A Survivor's Story: She Endured Stalin, Hitler,
Before Escaping History's Maelstrom
Booker, Betty. "A
Survivor's Story: She Endured Stalin, Hitler, Indentured
Servitude Before Escaping History's Maelstrom." Times-Dispatch, 11 April 2005.
Ella Schneider Hilton's autobiography begins with thanks to
her stepfather, who
But "when I was hungry, he fed me. When I was barefoot, he
made shoes for my
feet. When I needed shelter, he provided. And for my future, he
America," she wrote.
She thanks the Mississippi family that hosted the German immigrants
War II but housed them in a leaky one-room shack and made them chop
a year to pay for their train fare from New York.
That sponsorship, however, got Hilton out of a jobless future in
far from the threatened repatriation to communist Russia.
It led to her husband, whom she thanks for "showing me what
love is and for
participating in my wonderful American dream."
"I'm so thrilled to be able to be here," said Hilton,
of Colonial Heights. She
settles on her couch in this small Southern city and launches a
"We made the middle class. That's all we wanted."
Getting there, she went through hell.
Ella Schneider was born in 1936 in Kiev, then in Soviet Russia,
now in Ukraine.
Her parents were descendents of Volga Germans who had immigrated
in the 1760s
at the invitation of the German-born Russian czarina Catherine the
Hoping to boost the productivity of underpopulated areas, the czarina
those settlers fertile land along the Volga River, livestock, religious
freedom, lower taxes and exemption from military service. The Germans
their Lutheran church-centered culture and language.
They multiplied and prospered, only to see their property and standing
disappear before and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
By the late 1930s, the Schneiders were down to a dark, damp two-room
basement in Kiev. One room was her father Jakob's carpentry shop.
light bulb hung from the ceiling.
"In our family, the words 'I love you' were never heard from
my parents or Oma
(grandma in German). Our basic needs were met. We were provided
shelter and clean clothing. Care amounted to love for that generation,"
The family struggled in ways most Americans have never known. Depression-era
and immigrant survivors often don't discuss extreme deprivation.
For the Schneiders, food was scarce, clothing uncomfortable and
infrequent. Water was hand-drawn from a well. The toilet was an
Constant vigilance was required to avoid Soviet brutality.
"Do not ask questions; follow instructions; do not volunteer
your family; always say, 'I don't know,'" the children were
Just before Ella's fifth birthday, "I was awakened out of
a sound sleep by a
loud banging on the door. It sounded like someone was kicking with
the back of
a shoe or boot against the door," Hilton continued.
The secret police took her father and his illegal radio. "The
German army had
attacked Russia and was moving east."
The next day, her mother returned bloody from the bazaar, where
German-Russian women were searching for male relatives: "She
had turned over
one bullet-ridden body after another, into the hundreds. All were
stiff -- the men had been executed during the night."
Jakob Schneider wasn't there. His fate remains unknown.
The fatherless family fled to the countryside before returning
to Kiev, where
German occupiers gave them the apartment above their old basement
As the Russian army approached the city in the winter of 1943,
were evacuated on an unheated German freight train to Berlin.
Volga Germans were isolated in facilities and camps for displaced
during World War II. The family was sent to a military building
a town on the Danube southwest of Berlin.
It was guarded "by a bodybuilder who went almost naked to
show that he was a
strong Aryan. Like Schwarzenegger," she giggled.
During a 1944 bombing, her grandmother was killed, and the building
keeper were destroyed. The Schneiders were sent to a monastery near
where monks acted as guards.
Ella went to school.
"I was truly happy to be in school," she said. "It
lasted only until noon. I
did not participate in classroom discussions because I could not
read or write
very much, and all I knew was the name of the last bombed-out city
we had come
from. I learned to sing German soldiers' marching songs, to march
'Heil Hitler!' I did not have one piece of writing paper or even
until supplies were provided.
The Schneiders had no allegiance to Nazi Germany or to Soviet Russia
-- only to
In 1945, American soldiers liberated them.
By then, Elsa Schneider had remarried: "In order to have a
normal life, since I
am not trained to do any kind of work here in Germany, I need a
man to take
care of us," she explained.
"There was no love," Hilton said. "It was a convenience
to get a better life
for their children, for survival."
After the war, the blended family lived for seven years in a displaced
camp in Staubling.
Her stepfather "was a very strict man," Hilton recalled.
different in a war. He beat me; he was brutal. Then, parents beat
People don't understand the different culture. Once we got to America,
"I graduated from the eighth grade in Germany, but I couldn't
get a job because
I lived in a camp.
"Mama and Papa applied to go to America. We went on a liberty
ship, the USS
Gen. Harry Taylor, to New York. We got there on April 27, 1952.
We went on a
train to our host family to chop cotton in Mississippi. There were
[my sister] Erika and me; Lydia, from Papa's first marriage; and
Otto, Papa and
Mama's child. Later they had Susan. We were indentured servants.
terribly hot, terribly humid. We worked from sunup to sundown, seven
A concerned neighbor reported that the children weren't in school.
authorities made the children attend class, the host matriarch became
Strangers from a church later helped them find jobs and housing.
stepfather, a carpenter, worked in a brick factory and later had
and contracting business; her mother cleaned houses.
"I learned a lot in Mississippi, even though our lives were
Later her mother had a stroke. Her stepfather was her caregiver
for 10 years,
and "I'm grateful to him for that, too."
Hilton graduated from a Mississippi high school in 1955, and got
scholarship to Belhaven College, in Jackson, Miss.
After two years, she married "my college sweetheart,"
Thomas G. Hilton. He
became a career Army officer, and the couple moved 19 times in 23
raising their two daughters, Erika and Angela, when her husband
was in Vietnam,
Hilton taught German to American soldiers in Germany, learned Turkish
and worked at Fort Lee as a personnel office record-keeper for 19
retiring in 1998. Her husband died in 2001.
At the urging of her daughters, Hilton wrote her autobiography,
Person: A Girl's Life in Russia, Germany and America." Angela,
now a doctoral
student, was its first editor. Louisiana State University Press
LSU historian Karl A. Roider says the book is an unusual account
migration, fear and post-World War II immigration by an observant,
and courageous child.
It's also "a cautionary tale," he noted, of how whole
populations suffer stress
during and after war.
"Children like Ella endured violence and fear, not just from
bombs overhead but
also from the brutality of their own parents, who had such difficulty
with the turbulence and horror they experienced."
Hilton, 68, laughs often now and focuses on her life as an elder
Heights Presbyterian Church; a volunteer at a Petersburg soup kitchen;
participant in the Cursillo Movement, an international Christian
evangelism organization; and a speaker to groups about her childhood.
"I'm a very cheerful person. So are my siblings. We're all
just happy we're here and we got a chance.
"It has taken my whole life to know why I'm here -- to tell
people that God is
"Maybe people will believe somebody who went through living
Contact Betty Booker at (804) 649-6805 or firstname.lastname@example.org
These traits helped Ella Hilton survive and thrive:
Stay optimistic: "Look for good things and you'll find them."
Give thanks for
everything, even for hard times.
Pay attention: Soak up information; remember and learn from others
experiences. Be unobtrusive in dangerous situations.
Work hard: To survive, you might have to take menial jobs. Look
opportunities. Learn to live frugally.
Stay open: Give of yourself. Learn the dominant language and its
people-friendly and honest.
Study: Find ways to learn if formal education is limited: "Without
you will not get anywhere."
Don't give up: " 'Whatever it takes' and 'God is good' and
'He's good all the
time' are my sayings."
Reprinted with permission of the Times-Dispatch.