Former Berliner Recalls Wall, war

Nowatzki, Mike. "Former Berliner Recalls Wall, war." Forum, 9 November 2004, 1.

As a young woman, Gisela Schilling Keller of Fargo fled, with a group of Germans, from Russian troops to East Germany, where she experienced the start of the cold war.

Gisela Schilling Keller can still remember the outline of the Russian soldier riding toward her on his bicycle as she hid in the bushes.

It was a Saturday night in 1945, and she was trying to sneak into West Germany to visit her husband, Udo, being held as an American prisoner of war after World War II.

The Russian soldier arrested Keller and ordered her to Osterwieck, East Germany, where the Russians had turned a home into a makeshift jail. There, she spent three days with only water to drink. Prisoners had to walk in groups at gunpoint to the outhouses, she said.

Now retired and living in Fargo, Keller, 85, recalls making the two- to three-hour trip through Russian-occupied Germany 16 times.

"I was 25 years old, not an old lady like I am now, so I could handle it," she said.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the beginning of the end of communist East Germany.

Keller, a native Berliner, has visited the city every year for the past 25 years. This is the first year she won't make the trip, after suffering a stroke a year ago.

Between the end of World War II and her immigration to the United States in 1955, she experienced the start of the Cold War, which eventually led to the Berlin Wall dividing her hometown in 1961.

Udo and Gisela Keller were married April 26, 1941, in Berlin, but soon left the city to escape the Allied Forces' air raids. They moved to his country estate in the Warthegau region of German-occupied Poland.

Udo Keller was drafted into the German army in 1943. His wife stayed behind.

In the winter of 1945, with Russian tanks approaching from the east, Gisela Keller and her neighbors fled west with a caravan of 73 covered wagons in temperatures of 20 degrees below zero from Kalisch, Poland, to Querfurt, East Germany. The trek took four weeks.

"It was a strange time," she said. "You were in your own country, and you had to flee from one side to another."

The wagons' occupants were mostly Germans who were resettling to Germany from the Bessarabian and Black Sea regions of Russia. People from those same areas were among those who decided to immigrate to the North Dakota prairies in the 1880s and 1890s, said Michael M. Miller, bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University.

The Kellers and their two children were reunited in 1947 after Udo's release. They moved to Frazee, Minn., in June 1955 and to Fargo in January 1956.

They continued to visit her mother and other relatives in Berlin every year and witnessed the wall's effects on families.

"It was tough," she said. "People wanted to visit people on the other side because, before, it was all one."

Both Udo and Gisela worked at NDSU, he as a potato researcher and she in the NDSU Varsity Mart. She retired in 1994 at age 75.

Udo Keller died in 1999. Gisela Keller said she has few relatives left in Germany.

Looking back, she said living through the birth of communist East Germany only made her stronger.

"I liked the danger in it," she said.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller