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Et cetera :: 'Honorary Citizen:' Inge Schminke's unique life earns a special Austrian honor
· 9:12pm November 6th, 2013
Never start a story with a quotation, say the journalism professors. And never refer to yourself in a news story.
But those professors have never meet Inge Schminke. Stories like hers defy the rules.
The rural Shellsburg woman – now in her 75th year – was born the year Hitler’s war came to her beloved Austria. She later fled that country because its Soviet “liberators” quickly became oppressors. She later fled in stealth, with her family, as a refugee to Canada, before her unique journey ultimately brought her to rural Shellsburg. (The family chose Canada because an uncle who had been forced to serve in the Axis army had been captured by Allied forces and spent time there as a prisoner of war.)
I first heard of Inge 20 or so years ago, while working at the Independence Bulletin-Journal. A colleague had gone to a women’s organization meeting and returned with an excited story.
“I just met this woman from Austria who survived the World War II, and has an incredible story,” said my colleague. “Her name is Inge Schminke.”
I always remembered that name, but had never met Inge.
Until last week.
This story actually began a few months ago, at a Vinton-Shellsburg baseball game.
I was talking to a baseball mom between innings, discussing people we knew. “Hey,” I asked, “Do you know Inge Schminke?”
“Yeah,” was the reply. “She’s my mom.”
That conversation led to the opportunity to see – first on Facebook – a very special honor that Inge received from a city in Austria last month.
When I saw that photo on Heidi Schminke’s Facebook page, I knew that soon it would be my turn to meet Inge. Heidi and a few others had accompanied Inge to Austria – it was Inga’s 94th trip to her homeland.
Sometime in the past few years – although nobody has really been counting – Inge passed the million-mile mark. The 10,000-mile round trip between Iowa and Vienna, Austria (along with countless more miles on busses traveling to several other European nations) has taken Inge that far as she has inspired countless tourists to visit both Austria and Iowa.
During that October trip, Inge’s family and friends surprised her with a rare and special honor – she was named an honorary citizen of Tulln an der Donau, Austria.
The first purpose of my story was to discuss this award. But Inge’s most recent honor – as special as it is – is just one tiny part of an incredible story way too long, and inspiring, for any one news story to capture.
“We should meet in person,” Inge said, when I called to ask if she preferred a telephone or in-person interview. “I want you to see what a character I am.”
I went. I saw.
Everyone who has accompanied Inge Schminke along her million miles of traveling – along with all of those who have heard her story or visited her charming Villa Comagena shop filled with gift items from several European countries – says she deserves to be the newest Honorary Citizen of Tulln an der Donau.
Inge has not counted the number of people who have traveled with her to Europe; 2,000 is a rough estimate. While as many as 48 tourists have traveled with Inge at one time, she prefers to keep the groups at 30 or less. The most recent trip included eight. Unlike Inge, who began traveling because she wanted to see her homeland and old friends and relatives, those who travel with her are merely tourists who want to see and learn more about Europe.
And all of this business has come to Inge via word of mouth; Inge never advertises her services, and never has to. So many people tell their friends and family about visiting her store, accompanying her on those trips to Europe and even eating authentic European meals in her home that Inge never needs to ask for more business.
The honor she received in Austria was just the latest of several. In 2000, the State of Iowa presented her an award honoring her for her role in helping improve tourism.
The Honorary Citizen Award from Tulln is an Austrian expression of thanks for her impact on tourism there.
"I have worked with the same travel company for 25 years," says Inge.
It was that company, with the help of Inge's family who remain in Austria (one aunt and many cousins), that helped surprise Inge.
During what they told her was going to be just a dinner, they presented Inge with an official city emblem on a circle of green glass attached to a gold chain. It was a way to thank Inge for the many visitors she had brought to Tulln an der Donau.
The emblem includes Latin phrases, a reference to the early days of the city when it was known as Villa Comagena, part of the Roman empire. Among the places where Inge takes her visitors are a 2,000-year-old Roman fortification and a 1,000-year-old church.
After receiving that emblem, Inge received another surprise – she went to meet 14 of her classmates from the all-girls school she began attending at age 6 – in 1944.
