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A Survivor's Story: She Endured Stalin, Hitler, Indentured Servitude 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 beat her.

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 moved to America," she wrote.

She thanks the Mississippi family that hosted the German immigrants after World War II but housed them in a leaky one-room shack and made them chop cotton for a year to pay for their train fare from New York.

That sponsorship, however, got Hilton out of a jobless future in Germany and 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 real-life survival story.

"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 Great.

Hoping to boost the productivity of underpopulated areas, the czarina gave those settlers fertile land along the Volga River, livestock, religious freedom, lower taxes and exemption from military service. The Germans kept 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 windowless basement in Kiev. One room was her father Jakob's carpentry shop. A single 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 with food, shelter and clean clothing. Care amounted to love for that generation," Hilton explained.

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 bathing infrequent. Water was hand-drawn from a well. The toilet was an outhouse. Constant vigilance was required to avoid Soviet brutality.

"Do not ask questions; follow instructions; do not volunteer information about your family; always say, 'I don't know,'" the children were instructed.

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 other German-Russian women were searching for male relatives: "She had turned over one bullet-ridden body after another, into the hundreds. All were cold and 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 quarters.

As the Russian army approached the city in the winter of 1943, the Schneiders were evacuated on an unheated German freight train to Berlin.

Volga Germans were isolated in facilities and camps for displaced persons during World War II. The family was sent to a military building in Regensburg, 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 and its keeper were destroyed. The Schneiders were sent to a monastery near Passau 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 and salute, 'Heil Hitler!' I did not have one piece of writing paper or even a pencil" until supplies were provided.

The Schneiders had no allegiance to Nazi Germany or to Soviet Russia -- only to survival.

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 persons camp in Staubling.

Her stepfather "was a very strict man," Hilton recalled. "Parents are different in a war. He beat me; he was brutal. Then, parents beat children. People don't understand the different culture. Once we got to America, the beatings stopped.

"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 Mama, Papa, [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. It was terribly hot, terribly humid. We worked from sunup to sundown, seven acres, chopping cotton."

A concerned neighbor reported that the children weren't in school. When authorities made the children attend class, the host matriarch became furious.

Strangers from a church later helped them find jobs and housing. Her stepfather, a carpenter, worked in a brick factory and later had a woodworking and contracting business; her mother cleaned houses.

"I learned a lot in Mississippi, even though our lives were indescribable," Hilton said.

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 a full 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 years. While raising their two daughters, Erika and Angela, when her husband was in Vietnam, Hilton taught German to American soldiers in Germany, learned Turkish in Ankara and worked at Fort Lee as a personnel office record-keeper for 19 years until retiring in 1998. Her husband died in 2001.

At the urging of her daughters, Hilton wrote her autobiography, "Displaced Person: A Girl's Life in Russia, Germany and America." Angela, now a doctoral student, was its first editor. Louisiana State University Press published it last year.

LSU historian Karl A. Roider says the book is an unusual account of wartime migration, fear and post-World War II immigration by an observant, optimistic 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 coping with the turbulence and horror they experienced."

Hilton, 68, laughs often now and focuses on her life as an elder at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church; a volunteer at a Petersburg soup kitchen; a participant in the Cursillo Movement, an international Christian spiritual evangelism organization; and a speaker to groups about her childhood.

"I'm a very cheerful person. So are my siblings. We're all upbeat. We're 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 good.

"Maybe people will believe somebody who went through living hell."

Contact Betty Booker at (804) 649-6805 or bbooker@timesdispatch.com

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Survival skills

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 and from experiences. Be unobtrusive in dangerous situations.

Work hard: To survive, you might have to take menial jobs. Look for better opportunities. Learn to live frugally.

Stay open: Give of yourself. Learn the dominant language and its culture. Be people-friendly and honest.

Study: Find ways to learn if formal education is limited: "Without knowledge, 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.

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