Ursula Hertel was 15 years old when WWII broke up. Today, at nearly 98, she shares her stories and thoughts on how remaining flexible is essential to a fulfilling and happy life, no matter the adversities.

Ursula Hertel was 15 years old when WWII broke up. Today, at nearly 98, she shares her stories and thoughts on how remaining flexible is essential to a fulfilling and happy life, no matter the adversities.

When planning for our March Women's Month Campaign back a few months ago, the world was a different place. We were slowly and finally seeing the light at the end of Covid. The days were getting brighter, and we were all but hopeful and excited to think of a more normal life, once again. We wanted to feature the great women in our lives and talk about how women have such a great and positive impact in the world we live in today. We planned to feature Ursula in our monthly branamama interviews series, because she grew into her womanhood during the Second World War and overcame many obstacles to become who she is today, all while raising a balanced family. 

Our campaign never happened. Our eyes and hearts traveled elsewhere and our efforts were needed there, by the millions that were trying to survive and escape their homes into safety in Ukraine. Especially the women. Especially the mothers. 

Today, we finally published our interview with Ursula. We feel it is important to share her story of hope, strength and light in times like now. We hope her story can inspire and give strength to women everywhere. We are a force of life! 

At the bottom of this interview you will find a link where you can find out more about Be An Angel Foundation, an initiative of people from the media, culture and marketing who work together with their network for the sustainable integration of people with a history of flight. They are currently actively working on extracting people (mostly women and children) from danger zones within Ukraine. 

Hi dear Ursel, we are very excited to have you for our branamama series as probably the most experienced woman we have ever interviewed. You are a teacher, mother of two, a grandmother of three and the great grandmother of my own daughter. And you are turning 98 this year. We would love to know - what are you up to these days? 

The last few days have been wonderfully sunny here in southern Germany, so I could spend almost the whole day reading in my deck chair and enjoying the first days of spring. My supervisor also accompanies me when I go for a half-hour walk with my walker every day. But of course the current events have gotten me very disturbed, despite all the apparent lightness. The war in Ukraine and the situation of the people shook me badly. As a 15-year-old girl, I experienced first-hand how Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and started the war. In the last few days, many memories have come back to me of the shock and deprivation that the twelve years of war brought us back then. I deeply feel for everyone in Ukraine.

What was it like to grow up during WWII and what were the expectations for young girls at that time? 

I was born in the village of Maltsch in Lower Silesia, in present-day Poland, as one of four children. I attended the village school there for four years and later high school in a boarding school run by evangelical deaconesses, where I also graduated from high school. 

I was very privileged and was one of the 1% of girls who could attend secondary school at the time, because elementary school was usually over after eight years and girls became, for example, unskilled workers in a factory or worked in the household of wealthy families. The idea was that they would learn something there for their own household, which they should later run. There was no apprenticeship or specialist training back then.

When Hitler started the war, I was fifteen years old and had just been asked to dance by a young man at a ball, under the supervision of my parents, when the news reached us. We were shocked by the declaration of war, I was a 15 year old teenage girl and at that point I was full of plans and goals and of course had very different things on my mind.

My big dream was to study chemistry like my grandfather and father before me. But nothing came of it because of the war.

There have been many global moments of stress ever since. In times like that, how do you stay motivated and inspired on a daily basis? 

Through the Nazi era, the war and the expulsion of my family from Silesia, I had to learn very early on that the best way to solve problems is to keep a cool head, approach things calmly and remain flexible.

After the end of the war in 1945, extreme poverty prevailed and everyone tried to gain a foothold through energy, diligence and reorientation. I too had to reorient myself and let go of my great desire to become a chemist. So I trained to be a teacher instead. Of course it wasn't easy for me (to let go and readjust) but I was happy that I had a goal again.

You decided to become a teacher, but stopped working after you had your first child. In retrospect, what are your feelings about having made that decision? 

I worked as a teacher for ten years. But back then, pregnant teachers had to leave school after the 5th month so that the students couldn’t see their pregnant belly. Shortly after the births I went back to school and my two daughters were looked after by a woman who was very fond of children for more than three years.

For many years my earnings were higher than my husband's. But when he eventually overtook me with his salary, we decided together that I would stop working and devote myself to raising our children. I remember the time with my daughters as very fulfilling. I've always been very fond of children (that's perhaps why the teaching position came so naturally to me, as a chemist I wouldn't have had this kind of contact with people).

To see and really experience the development of my own children was great for me. We made games and trips that we invited neighborhood kids to. There was always something going on with us.

But even during all the years at home, I had kept in close contact with my former students. During the holidays I went to the mountains with them, and later my husband and I were invited to class reunions.

In retrospect, both sections - the school and raising children at home - among many other things, were the best, most successful and happiest times of my long life.

You first became a mother in the 50s. Back then, gender roles were precisely defined by society. Do you remember what truth surprised you the most about motherhood when you then became a mother yourself? 

I was a happy mother without prejudice and have always remained a woman. And I never felt restricted in my marriage.

Later on, you proceeded to use your skills to help and teach children from the neighborhood, as you mentioned earlier. You have since remained very engaged with the world around you, actively social, and overall, curious - all known to play a big role in healthy living and aging well. Would you say this spirit comes to you naturally or do you consciously make the decision to have this mindset? 

In times of need and problem situations, I discovered and developed my abilities to help other people, to bring them together, to give them a love of adventure and to share my enthusiasm with them.

Even when I was fleeing during the war - we were on the road in a horse-drawn carriage for six weeks - as a young girl I was something of a guiding figure for my family. Whenever we passed through an unfamiliar village, I found the respective mayor and asked for lodging for the night and for the horses. I got my ten-year-old sister, who was staying with a family friend in Dresden, alone by hitchhiking and taking the train, three days before the big attack, by the way.

As already described, our house was later always open to other children and families and I still enjoy bringing people together and sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with them.

I am particularly interested in the fate of women, I have lectured on many of them, be it Bertha von Suttner, Frida Kahlo or Empress Sissi, whom many only know as the sweet Empress, although in reality she led a completely different life and wrote over 600 poems.

As far as the topic of aging is concerned, I follow Dieter Hildebrandt's motto "you can't put off aging until tomorrow, because then you'll get even older. That's why you should start aging early so that you can enjoy it, despite the onset of age-related problems."

What changes for the better do you see for women and mothers today and what do we still need to overcome?

A great achievement is certainly that many women are much more self-sufficient and independent of their partners compared to my generation, where it is taken for granted that many women work.

Yet we are far from equal. It would be desirable if at some point both could develop equally and both get involved in family life on an equal footing.

Is there any ritual you practice on a regular basis that keeps you grounded? 

Read, read, read and listen to Deutschlandfunk (laughs). I only have limited mobility and therefore spend a lot of time at home. My daughters provide me with current literature and in the evenings I often call one of them and we talk about it or discuss current topics. That gives me a lot and inspires me.

When you look back on your life, what are the events or moments you are most proud of?

My parents managed to give me a happy childhood and I am incredibly grateful for that, because it certainly created the basis and gave me the strength and power to tackle and overcome difficult problems with composure. Looking back, I am very proud that I was able to create a harmonious life for my own family and I am very proud of the development of my two daughters and three grandchildren.



There are many ways we can help during this crisis and even the smallest of contributions can have a big impact. 

Be an Angel is an NGO taking care of the refugees from Ukraine, 90 percent of whom are women and children. Be an Angel is appealing for donations to support the refugees with measures:

  • Shuttle in Ukraine for the refugees in Germany
  • Supply of hospitals in Odessa, Kiev and Lviv with medicines
  • Accommodation and network in other federal states

Click Here to Donate