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Hannelore Munson: “I want to give back”

Hannelore Munson’s childhood saga is the kind of story motion pictures are made from. In 1945, the young Hannelore and her mother escaped their small East German town of Cottbus by car—and then by foot—when their tires were shot out by Russian fire. 

“Russian fighter planes shot into the crowds as their tanks unleashed their enormous fire power,” explained Hannelore. “We were walking over the dead and dying civilians and soldiers. I can still hear the screams of the wounded calling for water.” Their escape was short-lived when they realized the Russian army had overtaken the area and decided it was safest to turn back. With the aid of some German soldiers and the unexpected kindness of a Russian general, Hannelore and her mother made their way back home, their house thankfully still intact.

In 1947, Hannelore’s father was released after two years in a French prison camp. He returned home only to find his family had been forced to share their house with Communist strangers. “Every night, my father would ask me what I had learned in school that day,” she recalled. “Without his redirection, I would have become a young communist.” 

An opportunity for a brighter future In 1951, Hannelore’s family met with American relatives from Worcester who were visiting West Berlin. “They offered to sponsor us to come to the U.S., but (my father) declined because his parents, my aunt, and our friends still lived in Cottbus.” Yet by 1953, it was increasingly uncomfortable to live in East Germany. Hannelore’s father was a small business owner so he did not have to join the Communist Party. “However, his lack of party affiliation would have prevented me from ever studying at a university.  And, Communist Party membership would have prevented us from coming to the U.S.”

One night, the family, huddled under a feather puff secretly listening to illegal radio news, learned that the government was going to clamp down on travel to Berlin. “My father already had one foot in prison; my future educational opportunities were zero,” explained Hannelore. “Life had become extremely oppressive, so my father said it was now or never that all three of us could leave. 

“My father went alone to West Berlin to inquire by telegram if his cousin’s offer to sponsor us still held. It did. We decided to leave within a week under total secrecy.”

The family sold some belongings, sewed 11,000 East German marks securely into Hannelore’s overcoat lining, and fled by train to West Germany. Hannelore and her parents were detained for a time at a refugee camp in West Berlin but soon earned West German citizenship and filed the paperwork necessary to apply for immigration to the U.S. 

Coming to America Hannelore said her family traveled to the US on a boat called the Italia. The trip across the Atlantic in February was long and often stormy. “I can remember a fire, and there was dancing on the boat at night with musicians playing. Sometimes they would slide right across the floor with their instruments when the boat tipped,” she recalled with a laugh. 

Seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time was a monumental and enduring vision for Hannelore and her parents. Since they were documented immigrants, they did not enter New York through Ellis Island, but rather met their sponsor family immediately when they arrived. Hannelore recalled that undocumented refugees were screened at the dock. “There were steep stairs that unannounced arrivals had to run up that would screen refugees for strong lungs and heart,” she explained. “If you couldn’t do it, they would send you right back home.” Hannelore’s family, with their meager belongings, moved in with relatives in Worcester to begin their new life in America.

Learning English Hannelore had an opportunity to study English while still in West Germany, but she was stricken with a stress-induced eczema that affected skin on both of her hands. She had to keep her hands bandaged and remain in bed, so it was impossible for her to continue lessons. 

But once she finally arrived in America, Hannelore needed to learn English. Neither of her parents spoke English, so she enrolled in an English class for immigrants and spent 3 months sitting in the front row absorbing all she could about her new language. The teacher was impressed with her progress, and “she brought me to the Worcester high school and said to keep me there for two years, no matter how badly I did,” quipped Hannelore.  She continued to study, and even helped WPI students with German in exchange for help with her science classes. By senior year Hannelore had set her sights on attending Simmons College to become a nurse.

College Bound

Hannelore explained that it was her orthodontist, Dr. Shipman, who encouraged her to apply to Simmons College. First, Dr. Shipman had to convince Hannelore that it was wise to fix a gap between her two front teeth. “When Dr. Shipman heard my plans to become a nurse, he encouraged me to attend Simmons College in Boston for a five-year nursing course, that would yield not only a nursing degree, but also a Bachelor of Science degree to open doors for more opportunities, especially for an immigrant.”

Hannelore worried about the expense of going to Simmons and the impact it would have on her family. Her parents reminded her that the reasons they came to America were for freedom of speech and the freedom to get an education. Her father reassured her that if she got into Simmons, they would find a way to pay for it.

Social Distancing

Simmons College used to host “acquaintance dances” for their students to meet male students from other area colleges. Hannelore said guests were always from Harvard and MIT, and there were usually many more men than women at these parties. She mused that a woman must have been quite unattractive to have been overlooked at one of these events.

Hannelore was dedicated to her studies, however, and did not want a relationship to get in the way. “I wished I could have carried a big sign that said ‘I just want to be friends’” to keep suitors at bay. She met Gordon Munson through her cousin. “Gordon was my cousin’s roommate at Harvard,” she explained. “There used to be parties after all of the Harvard football games. In those days Harvard always lost. My cousin introduced me to Gordon and I remember talking for two hours with him and his roommates about the relationship between the U.S. and China. I could hold my own,” she recalled proudly.

