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Lilli

Lilli Lill

Lilli Lill, née Bister, was born in Neu Oderberg in Oberschlesien (Upper Silesia) on April 22, 1928. Today it’s known as Nový Bohumín in the Czech Republic. She’d sigh when someone asked “where are you from?” when they detected an accent. The easy answer was Germany but it wasn’t correct, not really. Answers are often not satisfyingly simple or straightforward, as she knew too well. She was a product of the Austro- Hungarian empire, she’d say, a result of shifting borders and complex geopolitical histories. This area has at some point been part of Moravia, Bohemia, Poland, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg monarchy, Prussia, and Germany. She enjoyed explaining the long version of the answer if anyone had the interest. She was a wonderful explainer.

And so she started writing her memoirs because we had so many questions. After a wonderful childhood growing up in Prague, she and her parents fled the Soviet Red Army and Czechs in May 1945 at the end of World War II. She was 17. Unlike many of her friends who were killed, tortured or sent to Soviet labor camps, she and her parents managed to flee to safety to the west with millions of other refugees. Ultimately, she and her mother settled in the picturesque Bavarian town of Parsberg, taken in by a family of farmers. Like so many, they were happy to have a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs: “Damals war jede Kalorie ein Geschenk Gottes.” (Back then every calorie was a gift from God.)

In exchange for room and board, Lilli helped with a variety of chores on that Bauernhof (farm) including digging potatoes and herding cows to pasture (she was very proud of that) until the day the mayor of their small town called her to his office. Because she could speak English, he had
recommended her for a job with the U.S. Military Government a mile down the road in Miesbach. Fortunately, Lilli’s prescient mother had insisted Lilli take English lessons as a girl rather than French, which was much more common and fashionable. Her first English words proudly uttered were “Milk is good,” though she never liked milk.

In writing of that time, she says “Nun kommen wir zum allerwichtigsten. In jenen Tagen lernte ich Joe Lill, meinen zukünftigen Ehemann kennen!!” (Now we come to the most important thing. In those days I met Joe Lill, my future husband!!) Love at first sight, in her words. But we’re pretty sure Joe laid eyes on her first. Though they worked in the same building, the Americans and Germans ate on separate sides of the cafeteria which is where Joe first saw her beautiful blond hair (she always had her back to the Americans). He worked up the courage and asked if he could drive her home from work and the rest, as they say, is history.

And thus a romance for the ages began. Joe wrote to his parents: “She is probably smarter than I am, tends to be rather quiet among strangers, but is certainly no wallflower. We have been perfectly at ease and happy together since the first few days we were acquainted, and each day with her has been more wonderful for me. Although I’m more than six years older than she, we don’t notice the difference at all. She is not the silly type, and we both have the same opinions about the important things in life.” They shared their lives for nearly 70 years. Wasn’t it a splendid coincidence that Lilli should marry Mr. Lill?

However, it was another two years before they could marry because of a marriage ban, Americans were not allowed to marry Germans for two years after the end of the war. Finally in July 1947 they wed and soon after set sail for the United States. Joe wrote in a letter “Lilli’s parting with her parents was a very sad one, and I felt especially sorry for Lilli’s mother, who lost by far her greatest treasure in life.”

Coming to the U.S. from war-ravaged Europe was a shock for Lilli: the wide open spaces, the sheer quantity of food, so much was new and strange to her. But Joe’s large family warmly embraced her. Lilli and Joe made their first home in student housing in Sunflower while Joe attended the University of Kansas. Joe says they were “living on a shoestring” but happy to be building their life together. They spent a few years in Kansas while Joe earned his law degree and in 1950 Lilli became an American citizen by answering the question “in the order of presidential succession who comes after the Vice President?” correctly (Speaker of the House).

But a life beyond Kansas beckoned so Joe applied to the Foreign Service and was admitted in 1953. Several postings and children followed: Ava was born in Rome in 1956, Peter in Jerusalem (on the Jordanian side of the divided city) in 1959 and Susi in the U.S. during an assignment stateside in Washington, D.C. in 1968. These were bracketed by postings in Palermo, Baghdad, Beirut and Vienna.

