Posted by: Lawrence D. Elliott | May 24, 2010

My Search for Reiner and Ilona

Christmas Eve (Christnacht in German) in 1981

Christmas Eve (Christnacht in German) in 1981

It was late in the evening and I had just completed editing session on my book. I was on Facebook chatting with Claudia, a friend I knew from Germany while I was stationed there with the United States Air Force in the early 1980s. We had recently reconnected. It had been over twenty years since I have even tried to speak German. It was fortunate that she spoke English well. But she remembered how well I had spoken her language in the “old” days. It was that evening that she got the crazy idea that my German was still rattling around in my head. I was not so convinced.

“Let’s make a deal,” she said. “You write to me in German and I will write back to you in English.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.

“Why?’ she asked. “Let’s try.”

So reluctantly, I gave it a shot. And just as I thought, it was difficult forming even the most simple sentences. But I continued to try.

And wouldn’t you know it? Claudia was right! Well, sort of. Some of my German I thought I had long forgotten was still rattling around in my head. It gave me a thirst to relearn the language once again. But could I learn German again, after over twenty years removed from it?

Often, we would have our German-English chat sessions and Claudia would make corrections to my errors—and there were many—and I would make a note of them. It helped me get better and I started to build my vocabulary once again.

And then came my experience with WKW.

WKW or Wer-Kennt-Wen—which translates in English to be Who-Knows-Whom—is a popular German social networking site. I was invited by Randy, an old Air Force buddy who was stationed at the same base as I during virtually the same period. He said it would be an interesting place to reconnect not only with those old friends we knew in German, but a few of our old Air Force buddies. And he was right. But when I initially enrolled, Claudia was not yet my German teacher. So I struggled through the process until I became a member.

Then, I completed my profile. I discussed how I was once stationed there and how I was working on a book of the medical struggles of being a caretaker to my wife and on and on. But it was in English. How many members could really understand what it said?

But as my German improved, I started chatting with members. It actually helped my language skills because I was able to immerse myself in it. I decided I could handle myself enough to complete my profile in German. Claudia was so kind to make corrections of my errors. That must have been the finishing touch because members started initiating contact with me.

There was Ute, with whom I would have these wonderful chats, often after one of my late night writing sessions. It turned out we knew some of the same people. In fact, she and Claudia were very good friends.

There was Hubert, a trained cook, who tried to explain how to make the German dish Spätzle. Even though I can handle myself in the kitchen, with his cooking skills I was not even playing in his league.

There was Conny, a photographer whose skill in capturing beauty in images were matched only by her talent of painting wonderful pictures in your mind with her delightful poetry of love and forgiveness…in bother English and German.

There was Monika, who made her home with her husband in Greece. The more she told about her life there, the more I regretted never having visited such a wonderful place.

I met so many great people and received so many compassionate messages of encouragement for my wife and me. And some were just eager to chat, even with my intermediate level of German.

I heard from members who were caring for an ill loved one. I met someone who had just recently lost her husband after caring for him for a period. It seems my story was not only shared by so many here in the US, but in other parts of the world as well. These were experiences I’d never imagined I’d have when I first signed up.

And then, there are the 5 Ilona’s on my list.

After an afternoon of writing, I lifted my stiff body from the easy chair in the corner of our living room. I immediately went into a stretch. Our dog Lacie, who was spread out across the middle of the floor lost in a deep sleep, jumped from the loud yawn that followed. It was then that it caught my eye. It was my copy of A Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas on the book shelf. I flipped through the pages until I came to page 191. I began reading my story “Unexpected Guests,” the story of a Christmas Eve I spent with a young German couple. Reiner and Ilona were at that time strangers to me. I met them when a friend with whom I was walking to the base club. They not only welcomed us inside, but insisted on us staying for dinner. I felt awkward, but they both made us feel at home. As the night ended, it was the beginning of wonderful friendship. Their kindness was overwhelming. I was even allowed to accompany them on a weekend trip to their family home in Darmstadt.

