Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free
By Lorna Collier and Tilli Schulze
Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free is the teen-adult memoir of a young German farm girl growing up during World War II and the Russian occupation that followed the end of the war. The book is available in print, Nook, and Kindle formats, with signed copies available from the authors. A Polish translation also is available.
Tilli’s Story has been optioned for film by former HBO producer Kathryn Lekan (Barn 38 Pictures). Susan Hawk and Victoria Lowes of The Bent Agency in New York are the literary agents for the book, handling U.S. and global rights. The Dutch edition of the book is coming out soon from BBNC, a publisher in the Netherlands known for its historical list.
For more information, including book club guide and teacher's guide, visit www.mythoughtsarefree.com. You can also follow news about Tilli's Story on the book's Facebook page: www.facebook.com/mythoughtsarefree.
Here are three excerpts from the book: the Author's Note, Prologue, and first chapter.
I am not a hero.
I did not suffer more than other German children did during World War II and the Russian takeover of East Germany. In fact, I’m sure I suffered less than some. There were certainly quite a few children who underwent even more horrible ordeals than I did.
I didn’t save anybody’s life; I didn’t perform any dramatic rescues, other than my own. Nobody in my family died.
Why, then, should you read my story?
Because what I went through is typical not only of what many German children experienced during World War II and its aftermath, but also of what all children endure during any war—a suffering that is unforgivable but also, unfortunately, often overlooked and shrugged aside as an unavoidable cost of war.
I first began this project in 1991, two years after the Berlin Wall came down. Once that happened—once Germany ceased to be split into West and East, free and not free—I was able to go home again.
For the first time in 40 years, I saw the small farming village where I grew up. I saw old friends and neighbors and relatives who had not been able to escape, as I had. I visited my brother’s grave. I stepped inside my old house. I walked through the park which had been such a refuge for me as a child.
And I remembered.
I remembered what was done to my family and to countless innocent families throughout my country. We suffered under both Hitler and Stalin. Neither of these rulers believed we should have the right to think freely, to act freely, to travel and work and write and worship and live as we wished.
I remembered also what was done to me. My innocence was taken. My childhood was taken. My life was almost taken.
I never shared with my children and with even my closest friends much of what happened to me during the war and the Russian takeover. I kept it buried. I moved on with my life. I tried to forget.
But the memories wouldn’t die—and I’ve realized I can’t let them.
I want my family to know the truth. I want the world to know. Maybe it’s naive to think that telling stories like mine will make a difference, but I hope this will be the case.
We need to never forget the importance of freedom, which is sometimes taken for granted in America. We need to realize that war makes everyone its victim, that real people on both sides, including innocent children, suffer the battles their leaders plan.
I didn’t want to write a political book. I am not out to defend all Germans for their actions during World War II, nor to castigate all Russians for the inhumane behavior some Russian soldiers displayed towards me. I most certainly am not trying to downplay or diminish in any way the appalling sufferings of the Jews and other Holocaust victims.
I simply want to tell my story, my personal story: to relay to you what I saw as a child in Germany, as a child of war, and to try to convey the lessons, the truths, that I learned through that experience.
Although this story contains a lot of sad and terrible things, I don’t want this to be a depressing book. I see my story as being about survival and the triumph of the human spirit, about the way we can overcome anything if we keep fighting, even if our battles can only be waged within our thoughts.
That’s the way my mother fought. This book is named for her, for her softly humming resistance to those who would try to take control of her mind.
In writing this book, I tried to reconstruct what happened to me from the war’s beginning in 1939 through the first five years of the Russian occupation. As best as I could, I tried to remember conversations and feelings that I had. Some of these conversations, of necessity, have been recreated. I could not always remember word for word what people said, but I could remember the gist of an encounter, the mood of a moment, the force of a meeting. All of the major events in this book happened, and they happened to me.
This is my story.
— Tilli Horn Schulze
Prologue: Fall 1944
It is night and they are back. Enemy planes, growling in the distance: thunder that does not stop, but grows closer, closer, until it invades my sleep, until I jump up in bed, my dreams crashing away into broken bits of terror.
My mother stirs next to me. She pats my arm; she is awake, too, but we don’t say anything. I struggle to breathe normally. She is silent.
I curl into a ball, my comforter tight to my chin in the blackness. The thunder booms louder, louder, and there is nothing to do but wait for whatever is going to happen next.
Now the window glass is rattling. The floor is vibrating. The roar is so near—I can hear it, feel it, all around me; I just can’t see it. I wish I could scream and I wish I could cry but I’ve done that before and I know it’s no use.
