Ilse Dering was born September 18, 1934, in Riga, Latvia—a little known country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is little known to us because it was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, only regaining its independence more than fifty years later.
She was the youngest of seven children of Julius and Ana Dering. Three of their older children died in infancy from an epidemic of smallpox that swept through the Caucasus—a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea–where the family had fled in order to escape severe famine in their homeland. Ilse loved to tell me touching stories about little Ralph, Herbert and Irene, whom she had never known, but whom she longed to meet on the great resurrection morning. Her favorite was the story about little three-year-old Ralph, who lay dying in the hospital. He had asked his Daddy for a little stuffed toy animal, but then learned that Daddy was not able to bring him one—either he couldn’t find any or he just couldn’t afford to buy one. When Ilse would get to the heart of the story, which was little Ralph’s guileless reply, “Don’t worry, Pappi, I will play with the lions on the new earth!” you just couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. Before leaving the Caucasus to return to Riga, her Dad had painted a picture of their three little graves, but during the family’s many moves it had somehow gotten lost. Recalling that sad fact brought tears to her eyes, but she always ended her reminiscing on a positive note: Jesus is coming again soon, and she will be united with all of them!
Yes, as she grew older, Ilse would tell me stories and experiences from her childhood, but some of what I know about Ilse’s early life I learned from Margie Holmstroem Seely’s book, Marie, that has been described as a true epic of God’s providence in the life and times of her Grandmother Marie Holmstroem—a woman of beauty, a mother of courage. In the biography, she also writes about the various families and individuals whose lives were blessed by their friendship with the Holmstroems, among whom members of the Dering family feature prominently. Margie writes that Julius and Ana Dering, Ilse’s parents, were hospitable, kind, and extremely talented and they always made August (Marie’s husband and Margie’s grandfather), feel comfortable.
Ilse was blessed with a rich heritage of faith. Her family experienced trials of fear, war and poverty but they remained true to their God. To escape Soviet invasion, the Derings—Ilse’s parents, brother Kurt and his wife Ruth, sister Kaethe and little Ilse–left Latvia in the spring of 1941, when Ilse was only six years old, for Germany. They stayed in a refugee camp near Leipzig. Because father Julius read his Bible daily and shared his faith with others, he and his son Kurt were arrested and taken to the Leipzig prison. Mother Ana, Ruth, and little Ilse visited the SS office to ask for Julius’ and Kurt’s release. “When will they come out?” Ana asked the officer. “They’re not criminals. They’ve committed no crime. When will you release them?” Irritated, the officer stepped out from behind his desk, strode over to the women, and shoved them roughly outside. “NEVER!” he bellowed as he violently slammed the door behind the women. But God worked a truly amazing miracle, one similar to the story of the imprisoned apostles Paul and Silas, the earthquake and the jailer, and their release.
Father Julius was then sent to Leipzig to work as a lithographer, while Kurt was transferred seventy miles away to make wooden boxes in Dresden. In February 1945, Dresden was the target of Allied bombing. In four separate attacks spread out across three days, over 1200 Allied planes dropped more than 3900 tons of explosives, killing approximately 24,000 people. Kurt, Ilse’s older brother, decided this was a good time to escape. He found an abandoned bicycle and pedaled the seventy miles to Leipzig. Unbeknownst to him, Leipzig had also been bombed the previous year. In the early morning hours of February 20, 1944, 700 Allied bombers had dropped 2300 tons of bombs on the residential and industrial areas of Leipzig. When Kurt finally arrived in Leipzig, the devastation he found was indescribable. He was sure his family had perished. But when he arrived at the place where his family had lived, to his surprise, there, amidst the flattened ruins of Leipzig, stood an untouched row of houses. He rushed to the doorway and pounded breathlessly. When the door opened, he could hardly believe his eyes. Every single member of his family—including 9-year-old Ilse—was safe! I remember Ilse telling me how terribly frightened she was when the air sirens would sound and they all had to run to the shelter! She could not stop trembling the whole time. And she didn’t want to eat what little food they could find—she missed too much the special sweet-and-sour bread they had in Latvia!
