilse and Gerd had three children, two of whom are still living, one residing in Wisconsin and the other in Chicago. Ilse said her children are urging her to return north, and she is considering it, but she said it’s a difficult decision.
She now lives a quiet life on Lake Hamilton with her dog, Taco.
About the current condition of the United States, Ilse said, “My goal with all of this is to tell the people to be thankful, thankful to God. I cannot thank God enough that he brought us to America. I praise God because he led us to here. Now, all this trouble in the country, it’s worse than it was when we moved here. My heart is bleeding now for the young people, and even other people. They talk only bad things about our government. They should kiss our government every single day.
“For three months, I wish they would experience what I have been through. Only three months and they would come crying and whimpering back. This wonderful land and country is built on God’s grace. Our president, he said that once. He brought it out to us. This is a nation under God.”
Ilse said her fellow church members call her “the hugging lady.”
“I’m friendly and open to everybody and I started going (to church) more and more and the pastor said, ‘Do you notice? Ilse is bringing a hugging spirit into our church,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “If the people at this time in the world would hug each other more and be nicer to each other, the world would be a better place. And think about it, it’s true. And now they call me ‘the hugging lady.’”