Then, it hit me! I sat back in the easy chair, placed the book on the table next to it and opened my laptop again. I decided to search for my dear friends on WKW.

Initially, I searched from Reiner using his first and last name. But this yielded nothing.

Then, I used Ilona’s first and last name. Still nothing came up in the results.

Then, I decided to search using just Ilona’s first name, just in case she had remarried. Now, in almost four years in Germany, I had only met one Ilona. My WKW search resulted in thousands of Ilonas! Some had pictures and others did not. Some had birth year and most did not. I knew there was no way I would get through all of them in one sitting. I was also faced with another dilemma—time. It had been over twenty-six years since I had last seen her. And, as I was finding with everyone from the “old” days—including myself—we were no longer the young kids we once were. Faces and hairstyles have changed for most of us. So I knew I would have to closely examine each picture.

So, I decided to set up a schedule to make my contacts. I would fit it in between my editing sessions. I created a simple email in German explaining my situation.

“…I am searching for two friends…They were good friends while I was stationed in Germany….”

The first few search sessions came up with nothing. In fact, most did not even reply. Those who did were very polite.

“…I’m sorry, but I am not your Ilona…”

After reading my profile, some of them were interested in making a WKW friend connection. And thus started my collection of Ilonas.

On the day of my fourth search session, I made an interesting contact. Unfortunately, she was not the right Ilona either. But she was kind enough and we exchanged a few messages. I learned she had a lot of family in the US, including California. At the end of her message was:

“…Where did do they live? Or where did they last live? Maybe I can find out…”

It was wonderful of her to offer. And to be honest, I thought she was just being polite. I gave her the last city I knew they lived in and I thanked her. I immediately went back to my searching.

Less than an hour later, I received another message from Ilona. It included the address that could possibly be Reiner. Then she said she would contact them, if she had a chance. This was turning out to be a wonderful woman, taking the time for me as she did.

Within 5 minutes, I received another message from Ilona.

“…I have spoken with Ilona…she told me that you were stationed with Reiner at Buechel Air Base…I think these are the right ones…They have thought about you a lot…”

I don’t know why, but I got very emotional. The tears welled up in my eyes. She turned out to be the right Ilona after all! Within four hours of my first contact, she had found my dear friends, Reiner and Ilona!

Reiner and Ilona - Christmas Eve (Christnacht in German) 1981

Reiner & Ilona - Christmas Eve (Christnacht) 1981.

I went running to my wife with excitement.

“Are you alright, Babe?” she asked me, seeing the tears in my eyes. “Is there something wrong?”

“I found them,” I said as I flashed the book.

“Who?” she asked.

“Reiner and Ilona!”

“Really? How?”

I told her the whole story as I watched her mouth and eyes widen in the shocked I was still feeling.

I also learned my Reiner and Ilona had a 21-year-old son named Alex, who contacted me shortly thereafter. We exchanged messages. He appeared to understand English very well.

His final message included—

“…my Mom will write u later on from my profile. Just wanted to say HI…”

I learned his parents were just as excited as I was. And when I received a message from them, I couldn’t believe I was actually reading it. And when I told them about the story I wrote about them, they were very excited. They not only joined WKW but also Facebook. Knowing my wife is very ill, they even became Facebook friends with her and chat with her often.

Then, one day I saw a set of pictures on Reiner’s Facebook page. They were from that Christmas Eve in 1981. The first thing my wife said when she saw them was, “You look like such a kid!”

But what I thinking was what a special night it truly was. So special, it has always stayed with me, even after almost thirty years. Perhaps because it has always been a constant reminder of the generosity people are capable of and how strangers can be friends you just haven’t met yet.

Reiner, Chris, and Me (on the left) - Christmas Eve (Christnact) 1981

Reiner, Chris, and me (on the left).


  1. This is so cool, Lawrence! I’m so happy you found your old friends.

  2. If only more than 87 people would hear about this!

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