By Diana Hammell
Bonnie Willemssen, friend to many and a columnist who readers look forward to finding in The Caledonia Argus, grew up just across the river. She lived in La Crosse, Wis. since the age of four, and after marrying her beau, Jim, lived there still, raising their daughter there as well. La Crosse isn’t where Willemssen’s story begins, however.
The story begins with the 1948 birth of Gerda Erika Paul, born in an army barrack in a part of Berlin that would fall behind the iron curtain. Gerda’s mother, Erika Gerda Paul, was something of a single mother at the time, raising four children on her own while her husband, who didn’t come home after fighting in WWII, stopped in every so often to visit. There was some speculation that Erika could have been involved in an affair before Gerda was born. When the new baby arrived, Gerhard Paul came home and said he would stay and provide for Erika and the children. But, there was the issue of this new baby girl. The decision was made not to keep her. Was it because Gerhard wasn’t sure that she really belonged to him and couldn’t fathom raising another man’s child? Or was it because life in Berlin was hard and they had four children to provide for already? Erika and Gerhard went to their graves never speaking a word about it to anyone again.
Enter Ethyl Elliott. Elliott was a divorced Red Cross nurse who was traveling through Germany, Switzerland and surrounding countries teaching hospital staff about tuberculosis and its treatment. She had lost a daughter of her own to the disease. Elliott lived in the same apartment building as the Pauls and somehow the arrangement was made for Elliott to obtain baby Gerda. She called the baby Bonnie.
Bonnie went directly from the army barracks to Elliott’s apartment. The older Paul children remembered that three years previously, a baby boy came home but he died after a few weeks. This time, when their mother came home with no baby, they thought the infant had died and no one said a word about it. When their parents didn’t speak about the baby to them, it wasn’t their place to bring the subject up.
The USS United States
Elliott, who had been estranged from her family in the United States, decided to try to reconcile, and after a stay of five years in Europe booked passage on the maiden return voyage of the new luxury liner USS United States.
The United States, built in 1952, was much more than just a luxury liner. She was a symbol of American pride and ambition; she represented the best of American workers and presented the leading edge of modern technology. On her maiden voyage to England she broke the speed record running at only two-thirds of maximum power. At a comfortable cruise the Big U bested the 1938 speed record of The Queen Mary by more than 10 hours. Further confirmation of her ability was made when she also established a new eastbound record on her return voyage. This was the voyage that Elliott, Bonnie, Bonnie’s nanny and a doctor that Elliott worked with in Europe booked passage on.
Enter Mark and Mary Spettel. The Spettels, office supply company owners from La Crosse, booked round trip passage on The Queen Mary for a tour of Europe. Once in Europe, all the talk was about the recent voyage of The USS United States. Mary thought it would be fun and different to change things up and was able to cancel the return trip on The Queen Mary and booked passage on the Big U instead.
The first afternoon on the ship, Mary and Mark were strolling on the deck. Upon finding the nursery on the way, the childless couple poked their head in the nursery’s dutch door. A little girl ran up to the door, motioned for them to come in and chattered to them excitedly in German. The nursery door was locked to strangers, but upon being seated that night for dinner, they found Ethyl, the doctor, Bonnie’s nanny and Bonnie – the little girl in the nursery – at their table.
As often happens on cruises, the dinner companions became close friends. The Spettels revealed their childless state and Elliott revealed that she had adopted Bonnie. Upon parting at the conclusion of the voyage, the Spettels threw out there that if Elliot ever needed someone to take care of Bonnie to please call. Addresses, phone numbers and promises to write at Christmas were exchanged.
Back in the U.S.A.
“In fact, Ethyl wrote two weeks later, hinting that things were not going well in New York and that I was not happy in daycare,” Willemssen said. “She also suggested that perhaps Mary and Mark could take me for awhile as she got back on her feet in America. Mary wrote back on July 30, 1952, my fourth birthday, that no, they were not really interested in taking care of me. It would disrupt their lives and they were quite busy with their business.
