By Experimenter David A. Murdoch, Esq.
David was an Experimenter to Germany in 1961 and is Chair Emeritus of the World Learning Board of Trustees. Last month his Experiment host mother, Evi Gilles, passed away at the age of 92. In the tribute below, David describes the profound relationships he established with her and five generations of her family.
Like Professor Fritz Stern, Evi Gilles knew five Germanys in her lifetime.[i] Born into the Weimar Republic in 1920, she later experienced the Third Reich, postwar West and East Germany and her country united again in 1990.
When I first met her in the summer of 1961, Evi Gilles and her husband, Werner Gilles, the Cultural Editor of the Mannheimer Morgen, lived in Mannheim Feudenheim. They were the parents of four children: Michael Obladen, her 17-year-old son by her first marriage to Dr. Obladen (killed in the war), and Christiane, Stephan, and Werner Gilles. When she died this January 2013, she had been widowed twice, but she lived life vigorously and to the fullest as the mother of four children, the grandmother of twelve grandchildren, and the great-grandmother of eight great-grandchildren.
For over fifty years, it has been my great joy to know Evi and her family as if they were my own family. Not only did I learn about the five Germanys of Fritz Stern and Evi Gilles, but I also heard stories through her parents, August and Elisabeth Knodt from Würzburg, about the Kaiser times and the First World War. Thus I have known five generations of Evi’s family. They gave me, experientially, a real sense of the sweep of German history, culture, and evolution.
More important than history, however, Evi Gilles taught me many lessons of intercultural competence, international understanding, and what it means to walk in the shoes of another person. She confronted Germany’s past forthrightly and questioned America’s future with concern and wisdom. She understood the excesses of patriotism and nationalism and still appreciated America’s fight for freedom and human dignity. Having learned from her father how to confront and cope with Nazi indoctrination during the time of the Third Reich, she understood the significance of truth and why one should not ignore the truth or live “like a horse with blinders.”
In daily matters, Evi taught me invaluable personal lessons. Each day we would have coffee and cake (Erdbeeren, Kirschkuchen, Apfelkuchen, usw.) at mid-afternoon and talk about the events of the day, both large and small. I treasure those times even today and welcome the chance to share with others, both Americans and people from other countries, our differing perspectives on the world. I learned to be more open-minded, analytical, and less judgmental. Empathy became as consequential to my relationships with others as friendship.
German distinctions between friends and acquaintances and between those with whom one uses Du rather than Sie created a much deeper appreciation for friendship than the American use of first names as a sign of “being friends,” however shallow. Evi and Werner Gilles opened my eyes to culture and its role in society with my first opera in Mannheim. Evi also encouraged me to visit Prague in January 1971 after I completed my service in the US Army in Kaiserslautern. She knew how to make me understand the true meaning of freedom by seeing where and why it did not exist.
We had good times together that have left poignant memories: at Evi’s 75th birthday we performed a family play about “Die Eiche”; Evi traveled to America, including Connecticut, New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago; she hosted my wife Joan and me in Mannheim and Würzburg in 1990, as we traveled the Romantic Road together; she hosted my daughter Christina and me at Christina’s first opera in Mannheim in 1991; and we frequently visited each other in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.
Life-long friends and family are to be loved and treasured. Evi exemplified her gifts of love, hospitality, friendship, and talent perfectly. Those of us who were blessed with her warmth, hospitality, empathy, and abiding friendship are far better because of the life-lessons we learned from her and our relationship with her. The US Experiment in International Living and experiment e. V. will have to search long and hard to find a model host mother like Evi Gilles.
I will miss her.
David is a member of the Kuratorium (Advisory Board), Experiment e. V. in Bonn; the Honorary Consul for the Federal Republic of Germany in Pittsburgh; and a recipient of the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany). This tribute to Evi Gilles was published earlier this month in the Experiment e.V. newsletter, Watt’s Up. It is reprinted by permission of Experiment e.V. in Bonn, Germany.
[i] Stern, Fritz, Five Germanys I Have Known, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006.