I shut my eyes, put my hands to my ears, trying to silence the sounds, trying to find a peaceful place in the darkness of my mind, and somehow the minutes pass and then finally the grinding and rumbling and roaring begins to fade. I let out a breath and start to relax. Maybe I will be able to get back to sleep before dawn, before my chores, before the two-mile walk to school.
The house shakes, the sounds blast—above me, behind me, below me. Again, again, again. Horrible thuds like giants falling, the earth opening, splitting, dear Lord please help me help me help me.
Bombs. These are the sounds of bombs falling, exploding. I have heard these sounds before, but always they have been quieter, from a greater distance. Now they sound like they are right next to us, and moving closer.
Again I try to block from my ears, my mind, this terrible noise, try not to think where the bombs are falling—on empty fields or deserted businesses or vacant school buildings? Or on homes, where people are sleeping, where children—children like me—are hiding in their beds, perhaps still shaking off the fragments of their dreams?
I am ten years old. I have been living with this war since I was five. When the airplanes started flying over us, everyone said they would never bomb us, that our little farm village in northeastern Germany was too small for them to care about. We would be safe, everybody said. Even my mother said it, holding me against her, telling me to hush and not worry.
Now she lies still in bed, frozen just as I am frozen. We have no bomb shelter to protect us, like the people in the cities have. We don’t even have a basement. We have nowhere to hide.
On the wall beside me is a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. I can barely make it out in the darkness. Because of the war, we have to keep black shades on the windows at night and aren’t allowed to use electricity or candles. But my eyes are used to darkness by now and besides, I know this picture so well. I have stared at it so often during the past few years, ever since I began sleeping downstairs with my mother in her bedroom.
I’ve always been unsettled by this picture—by the blood dripping down Jesus’ wrists, but mostly by the sorrow in His eyes. I used to wonder what it would feel like to be nailed to a cross, trapped and helpless for the world to see.
“I am sweet and pure and my heart belongs to Jesus alone,” I whisper, repeating the prayer I have been saying every night, for as long as I can remember.
I hope it will help; that Jesus, somewhere, is listening.
And still the bombs fall. Over and over, on and on, death free-falling from the sky. I start to shake, my teeth to chatter, and I know that I can’t stay here, in this moment. I force myself to stop listening, stop thinking, worrying, picturing what is happening outside. Instead, I create places in my mind, beautiful safe places where I can laugh and play until the bombs stop and I can go home again.
Sometimes I visit a house made entirely of the sweetest candy, a house I can eat my way through. Other times, I am in the meadow, riding Max, one of our two horses, the other hors, Moritz, running free beside me, all muscles and mane and joy. I take the horses into the pond for a glorious cooling splash, then lie in the long grass, surrounded by weeds and wildflowers, trying to taste the warm breeze with my tongue, as happy as it is possible to be.
My dreams mix with memories – of the days before war came, of the early days of the war when my life was still more or less normal – and I wonder if will ever be safe and happy again.
Chapter One: September 1939
The first time I heard about the war, I was making sand castles in the schoolyard. It was a bright fall day, sunshine left over from summer warming the top of my head as I mounded the damp brown sand beside me into a grand palace. A princess lived inside, a gentle, golden-haired princess in an emerald gown. All around the castle lurked evil, fire-breathing dragons, but my princess was safe, because the walls of my fortress were so strong.
Hans ran up to me, panting.
“Guess what, Tilli!” he yelled. “Germany is at war!”
I stared at him. I didn’t know exactly what a war was, though I had an idea it had something to do with soldiers and guns.
“Really?” I said, not sure whether to believe Hans, who liked to tell stories.
“My cousin might go fight in it,” Hans said. “My aunt is home now crying.”
That scared me. I’d never seen an adult cry before.
Hans ran off to tell the others. I went back to pouring sand on my castle, making it taller, wider, stronger, until it was perfect. Soon I’d forgotten what Hans had said.
After kindergarten, I ran home through the meadow to my street, then turned onto the road and walked the rest of the way under the cool canopy of the linden trees, which arched across the road like a lacy green rainbow, their leaves like hundreds of tiny hearts. I hurried down the path past our gate, skipped through my mother’s flower garden, which filled our front yard, and went inside to the kitchen.
At this time of day, my mother usually would be getting dinner ready. When she’d see me, she’d give me a hug and kiss and sometimes had a special snack ready for me. But that afternoon, she wasn’t there. The great stove was cold and silent. The long wooden table stood empty and bare.
I ran outside to the barnyard. “Mami! Mami!” I called.