“In the spring of 1953, Ethyl wrote and said she was taking me back to Switzerland with her. By Sept. 30, 1953, in a letter from Ethyl, she is in Switzerland and I am with the Spettels. I only have the information Mary and Mark gave me as to what happened between that cruise in 1952 and the end of September, 1953. They felt Ethyl seemed desperate, and a little bit strange (touched in the head, Mark thought) and they thought it would be better for me if they took me for awhile until she returned to the U.S., which she promised to do in one month. The first morning at the Spettel home, upon waking I looked at Mary and asked her in German, “Are you my new Mommy? She said she was rather shocked and wondered just what Ethyl might have told me, but she said, ‘No, I was only visiting and I could call them Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark.’”
Time passed. The end of July came with no word from Elliott, then suddenly a letter and a gift for Willemssen’s fifth birthday arrived along with an apology that so much time had elapsed. Regrettably, she needed to stay longer. “Mary and Mark wrote to her in August and asked if they could enroll me in kindergarten, as they thought it would be good for me to learn some English,” Willemssen said. “The answer came back – yes. Meanwhile, Mary worked with me to learn English. We played grocery store. I had to name the items, figure out the cost and tell how I would eat it. Mary says she questioned my food choice once, wondering if I liked that item, and I told her it was okay that I was used to eating food I didn’t like.”
Fall turned into winter and still no Elliott, only a few letters of apology. “My folks asked if they could take me to Florida on vacation,” Willemssen said. “Yes. In the spring they asked if they could put up a swing set for me. Go ahead, was the answer. In June, almost one year after I dropped into the Spettels’ lives Ethyl called. She was back in New York and wanted them to bring me back to her.” The Spettels by this time were attached to Bonnie and broached the subject of adoption. Elliott responded saying that she missed Bonnie too much and could not imagine life without her. “So, with heavy hearts, Mary and Mark packed my things and started on a train to New York thinking that these would be our last few days together.”
Elliott’s vision of Bonnie running to her with open arms didn’t come to fruition. Elliot couldn’t believe that Bonnie acted like she didn’t remember her at all. Elliott wanted to take Bonnie right away but agreed to lunch first. During lunch Elliott wrote an adoption agreement and signed it on the back of a placemat, but no judges were available until Monday. A back-and-forth yes, no, yes, no dance went on with Elliott. At one point a judge told Spettel he should just take Bonnie and go back to La Crosse with her, that Elliott was a ‘psychopathic case.’ Spettel couldn’t imagine the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and wanted everything to be legal and above-board.
Finally, after the Spettels were sure that the trip home would be just the two of them, Elliott called and stunned them even further by announcing that the adoption papers would be ready for them all to sign the next morning. Mary Spettel wrote to her sister, “It was a year to the day that we left Bonnie on the ship last year. I can’t help but feel that the Lord brought us together and that with His help we will be able to bring her up to be a credit to us and to herself.”
The search for family
Upon the death of their mother in 1983, Dietrich Paul (nicknamed Dieter) obtained the family bible and made the effort to bring everything up to date – a very German thing to do. He found the baby boy listed, his birth certificate and his death certificate. He found Gerda’s name and birth listed but there was no date for her death and no death certificate. “Dieter went to the government offices to get a copy of my death certificate – just to get everything up to date – and found out that I had been adopted,” Willemssen said. He did not do anything else at that time, knowing how futile an attempt would be behind the Iron Curtain. He also did not tell anyone else in the family about this revelation. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. In 1990, Dieter tried to search for me. He could only trace me for the four years I lived in Europe; then the trail went cold.”
Willemssen always knew that she was adopted – “chosen” was how Mary Spettel put it, and she always wondered if she had family out there somewhere. In 1999 Willemssen invited her daughter, then 21 years old, if she would like to take a trip with her to celebrate her 51st birthday. Ann said to Willemssen, “Mom, let’s go to Germany and find your birth family.”
“Out of the blue, coming from my daughter, it suddenly seemed like a viable idea,” Willemssen said. “And I had long been thinking that I needed to know and pass on to my daughter some medical information about her ancestors.”
