Chicago-area woman recounts childhood of terror under Stalin, Hitler; Book Optioned for Film

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As world remembers 60th anniversary of end of WW II, one former East German woman, now living near Chicago, recounts growing up with Nazi propaganda, the terror of the Russian invasion of her village, and life under the Iron Curtain -- including her solo escape at age 16 to West Germany. The book has been optioned for film by a Hollywood producer.

May 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of WW II, with many news stories focusing on Holocaust victims liberated with the defeat of the Nazis.

But the end of the war also was the start of a new period of terror and enslavement for millions of people who lived in Eastern Europe, whose countries were handed over to Stalin, and then placed under Communist rule.

Sixty years ago, in May 1945, one such East German was Tilli Horn -- an 11-year-old farm girl, living in a remote northeastern village. When Russian soldiers took over her village, they looted and raped and terrorized for months as part of Stalin-sanctioned retribution against the defeated Germans. Tilli and twelve other young girls from her village hid from the Russian soldiers for five months in a windowless, secret attic crawlspace; ultimately, Tilli was raped by three Russian soldiers. Five years later, after her refusal to join the Communist Youth Party led to her being threatened with a re-education camp, Tilli fled by herself in the bottom of a potato wagon to freedom in West Germany. She emigrated to the United States two years later and settled in the Belvidere, Illinois, area, about an hour northwest of Chicago.

Tilli's saga of life under two brutal dictatorships, and her quest for freedom in America, has been told in "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free," released last summer. Since the book's publication, the authors (Tilli and freelance journalist Lorna Collier) have become sought-after speakers in the northern Illinois area, giving presentations about the book to schools, libraries, book clubs and civic groups, among others.

The authors also have signed a film option with Hollywood producer Kathryn Lekan, associate producer of HBO's Deadwood series.

"I believe 'Tilli's Story' will make a great dramatic film for its unique perspective as Tilli, a young German farm girl, demands and ultimately achieves her life to be lived in freedom," says Lekan, calling the book a "strong, visual story."

The book was excerpted in the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, a Gannett daily, beginning July 4, 2004 and continuing through the summer.

"'Tilli's Story' is a compelling tale of the other side of the German people during World War II, and it's written simply, directly and without hyperbole,” says Gale Baldwin, former managing editor of the Register Star, now the assistant managing editor at the Fort Myers News-Press.

Book clubs around the country - from Tennessee to Florida, Connecticut to Arizona - have been discovering the book, primarily through word-of-mouth. One such club is in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, which took on the book after a relative of one of the members read it and encouraged the group to order copies.

"Our book club absolutely loved the book," says Nancy Paulson. "it is very rare that we all like the monthly selection. We rate our books every month on a 1 to 5 scale. We have never had a book get the best rating overall until now."

Adds Paulson: "We all agreed that most of the books on this subject were from the Holocaust survivor point of view, not a German as Tilli was."

Tilli Horn Schulze does not in any way wish to downplay the suffering of Jews or other persecuted groups under Hitler. She did not support Hitler; nor did her family -- though they were forced to be part of Nazi groups. Her family, as did many others in her tiny rural village, did what they had to do to survive. Tilli's mother, for example, joined the Nazi Women's Party to spare her deaf son from sterilization.

Whenever she felt pressured and unhappy over her lack of freedom to speak and act as she wished, TIlli's mother would hum a song, an old German folk song banned by the Nazis: "My Thoughts Are Free" ("Die Gedanken Sind Frei"). Tilli chose this song as the title for her book. Throughout her childhood, she dreamed of life in America, finally achieving that dream at age 18, when she sailed by herself to the United States.

"Tilli's Story" would be a terrific feature as part of 60th anniversary packages, telling the little-told story of what happened to Eastern Europeans - or at least to one innocent little girl.

To find out more about "Tilli's Story," visit http://www.mythoughtsarefree.com. Interviews with Tilli can be arranged by calling Lorna Collier, 815-985-4774, or by emailing lorna at [email protected]

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Lorna Collier