Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ursula's World

I've long ago given up wondering what triggers my thoughts and memories, but for some reason I found myself thinking of my friend Ursula. I'd never in my life met anyone like her before, nor have I since. And doubt I ever shall again.

I met Ursula while I was living in a very small town in northern Wisconsin. She was well-known in the area as being an eccentric rock of a woman who, in her 70s when I met her, lived alone on a 20-acre farm on which she raised sheep. She also sheared them and spun their wool into yarn, from which she made mittens, scarves, and various other items. She had electricity but no running water and no toilet.

I’d heard Ursula was Jewish before I met her…there were very few Jews in the area, most of the residents being either Finnish (to work the forests) or Italian (to work the mines).

For a time, I worked part-time at a supermarket, which is where I first met her. She had come into the store during Rosh Hashanah, and I wished her a happy holiday. She took a liking to me, and we became friends.

She did not willingly talk of her past, and even then only in small bits and pieces, over time. She was born in Germany of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and she had one older brother whom she adored. When the Nazis came to power, she and her family were shipped off to a concentration camp for "half-breeds." Though spared the gas chamber, their life in the camps was incomprehensible to those not experiencing it.

At some point during or immediately after the war, her beloved brother was beaten to death by a group of Nazi thugs.

On February 13, 1945, she was on a prison train which was stopped at the outskirts of Dresden as the infamous firebombing of the city began. Over 100,000 people died in the firestorms. Ursula and others on the train were forced to go through the destroyed city retrieving bodies.

When her camp was liberated at the end of the war, her mother and father left the confines of the camp for the first time to go for a walk. Her father was shot and killed while on that walk…she never said why, or by whom, but it didn’t matter. Murder is murder.

Somehow finding her way to the U.S.—again, I have no details—-Ursula married a Serb emigre and had two daughters. The marriage was a disaster, and they were divorced after Ursula moved to Chicago. She managed to buy a small house and raise her daughters. The riots of the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago terrified her, convincing her that what had happened in Germany in the 1930s was happening in America. She sold her house and fled to northern Wisconsin, where she bought her farm. She became estranged from her daughters, who moved away as soon as they could.

I would visit her frequently, and she would call me to ask to pick up a few things from the store for her. She had a large garden, and always kept me supplied with vegetables in season. She mowed her own lawn, using a scythe and a push lawnmower.

She, I, and a gay mutual friend (one of only about 10 gays in a 100 mile radius) built a 30 x 60 foot barn for her sheep, largely out of materials salvaged from the various collapsed buildings around her property. She was fiercely, fiercely independent and resourceful.

She was also literally paranoid in her fear of any form of authority.. When the government installed an "ELF" defense tracking system throughout northern Wisconsin, every low-flying plane or passing helicopter became an omen of danger.

She did not have many friends. She did not trust people, as a rule. However, she had two women with whom she grew quite close. And then, suddenly, one by one, she abruptly cut off all contact with them for some inexplicable-to-me but unforgivable-to-her transgression.

We talked every day on the phone, and she would always say "We have to watch out for one another: you never know what might happen."

And then one day I tried to call her. That there was no answer wasn’t surprising: she was always out of the house tending to chores. But when after five or six calls with no response, I began to get concerned. She usually told me when she was planning to go somewhere, and she’d mentioned nothing. Finally, after about the eighth call, I was truly concerned. For some reason, I was unable to drive over (it was about a 20 minute drive) to check on her, and so I called the Sheriff’s office and asked that if they had a car in the area, they might stop and check to be sure she was okay.

I heard nothing further, and later that evening, I called again. Ursula answered the phone. I asked what had happened, and she said she had just been outside working. She then said: "You had no right to call the police. I do not want to talk to you anymore." And she hung up, and that, despite my efforts to explain that I only called the police because I was concerned for her, was, except for a few cursory accidental meetings at the store during which she was obviously painfully uncomfortable, the end of our friendship.

I was truly sorry to lose her as a friend, but I realize that in her eyes, I had done the unforgivable: I had called her to the attention of the authorities.

After moving back to Chicago, I heard from a Wisconsin friend that Ursula had died. Though she no longer considered me her friend, she was still mine. I miss her, and hope she finally has the peace that eluded her all her life. Shalom, Ursula.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (


Kage Alan said...

I wonder if we all have a form of Ursula in our lives. Mine was Gladys, our next door neighbor while I was growing up who was more of a grandmother to me then than my own grandmother.

But you were caught between a rock and a hard place when you couldn't get her on the phone. I experienced something close to this with a friend recently. This friend has been extremely stressed and asked to be left alone. I did as requested for about 3 weeks, then started to wonder if this person was even still alive.

I e-mailed, called and left messages suggesting that even a Facebook post once a week would be enough to stop folks like me from wondering if the worst had come to pass. It annoyed this person greatly and appears to have done damage to the friendship. But you know what? There's a post every couple of days, so at least we know the worst has indeed not come to pass after all.

Katy said...

She was a survivor, for sure. Her behavior towards your actions were a survival mechanism she had developed over the years. Though we recognize the behavior for what it is and can respect her wishes, it is still hard to lose a friend we've grown to care for. She had a hard life none of us will ever be able to comprehend. So sad she couldn't learn to trust again. It may have allowed her to have just a small slice of happiness before she had to leave this earth.
Thanks for sharing what you knew of her story. We all need to be reminded that everyone has a story, and some of them are beyond our imagining.