Over the next few years Willemssen met a lot of dead ends. She found a small, self-printed newsletter called Geboren Deutscher (Born German) and she got on the mailing list for $5. “When the publication came, it was just a few sheets filled with stories of people who had found their German families. Some stories were about the struggle and search and some were about the fulfillment of the search. Some were heartbreaking; some made me seriously rethink my quest to find my family because not all stories had happy endings. As each one came, month after month, however, I discovered that this little newsletter held the key to my successful search.” Through this newsletter, Willemssen contacted Leonie Boemer whose mission was to connect persons like Willemssen with their families. Boemer took no money for herself, only the money required for postage and copies of documents.
Willemssen had her birth certificate with her name, her parents’ names and her father’s occupation, a ‘kraftwagenfuhrer,’ or taxi driver. Boemer never told the German authorities she contacted that she was searching for adoption reasons because they did not like adoptees contacting them. She also said that the German authorities would not give out information on siblings if parents were deceased. After a months-long process, Boemer sent Willemssen a sad email informing her that Erika died on Sept. 11, 1983. Willemssen cried on and off for the next few hours and when her husband got home from work she told him the news and cried again. “Jim wondered why I was crying for someone who had died 16 years ago and I said because for me, she had just died that day.” Gerhard had died in 1977.
Boemer obtained a copy of Erika’s death certificate and she also managed to receive a copy of the will. Boemer said that never before, in all her years of doing adoption searches, had the German probate court sent a copy of a will. The extra information she received included all of Willemssen’s four siblings and their addresses in 1983… and Helga, the eldest, still lived at the same address. Willemssen’s siblings were Helga, Dietrich (Dieter), Detlef (Detti) and Klaus. Willemssen wrote a letter to Helga and included a photo of her, Jim and Ann on the beach in Maine. Boemer translated the letter and sent it on.
Now you will know who you are
At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of April 27, 2000, the phone rang in the Willemssen household. “My heart immediately constricted; it had to be our daughter calling from college with a problem, or the nursing home calling me about my adopted mother – the phone call we steeled ourselves for daily. To my hello, there was a hesitant male voice asking me if I was Bonnie Willemssen. I said yes. He said five words I will never forget: ‘This is your brother, Dieter.’” When Willemssen’s brain could function once again a halting conversation took place. “Then he said something that gave me a wonderful chill,” Willemssen said. “He said, ‘We have been waiting for you.’” They spoke for an hour and afterward Willemssen called her daughter at college in Ohio. She remembers Ann saying, “I’m so happy for you, Mom. Now you will know who you are.”
In the next conversation in which Dieter’s daughter translated, Willemssen learned that Dieter’s family still lived in the same apartment they lived in during the Russian occupation. Helga married in 1961 and moved to what became West Berlin just two weeks before the wall appeared. For awhile Helga was able to visit the east side and bring things to her family there; later the authorities stopped such visits.
Letters and emails flowed. “Dieter wrote me a long, long letter in English all about my family – our family and included 60 pictures. Helga also wrote – in German, a long letter telling about her life and her version of life growing up and sent many pictures also.
Willemssen made her first visit to Germany and her family on her own, and at Dieter’s insistence, staying for two weeks at Dieter’s home. Dieter’s Hungarian wife Eszter was a fabulous cook, and Willemssen told her husband that after this trip she would expect a big German breakfast every morning. She also shared with her husband some things she learned about her father, who did turn out to be her real father. She heard back from her husband in an email that said, “So, you want me to start serving you a big German breakfast when you get home. I have another idea. I think Gerhard was onto something with the early morning whistle blowing, 75 push-ups and 100 deep knee bends. How about we start with that and work our way up to German breakfasts.”
Willemssen feels very fortunate that even though she could not meet her parents she could get to know all of her siblings. Also, now her daughter, Ann, has a cousin, Ramona, who is only a year apart in age. Helga came to stay for three weeks with the Willemssens in La Crosse and other visits back and forth have occurred. Since that first meeting 12 years ago, Helga and Detti have died. Willemssen said she feels very fortunate that even though she could not meet her parents she could get to know all of her siblings. Also, now her daughter, Ann, has a cousin, Ramona, who is only a year apart in age.
Mark and Mary Spettel were, and always will be, Willemssen’s real father and mother.
Since that first meeting 12 years ago, Helga and Detti have died.