Though Lilli often said she didn’t enjoy the endless social obligations of diplomacy, she was an absolute natural at it. She engaged and charmed others easily. It didn’t hurt that she was beautiful and elegant (and until the very end always, always wore a dress, never pants.) Lilli asked questions and she listened. She was endlessly curious about other people and their backgrounds. If she heard an accent, she always asked “may I ask where are you from?” She engaged everyone in conversation: her doctors, the taxi driver, the person at the cash register, the lab tech who drew her blood. All were interesting to her and deserving of respect. Treat others with kindness she always said because “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft so schallt es heraus.” (How you treat others, is how you will be treated.)

Lilli had a deep interest in history and cultures and was perfectly suited to a life in the Foreign Service. She was truly Joe’s companion and equal. She had a natural talent for languages, her pronunciation was spot on in Italian and French. She sprinkled her speech with words from other languages, particularly Arabic, because they simply fit what she was trying to express: Alhamdulillah, inshallah, khalas, Yalla imshi!, shway shway, potschke, molto carina, the list goes on. She knew each language had some way of expressing a thought that couldn’t quite be captured in another. In the end, it’s all about communication and because of that she was herself the ideal diplomat.

She never gave herself credit for her intellect and said she never enjoyed school but she read avidly, fiction and non-fiction alike. Geography and maps fascinated her. On a more practical level and luckily for Joe, she had an innate sense of direction and excellent map skills. She never learned to drive but was an excellent navigator.

Lilli entertained friends and family seemingly without effort. Her dinners and cakes, especially, were the stuff of legend: the lemon cake, the blueberry cake, the Christmas cookies that took her weeks to prepare. A masterful cook, Lilli found no joy in cooking. She said she only did it because she loved her family, lucky for us! She did find joy in eating with and gathering around the table of her ever-expanding family, though she disliked jello, watermelon and carrots. She loved a fine piece of fish and a full glass of wine. She could describe in minute detail the wonderful old world meals her grandmother made for Easter and Christmas.

Lilli enjoyed sewing and created beautiful clothes, costumes and anything else that was needed for almost any occasion including a wedding dress. She knitted luxurious sweaters. In all these things she was a perfectionist and self-taught. She liked her home organized and clean, everything in its place. She called it “law and order.”

While she complained about new technology, she was glued to her iPhone. She eagerly scrolled through the family group chat viewing and re-viewing photos and videos of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She perfected the use of the grandma, clapping hands and heart emojis, usually followed with many exclamation points for good measure. Staying in touch with old friends and dear relatives was important and she made a point of reaching out regularly. While she didn’t need to be entertained or surrounded by people, she did treasure those connections. Because of that Lilli was the first to be entrusted with secrets (someone was getting married, someone else was pregnant). However, Lilli was the first to divulge the ending of a movie or show to our eternal frustration.

Self-deprecating to a fault she was quick to complement and encourage others. With a dry, quick wit, and often times feisty and cheeky, she said her mind but didn’t want to make too many waves. Though she did exclaim “so there!” when making her opinion known. A feminist at heart, when a woman persevered she’d exclaim “and they think women are the weaker sex, HA!” She questioned certain traditions or conventions while looking askance at much of modern life: “I don’t understand anything anymore” commenting on a world gone inexplicably crazy and off-kilter. Who can blame her.

She had a wonderful warm laugh. She rarely cried, but not for not being sad. As most discover, one’s parents are much more complex than imagined. She spent her life taking care of us and worrying just about everything. After her death, we discovered reading her journals how long she had battled depression and anxiety, never formally diagnosed or treated. And we had no idea of its depth and duration. On some level we knew but we didn’t truly understand.

Despite that, she was the calm in our storms, she never shouted and was always patient. Her children were the beneficiaries of a love that was unobtrusive, undemanding and complete. She spoiled us, she was always helpful, forgiving and encouraging. In her mind, we, her children, were the best no matter what we did, and no one else will ever believe in us as deeply as she did. She was always our number one fan and no love was spared. One year in her December 31 entry of her journal she wrote: “Es geht uns gut eigendlich, vor allem im Vergleich zu so vielen anderen, ist es recht gut gegangen. Ava, Peter und Susi haben uns noch lieb, das ist für uns die Hauptsache.” (It’s actually gone well for us, especially compared with so many others. Ava, Peter and Susi still love us, that’s the main thing for us.) We will always, always love you Mama and the world is not the same without you.

Lilli died at her home in Arlington, Virginia on June 3, 2022. She is survived by her children Ava Dahlstrom, Peter Lill and Susi Lill. She was preceded in death by her husband of 69 years, Joe Lill, in 2016.

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