A long life well-lived despite scary obstacles

Posted on Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:00pm

By Neil Warner

Ilse SieglerImagine finding yourself in a strange, new country at the age of 16, suddenly living with a new family and encountering unfamiliar customs. Just imagine.

This was the scenario gripping many Jews faced with a difficult choice as the Nazis rose to power before World War II: stay in an increasingly polarized, anti-Semitic Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler, or leave everything behind and flee to another country where the future was equally uncertain. This was the scenario faced 74 years ago by the family of Ilse Siegler, a Malibu East resident for the past 33 years.

It’s a familiar story, and yet one that is not recited often enough today, as many survivors of these catastrophic events have died.

Ilse grew up as an only child in Öhringen in southwest Germany. Her father, Julius Thalheimer, and two uncles owned a chemical/paint factory there. Her father was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp following the so-called Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) on Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi supporters vandalized Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses. An estimated 30,000 Jewish males were arrested in the days following Kristallnacht, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with many transferred to concentration camps. Julius was released from the camp several months later for unknown reasons (“My father never talked about it,” Ilse says), but he lost his ownership in the family factory, and the family moved to Stuttgart.

Sadly, daily life for Jews was rapidly deteriorating in Stuttgart and elsewhere in Germany. “We couldn’t sit on park benches, we couldn’t go to movies, we couldn’t have housekeeping help in our homes,” Ilse says. Jews were allowed to attend school only up to the eighth or ninth grade, she recalls. “My uncle took me to Munich to attend cooking school, but I wasn’t the housekeeping type.”

So, Ilse moved to Berlin to attend a girls’ school in 1939, where they had to cover the windows with black curtains and everyone was assigned to a bomb shelter. In the meantime, her parents were seeking a way to get out of Germany. The United States had an immigration quota, meaning that those seeking a visa to immigrate there needed an affidavit from a U.S. citizen stating that the citizen would be willing, and had the financial wherewithal, to provide room and board for the immigrants even if they were unable to find a job in the U.S.

Ilse’s family received an affidavit from an uncle in Chicago, but the American embassy denied the application because the uncle was considered too old to be a reliable long-term sponsor for Ilse and her two young cousins. The family had distant relatives in Little Rock, Ark., but they weren’t in a position to host anyone else. However, they referred Ilse’s family to very distant relatives in Greenwood, Miss., who indeed sent an affidavit, which the embassy accepted. Unbeknownst to Ilse at the time, the Mississippi family planned to adopt her and her two cousins if everything worked out as planned.

Ilse’s family hurriedly made plans to leave Germany. They had to surrender nearly all of their assets to the Nazis, including stocks, bonds and even diamond engagement rings. Her father had $30 in his possession when leaving Stuttgart by a train bound for Holland, but because that was above the allowable limit, $20 was confiscated by the authorities. The family was able to ship some furniture and other personal belongings to the U.S., but part of it never arrived, supposedly lost at sea. They took the last train to leave Holland before the Nazis invaded the country, traveling to Le Havre, France, where they boarded a ship to America. “We all had to stay below deck while sailing through the English Channel (to the Atlantic Ocean),” Ilse says.

After arriving in the U.S., Ilse and her two cousins, Lisl and Inge, went to live with their sponsors in Mississippi, while her parents, who were determined to support themselves, went to live in Chicago. At 16, despite being one of the few Jews in town, Ilse had to blend into the local high school and quickly get up to speed with her academics. She took four American history courses simultaneously, but “I got things mixed up,” she says. Ilse prepared meals at home along with her cousins and worked in her guardians’ jewelry store after school.

Not long after her arrival in Mississippi, Ilse’s guardians, who were childless, asked her to sign papers that would have allowed them to adopt her. This came as a shock to Ilse, whose parents were living in Chicago. She wrote to them, and when they replied that they had no intention of giving her up, Ilse told her guardians that she wouldn’t sign the adoption papers. (Neither would her two cousins.) The relationship between her and the guardians deteriorated after that.