Sadly, because of the starvation and brutality endured by him while in prison, Ilse’s father’s health deteriorated, and he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947. Ilse told me that he had left the house and was on his way to buy fresh milk for her when he fell, face down, on the street! She was thirteen at the time. Every time we’ve traveled to Germany, Henry and I, and last time Wesley also, visit his grave in the old cemetery in Kirchberg. Even though he was only a few months old when his Grandfather Julius died, Henry still cries as he reads the inscription on the tombstone: “Hier Ruht in Gott. . . ” (“Here rests in God . . . “)
In her room in our home, Ilse was surrounded by her beloved father’s paintings and would point out to me places she remembered from her childhood—Riga and the River Daugau, Bad Mergentheim, where baby Henry, her brother Kurt’s son, was born in January 1947 at the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) refugee camp, Kirchberg, and various forest scenes and landscapes. However, her most precious painting was that of her Mommy, as she called her, that was done by her beautiful and gifted older sister Kaethe.
When the war was over, the Dering family wanted to immigrate to America but they needed sponsors. Their old friend Marie Holmstroem—the protagonist of the book mentioned earlier–found sponsors for them and was also able to help with the necessary costs. Their friendship, which began before the Nazi and Soviet upheaval of World War II in the Baltic countries, has continued among their descendants for decades, and now reaches across two centuries and two continents. While crossing the Atlantic in March 1952, a fierce storm broke out and their ship took on water. It arrived limping into Brooklyn’s harbor.
The Derings settled in New York. Ilse grew up, went to school, was a hard worker and talented designer, and eventually became a partner with Ed and Adele Slutsky on W. 36th Street in the Garment District of Manhattan. In 1976 she lost her much loved, devoted mother Ana. One of the sweetest things I had ever heard Ilse tell me is that her Mommy loved me, and that she told me repeatedly the last several months. She built a beautiful home in Boca Raton, Florida, where she moved in her golden years. For many years she enjoyed the closeness of her family—her brother Kurt and his wife Ruth had also retired in Boca Raton. Her sister Kaethe and husband Bruno and their three children Perry, Sidney and Debby also moved to Florida and lived nearby. She loved them all. She was a caring sister and a loving and generous aunt. Only her nephew Henry and his family lived far away—in California. In the end, we were the closest, because she lived with us, in our home! She grew to enjoy living with our family and all the attention and care she got from us, our son Wesley, his wife Jelena, and our two lovely granddaughters, Angela and Katarina. As you can see in the Youtube video, when she could no longer walk, Wesley and Jelena literally carried her down to the car for her doctor’s appointment. (https://youtu.be/NcwQSfAt2EI ). God’s ways are ways of mercy and the end is salvation.
Ilse’s father, brother, and sister were very gifted artists. Even now our walls are graced by Grandfather Julius’ watercolor paintings and Aunt Kaethe’s pastel drawings and oil paintings. Ilse inherited a great sense of style and eye for design. In the waning months of her life, I tried to encourage and inspire Ilse by reading and talking to her about the future inheritance of earth’s saved pilgrims. I appealed to that aptitude of hers by painting for her word pictures of the mansions Christ has prepared, the ever-flowing streams, clear as crystal, the widespreading plains swelling into hills of beauty, the harmonious social life with the blessed angels and with the faithful ones of all ages, the occupations and pleasures that brought happiness to Adam and Eve in the beginning, the life in garden and field. She loved these verses from the Messianic prophet Isaiah: “They shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of My people, and Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” (Isaiah 65:21–22) And because she loved animals, we would talk about how “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” And how “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6, 7, 9) She would often squeal with delight and grab my hand and ask if I will be with her and stammer, “I, I, I… love you!”
Through beautiful imagery, I tried to make the attractions of heaven familiar to her thoughts, so that her memory’s hall would be hung with pictures of celestial and eternal loveliness. Once I asked her, “Why do you love me?” She pointed up and said, “Because you love the Lord.”