A yellow barn cat streaked across the yard and shot up at tree. We had so many barn cats I never bothered to name them. Bello, our big outdoor dog, ran up to me, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging. I patted his thick, solid head. There was no sign of my mother or father anywhere.
I walked back into the kitchen. “Mami?” I called again into the stillness.
Then I heard my mother’s footsteps, coming from the living room in the back of the house, which we never used during the daytime. Following close behind were the clicking toenails of Fanni, Mami’s pet dog, who was always nearby.
“Hello, Tilli, did you have a good day?” Mami said, holding out her arms to me.
“Where were you?” I asked, hugging her, then reaching down to pet Fanni.
“Just listening to the radio.”
I noticed, then, the very faint scratchy sounds of crackling men’s voices. My parents kept a big radio in the living room, which we only listened to at night, when music came on.
“That idiot Hitler!” my father shouted from the living room. That was also odd, that my father should be home this early and not at work in the fields. I was used to him yelling about Hitler, who had been ruling Germany ever since I could remember. My father hated Hitler, and often said so, which seemed to terrify my mother. “Hush now!” she would hiss at him, looking over her shoulder as though she expected Hitler himself to come bursting through our door to punish my father for his words.
I began helping my mother set the table for supper, putting out plates for my parents; Wilhelm, our farmhand, who lived with us; my brothers, Heinz and Helmut, who were eleven and twelve and still in school—the elementary school, not the kindergarten that I went to; Paula, my older sister, who was fifteen and finished with school; and for myself, Tilli, age five, youngest child in the Horn family.
As my mother handed me the dishes, she began singing softly. It was a song she had been singing a lot lately. “My thoughts are free, who can guess them? They fly by, like nightly shadows.”
Sunlight filtered through the delicate lace curtains at the window and glinted off the silverware, casting prisms of fiery color—orange and yellow and red—about the room, onto my mother’s face. I suddenly remembered what Hans had told me in the sandbox.
“Mami, Hans said that Germany is in a war.”
My mother stopped singing. She set down her spatula, then lowered herself beside me, frowning deeply. “Tilli, some people have crazy ideas. They think they can go to another country and take the land and make it theirs again.”
I didn’t understand.
My mother tried again. “Yes, Germany is in a war. We invaded Poland. But it will be over very soon.”
“Hans says his cousin might go fight,” I said. “Will Helmut and Heinz and Hugo go fight, too?”
My brother Hugo, who was thirteen, was deaf and didn’t live with us, except for holidays and other breaks from his special school, which was in another city several hours away by train.
“No, we don’t need to worry about the boys,” my mother said. “They’re much too young. The war will be over long before they would have to fight in it.”
My mother went back to the stove. I wandered into the living room, where I was surprised to see not only my father but also Wilhelm in the room, both of them hunched next to the radio.
I tried to sit on my father’s lap, but he pushed me away. “Not now!” he snapped, waving me away with his hand.
“We’re busy listening to some very important news,” whispered Wilhelm, more gently.
Besides being our field hand, Wilhelm was also my godfather. When I was two, he had given me a doll and stroller. They were the only toys I had ever had. The doll had porcelain skin, long brown hair the same color as mine, gold-and-brown flecked eyes with real human eyelashes, and a blue-and-white dirndl dress. I named her Doris. My mother said Doris and her brown leather stroller were much too fine to play with or even touch, so I kept her propped in the corner of my bedroom, which I shared with Paula. Sometimes I liked to lie on my stomach on the wooden floor and imagine what Doris might be thinking and whisper secrets to her. Paula laughed at me for that.
“Did you hear? Did you hear?” shouted Helmut, bursting into the living room, breathless and red-faced, his thick, dark hair wild and tousled.
Heinz, as always, followed close behind him; though he was a year older than Helmut, he was at least a head shorter and his legs didn’t carry him as far. Heinz was adopted and, with his curly light brown hair and crooked grin, didn’t look like anybody else in the family, but we didn’t care. I never thought of it and neither did Helmut, who spent every minute he could with Heinz.
My brothers started talking rapidly to my father and Wilhelm. I only caught snatches of what they said, most of which I didn’t understand.
“...going to take Poland...”
“...our land to begin with, after all...”
“...six weeks, tops...”
“That idiot Hitler!”
My father seemed angry, while Wilhelm and my brothers acted more excited than anything else. I didn’t know how to feel. Nobody had been crying, which was good. But I didn’t like the worried, tense expression on my mother’s face. I felt like my life was somehow changing; shifting, like dry sand, beneath my feet.
For ordering information, go to www.mythoughtsarefree.com, or
e-mail Lorna Collier at email@example.com
© 2004, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free," by Lorna Collier and Tilli Schulze