Two of Ilse’s high school teachers urged her to attend college, and she was awarded a scholarship to the University of Mississippi, with an eye on a career in social work. However, her guardians insisted that Ilse and her older cousin, Lisl, become nurses instead “to help the war effort.” Despite her disappointment, Ilse went to nursing school at Methodist Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where she and Lisl earned their nursing degrees in 1945.

After getting her degree, Ilse was reunited with her parents in Chicago for the first time in nearly five years, save for a brief visit while attending a nursing convention in Chicago as a trainee. She went to work at the now-shuttered Michael Reese Hospital on the South Side, where she lived on-site in a nurses’ dorm. “I had a day off for the first time in years,” she says. “They treated me well.”

Ilse met her future husband, Allen, when they played a game of Ping-Pong in the recreational area of a German-Jewish temple they both attended in Chicago. After their first date, Ilse told her mother, “This is the man I’m going to marry.” Her mother scoffed at the idea, but in 1947, they did marry.

Ilse quit her job at Michael Reese when she was pregnant with her oldest son, Robert.

Robert is now Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the author of several textbooks, focusing on children’s mathematical and scientific thinking. His books have been translated into many languages, and he lectures at symposiums around the world. Ilse’s second son, David, is a fundraiser for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and lives in San Diego. Ilse has five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, including two sets of twins.

Ilse’s husband became ill when the family was living in Evanston and her sons were in high school. So, Ilse returned to work during the school year as a registered nurse at a hospital on Howard Street. She later went to work at Three Oaks Nursing Home in Evanston, where she stayed for four years. She then was hired by a pharmacist, working as a consulting nurse and troubleshooter. After 17 years in that job, the onset of glaucoma prevented her from driving, so she began a new career teaching nurses’ aides at Truman College and at a private school downtown, which she continued for 4-5 years before retiring.

After 27 years of marriage, Allen passed away in 1972 following a long illness. With both boys in college, Ilse was living alone in Evanston, and one night while attending a party, her home was burglarized. She decided she would no longer live by herself.

With her mother, Irma, living at The Selfhelp Home on Argyle Street in Chicago, Ilse moved to Malibu East in 1980. She soon became a fixture on the Social Committee, which organizes our parties and other social events under the direction of longtime chairperson Sandy Chaet.

One day it occurred to Ilse that the Community Room wasn’t being used, despite its nice amenities. Realizing that many residents, especially retirees, were often spending their days alone watching television, Ilse came up with the idea of a Thursday afternoon discussion group, which she and Ruth-Betty Spilky co-chaired for many years before passing the torch to Aida Calvopina. (The group meets on the third Thursday of each month at 2 p.m.; residents of all ages are invited to attend.) Ilse and Ruth-Betty always planned a topic to discuss at each meeting and brought refreshments.

I wanted everyone to have a chance to participate in the discussion,” Ilse says. “Otherwise, some people tend to dominate. … My hope was that people would make one or two new friends by coming to the discussion group.”

Ilse and Ruth-Betty were also fixtures at the annual Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony. They would make latkes (potato pancakes) and bring applesauce to accompany them. “There were always just as many non-Jews as Jews at the candle lighting,” Ilse says.

When asked to recall the highlights of her 33 years at Malibu East, Ilse mentions the annual holiday party in the Lobby, the Social Committee events and the discussion group meetings. She also loved to swim in our pool, and she likes the convenience of the many businesses in the Captain’s Walk.

Despite being in her 90s, Ilse is an avid theatergoer, having been a subscriber to the Goodman Theatre for a number of years.

Unfortunately, Ilse will be leaving us in February. She is moving to an independent-living facility in San Diego, 10 minutes from the home of son David. She’ll live in a two-bedroom apartment, with meals provided for her, along with entertainment, discussion groups and much more.

My son’s family has been trying to get me to move to San Diego for 10 years,” Ilse says. “I think it’s time.”

Ilse will be missed not just by the Thursday discussion group, which gave her a rousing farewell at its January meeting, but by all of us who were lucky enough to have crossed her path.