‘All I knew was war’
Inge was born in 1938, the same year that Hitler sent Nazi forces to occupy Austria. While those familiar with "The Sound of Music" can understand a bit of what life was like for her family during the war, the real trouble began after the war, when the Soviets who had liberated Austria from the Axis turned into oppressing occupiers of her country.
"All I knew was war," says Inge of her first 15 years.
Of the 40 girls who began going to school with Inge at age 6, half of them were dead by age 10 – most from starvation.
After World War II ended the allies divided occupied Austria into four sectors: American, English, French and Russian. Inge's family ended up under Russian authority.
‘Monument to the Unknown Rapist’
The horror and hunger that Austrians knew under Nazi occupation caused the deaths of thousands; the Russian occupation was far worse.
There’s a statue in Vienna that represents the horror that still haunts the people of Austria. Officially named “Heldendenkmal de Rote Arme” (Heroes' Monument of the Red Army), the statue has another name commonly but unofficially used by the Austrians: “Moment to the Unknown Rapist.”
So many women were raped – one of Inge’s relatives was assaulted by 14 soldiers in one day causing injuries that she never fully recovered from – that even the Catholic Church allowed exceptions for nuns who had become pregnant through rape to receive abortions, Inge recalls.
The Soviet soldiers were also looters.
“If they wanted something, they took it,” Inge said. “There would be soldiers who had their arms full of watches, even though they couldn’t even tell time.”
Inge’s father was an engineer. He had been wounded in the war (like most Austrian men, he had been forced into service). Because of his skills, the Russians were even more reluctant to let him leave the country.
During this time, a woman named Olga took in the family. She shared with them the small amount of food that she and her family had been able to find.
Years later, Inge tried to find Olga to say thank you.
“We knocked on her door, but her grandson told us that she was on her deathbed. She died that day,” explains Inge.
To Canada…then Iowa
Finally the family concocted a plan: One-by-one, they would go to “visit” a relative who lived in the American sector of Austria. From there, they would flee to Canada, where Inge’s uncle had been sent as a POW, and had seen the prospect of living in freedom.
Inge was the last of the family to leave her house.
“My mother told me to make sure to keep the sidewalk clean, so it looked like we were all still living there,” she said.
Finally, the family was reunited and en route to Canada. It was 1953; she was 15.
Eleven years later, a Dysart man who visited the lake where Inge was working brought a friend. Oliver Schminke was a farmer from the Shellsburg area.
“It was love as first sight,” said Inge. “And it still is.”
Inge came to Iowa and married Oliver less than two weeks after meeting him in Canada. The couple has been married 49 years now; Oliver accompanied Inge on 69 of those 94 trips, until his health problems forced him to stay home.
Inge runs a small shop in her house. She named it Villa Comagena, after the name the Romans used for the village 2,000 years ago. The shop includes a variety of souvenirs from virtually every country that Inge has visited. She is only open by appointment, but like her other projects, word of mouth is more than enough to keep her busy. (She also play the organ at two churches each Sunday.)
Inge plans to make her 95th trip to Austria next summer. In the meantime, she will continue discussing her life and the history she has seen.
Some of it she can tell with a laugh, like the time a tombstone fell on her sister-in-law’s foot at the beginning of a tour, causing a trip to the emergency room. Other stories are more somber. There are also serious history lessons, including tours of buildings that are up to 2,000 years old as well as “the house of bones,” which contains the remains of those who have been evicted from cemeteries.
‘No time to write a book’
These are just a few of the stories that Inge can tell in just one hour. Her life has countless more – some of which even her children have not heard.
I tell Heidi her mom should write a book.
“I agree but she doesn’t sit still long enough to write,” says Heidi.
So, I mention this to Inge.
“I’ve been approached twice to write a book, but I don’t have time, she says. “Maybe when I get old and have nothing else to do.”
I ask Inge if there is anything else she wishes I had asked her – anything else that at this time she wants to share.
“Honey there is a lot more, but you don’t have time,” she replies. “We better make this a continuous story.”
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