CROOKSTON, Minn. – Annelee Woodstrom had told the story many times before.
In 1935, she first became aware of Adolf Hitler as a 9-year-old in Germany and wanted “nothing more” than to become part of his student youth league.
But that changed as World War II unfolded, forcing her to separate from her family as a teen, fear for her life in a bomb shelter and eventually traveling 90 miles on foot to return home.
She said she found peace through her marriage to Kenny Woodstrom, a Minnesota soldier among the “Monuments Men” documented in a movie in 2014. Soldiers recovered hundreds of sculptures, 100 tons of gold bullion and other treasure Hitler’s army had tucked away in salt mines.
Annelee Woodstrom, 89, told her story to dozens of high school students in Crookston Thursday, one stop among several she’s making before a presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum next month in Minneapolis.
Asked to speak as part of an education event for school, she painted a picture of a life that few could easily imagine.
“When total war engulfs your country, as a citizen, you have no rights,” she said.
Standing at just below 5 feet tall and speaking with a thick German accent, Woodstrom provided students with a history lesson, memoir and survivor tale.
Germany’s hyperinflation in the early 1920s led to “unlivable conditions” that weakened public morale and set a convenient stage for Hitler to gain power, she said.
People couldn’t afford basic food items for their families and starved, she said.
Hitler asked the public to give him four years to provide employment, good food and good schools, and people asked, “What do we have to lose?” she said.
In this fashion, Woodstrom continued to give a year-by-year account of the war through her own eyes. Born in 1926, she was raised in Mitterteich by parents who were staunchly against the Nazi Party and didn’t allow her to join or attend schools run by administrators who supported Hitler, she said.
By age 16, she’d left her family to work in Regensburg, where “instead of having fun, I worked day and night shifts, 60 hours a week.” She made a harrowing escape in 1945 back home, traveling 90 miles on foot and fearing for her life, she said.
Over the years, she’d see her share of horror – the carnage left after bombings, homeless children struggling to survive in the streets and the survivors of a concentration camp 20 miles from her hometown.
What’s surprising to many is that she learned about the Holocaust only by seeing the survivors, as no reports of what happened in the camps were reported publicly, she said.
“I will never forget the skeleton-like men,” she said.
Woodstrom met her husband after the war and moved to the U.S., she said.
“I was 20 years old and had not known peace and serenity since I was in seventh grade, waiting for my 13th birthday,” she said.
Barely able to speak English, she began her new life with her husband in Minnesota, where they raised two children. Woodstrom later attended college at Minnesota State University in Moorhead and fulfilled her lifelong dream of teaching English and other subjects, many of those years in Twin Valley, Minn., she said.
But reminders of the war persisted. One day at the school, a teacher told her that while she was hiding in a bomb shelter in Regensburg, he was in a fighter plane with the bombers, she said.
Whoever thought that someday, they’d be teaching in the same school and eating in the same room, he asked her.
He wasn’t the only one – she’d met another bomber from the war and they became friends, she said.
“That was the war, and it is over now,” she told him. “Now I hope that our children will never again (live) the way we had to.”
Despite telling the story maybe 60 times in the past five years, Woodstrom spoke with emotion as if it were the first time.
“I hope the hills and valleys that I experienced made me a better person,” she said.