My sister sat across from my grandma, video camera propped up, asking question after question. Trying to soak in what ended up being one of my grandma’s last days in her own home, talking with clarity for such a length of time. Breast cancer was swiftly eating her away, but the cancer was not touching her brain, her strength, her resilience. I don’t think anything could ever strip her of those things. As my sister taped her story, my beautiful, strong grandmother spoke these words in her thick German accent,
“He [God] took these broken pieces of my life and made a beautiful mosaic out of it. Not a clean cut, clear diamond. But a mosaic. And I am just. . . grateful.“
My grandma, was born Elisabeth (Liz) Anna Willauer on October 18th, 1938 in Heidelberg, Germany. She was born illegitimately, so the man who was her father, and who she would never know, said he would not marry her mother, Anna. Anna, not being able to take care of a young child, put her baby in an orphanage, and Grandma spent the first couple years of her life in this orphanage. Mother and daughter separated.
One day, a couple came to that orphanage looking for a child. Grandma always talks in amazement of how out of all the children in the orphanage, this couple (with 4 children of their own) chose to give her a home. They took her to a very small town called Tennenbronn, located in the Black Forest and raised her for 3-4 years. She speaks of these years as happy times in her childhood, which is a special blessing considering a majority of her childhood and young adult life would be spent in pain.
She remembers with a smile of times playing outside with her friends. They didn’t have any toys at all, so they would play tag together, make up games, and use their imaginations. If someone had a ball, that would be extra special, and they would enjoy with ecstasy something as simple as a ball.
Her mother, Anna, ended up getting married, so Anna contacted Grandma’s foster family and asked if her daughter would consider coming to live with her and her new husband. My grandma, obviously craving a relationship with her birth mother, said yes. And so she said goodbye to her foster family and moved back to Heidelberg to be with her mother and new step-father when she was around 5 years old.
Unfortunately, this was the start of very difficult times for my young grandmother. Her step-father was an extremely abusive man. To quote Grandma, “He was a bad man. He was abusive in many, many different ways.” She was also living during WW2.
She recalls going to bed fully dressed, including socks and shoes. Her mother would excitedly tell her,
“If you hear the alarm go off in the middle of the night, we get to go to a special place and you can play with your friends all night long!”
Grandma says she was never scared, but always excited to have extra time to spend with her little friends in the bomb shelters. This is just the start of a life led free from fear and full of confidence and HOPE.
Things were really bad. My grandma had to endure abuse of many different forms and watch her mother receive the same abuse. She was always hungry, and remembers as a child telling her mother that she wanted “to go to America, where the people are so nice and always have something to eat.”
She quickly learned how to beg for food, and at one time walked a mile to get an orange from a solider. She would not quit begging him for the orange, repeating the word “hungry” over and over again until he finally gave in.
Every morning, she would climb in the dumpster and collect freshly tossed coffee grounds in a metal cup, so that her mother could re-brew it for a cup of coffee.
Grandma befriended a few of the American soldiers living near her apartment who would toss her their dirty uniforms. The clothing bundle usually had a loaf of bread rolled into it. She would give the uniforms to her mother and Anna would wash, dry and iron the uniforms in exchange for the bread.
True to her life-long spirit, she decided she would not suffer the abuse and hunger any longer. As an 8 or 9 year old, she began to ask Anna about her earlier foster family.
“Where did I used to live? If I wanted to get to the Black Forest, how would I get there?”
Anna, obviously naive, answered her questions and essentially gave Grandma an escape plan.
One day around 1947, a 9 year old Liz walked her spunky, small self to the train station. At the time, as long as children were with a grandparent, they rode free of charge. Being the “smart little cookie” (my grandma deemed herself), she found an elderly lady with a few children playing outside the station. Grandma befriended the kids and sat next to them on the train. The conductor walked by the elderly woman, saw all the children and assumed Grandma was with her. And the beginning of her escape plan was a success.
She rode that train 5 hours to the Black Forest. When she arrived, she found a way to contact her former foster family and they walked several miles to the train station to pick up their little foster child.
However, the family could not take care of her. They were very poor, the father was crippled from a war accident, and they had 4 children they were barely feeding. Grandma begged and begged to not be sent back to live with her mother and step-father. The foster family, devout Catholics and with hearts full of love for this child, took her to church and asked if anyone from the church would be willing to take her in.
And she began another year of happiness living on a farm with a new family, learning how to milk cows and plant crops. She loved the farm life! During that year, she adopted the Catholic faith and decided to be baptized. Her mother in Heidelberg learned of her baptism and rode the train to the Black Forest to see her daughter be baptized. While there, Anna begged Grandma,
“Please come back and live with us. Your step-father has changed. I promise you. Come back to live with us and you’ll see that things have changed.“
At ten years old, Grandma decided to believe her mother, and after intense begging on Anna’s part, Grandma moved back to Heidelberg.
Things had not changed.