The Miracle of Christmas
For many people, the thought of Christmas comes with happy memories and warm, fuzzy feelings, but for Ella E. Schneider Hilton, her first memory of Christmas in America symbolized much more.
It was Christmas Eve, 1952, eight months after 14-year old Ella and her family had arrived in America. They had fled their home in Russia after Ella's father was taken by Soviet Authorities, never to be heard from again. After living seven years in a displaced person camp in Germany, the family finally escaped to America to live as indentured servants to the Deans, their "sponsor family", in Mississippi. The first eight months in America the family lived in poverty, picking cotton and yearning to adjust to their new culture with the weight of segregation bearing down on their shoulders. "I wasn't allowed to talk to the blacks, and the whites wanted nothing to do with me because I was foreign," Ella said, with a hint of a German accent still lingering in her voice. "Eventually I was able to go to school, and I would come home and teach my step-dad everything I had learned. He learned from reading the Bible, too. Mama could never speak a word of English, so she sat home and cried all day."
When Christmas Eve rolled around the family had all but given up hope of their "American dream" until a single act of kindness restored their faith. Recalling the event, Ella wrote, "We had no Christmas tree. No place to put it. No decorations. No money for presents. A few days before Christmas, Mrs. Dean came by and took the stove . She would fetch the cow later, she said. This was the saddest Christmas ever. I was thinking that we had prayed so hard for God to let us come to America. Our prayers were answered, but we were worse off in America than we had been in Germany or Russia."
Unexpectedly, a car pulled into the driveway and a man came to the door. "Are you the German family?" he asked. "We come from the Holly Springs Methodist Church to wish you a blessed Christmas." He and his wife then went to the car and came back with huge grocery bags, full of food and presents; it took three trips to bring everything in. "Mama cried. Papa was embarrassed. Me, I was transformed into a speechless column . In one of the bags there was a frozen turkey. We had never seen a turkey before, and Mama didn't know what to do with it, so she cut it up and made soup. Looking back, I think that was when I realized things were going to work out."
Ella later attended school at Bellhaven College in Jackson, MI, where she met Thomas G. Hilton, who she married in 1957. "I called him a redneck because he had never been out of Mississippi," Ella laughed. "He was a good man; a very loving, giving, considerate, quiet spoken, Southern boy with a southern drawl."
Soon after their marriage, Tom and Ella joined the army. In 19 years they moved 23 times, all over the United States and Europe, including back to both Germany and Russia. The couple had two daughters, Erika and Angela, who attended 11 schools around the world. "They learned to ski in the Alps, and Erika actually graduated high school in Germany. Her diploma was given to her by the son of Erwin Rommel, who had been one of Hitler's right-hand men. I thought that was ironic." Tom fought in the Vietnam War, receiving the Bronze Star, and went to glory in 2001, buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
After Ella retired, her daughter, Angie, asked her, "Mama, what are you going to do now?" "Well, I'm going to eat chocolates, lie on the couch and watch the world turn," Ella replied. "Unfortunately, that never happened."
Instead, she wrote a book titled Displaced Person: A Girl's Life in Russia, Germany and America, which was published in 2004 and nominated for the National Book Award. She now spends her time travelling and speaking to groups about her life adventures and experiences. "Of all the places I've been, America is the most wonderful. Americans are the most incredible, giving people in the world. I'm so full of joy to have been lucky enough to come here," Ella beamed. "[My story] just goes to show, if you wait long enough, God always gets you where you need to go, even if it's kicking and screaming."
Ella E. Schneider Hilton
travels to Hilton Head Island twice
a year to speak and do book signings.
She will return in April, 2011.
Displaced Person: A Girl's Life in Russia,
Germany and America
can be ordered from local bookstores, or by calling Longleaf Svc at 1-800-848-6224.