Looking back, Hannelore believes that being friends for more than a half year before getting serious was a good indicator of how well she and Gordon would do as a married couple. After dating for two years, Gordon wanted to get married, and suggested Hannelore switch to a four-year program to get certified to teach German. She agreed, and the couple was married the summer before her senior year. 

Never intended to stay

The couple moved to Carlisle in 1963 to be closer to work. They enjoyed the town for its wooded trails and cross-country skiing, but Hannelore recalls that they never intended to settle here permanently as Gordon did not care for snow. Mrs. Bates (of Bates Farm) was their real estate agent at the time, and cape-style homes with a garage and a basement sold for about $34K. That was a large price tag for a young couple, and they opted for a home with no basement so they could afford to move into town. 

“We didn’t have any money when we started out. Sometimes we would go out for waffles and strawberries. We would take lots of walks and we went to the Symphony with rush seats for $2. We had a lot of fun but worked very hard.” 

Hannelore continued, “As an immigrant, I never felt put upon. For the first two years we lived here I didn’t have a car, but I had a baby carriage, so I would set off for walks down South Street and meet people along the road, like Nancy Koerner. She had a baby and we became an item, so I didn’t need wheels. Later I met a number of Germans like Gertrude Behn and found a real community here.” 

“My husband was my best friend, though” Hannelore said warmly. “He would come home from work at 7:30pm and sit right down in the kitchen while I was cooking, and he would read to me what he had read on the train from the New York Times. If he didn’t read it to me, we couldn’t discuss it, and I often think ‘why was I so lucky?’ We would always argue about politics because my viewpoint was different.” 

Life in Carlisle has been active and social for the Munsons. Hannelore and Gordon raised two daughters here, Christal Bjork of Concord and Renate Gundermann of Acton. Over the years they have been members of a gourmet club, a concerts group, a card group and a tennis club. Hannelore said that Gordon was an avid tennis player, but she had never learned how to play. When Gordon found young, attractive partners for some local mixed doubles tournaments, Hannelore became determined to learn to play herself. She started to squirrel away $3 per week to take lessons through the town tennis program. After a few years of lessons, she was finally ready to join Gordon on the court and they played together for many years at the Heritage Pool & Racquet Club.

Rewarding career Hannelore taught German early in her career, then years later went back to Simmons to get a Masters degree in special education. She accepted a position teaching seventh grade special education in Bedford, and said it was the most enriching work of her life. Hannelore explained that her students were bright, but had behavioral problems stemming from being pushed through the system without developing the proper skills needed to succeed. She used techniques that had worked for her personally to help her students learn to organize notes, outline, find main ideas and learn vocabulary. She also deliberately made errors to entice her students to discover the mistakes, with the promise of free ice cream or even a turn in her swivel chair as a reward. 

Managing loss Despite her positive and driven demeanor, Hannelore has suffered her share of heartbreak over the past few years. Gordon was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a debilitating disease that affects the brain areas associated with personality, behavior and language. Hannelore cared for him at their home for as long as she could, then moved him into a facility in Concord where he could get professional care. Gordon passed away in 2013. 

Hannelore also reflected briefly on her grandson, Chase Bjork, who died in January. She proudly noted that Chase was particularly interested in family history, so much so that he encouraged Hannelore to bring the entire family to Germany a few years ago to explore their family heritage. Hannelore recalled that Chase was instrumental in organizing the trip, and even helped her find less expensive airfare so the family could go during the peak summer travel season. Hannelore shared a poignant thank you note that Chase wrote to her after the trip where he was so grateful for her love and generosity. Grandmother and grandson had a deep and special connection, and Hannelore misses Chase terribly. 

Giving Back Hannelore is critically aware of how different her life would have been had she not come to America. “I would never have had the same opportunities to study if we had stayed in East Germany,” she noted. She also does not recall any particularly negative experience related to her being an immigrant. “I think I have had advantages that I wouldn’t have had if I were an American in the same circumstances. When I met immigrants who came to America in 1945, they all thought we had it so good. By 1955 things had changed. People went out of their way to be kind to me when I came here.” 

Hannelore believes in practicing random acts of kindness, and offers help when she can, whether discussing the value of education, the importance of saving, eating healthy, savoring relationships, or even how to make money in the stock market. The pandemic has made social activities difficult, but Hannelore stays connected with friends through the COA, walks in her neighborhood, reads, visits safely with her daughters and grandchildren, and enjoys summer months at her home near Lake Winnipesaukee. 

In bringing our talk to an end, Hannelore mentioned that her father used to tell her, “It’s always okay to fail, but it’s never okay not to try.” She cherishes that advice and tries each day to give back to the country that has given so much to her.

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