BATTLE GROUND — When Gretel Rieber-Wicke was a young girl, she walked to school past bomb craters in Dusseldorf, Germany. The smell of the ruins would never fade from her memory.
One day, a teacher read a letter from a group called the American Field Service to the class. Students were offered a stay with an American family for one year.
Gretel became the first foreign exchange student at Battle Ground High School.
Rieber-Wicke was one of 400 German teenagers the AFS brought to the U.S. in 1952. The one-year experience changed her life and created a lifelong friendship spanning continents. This week, Rieber-Wicke, 76, returned to her old haunts in Battle Ground, with a German film crew documenting the visit.
Traveling from Dusseldorf to Battle Ground in ‘52 took the better part of a week, Rieber-Wicke said. All of the German students chosen by AFS met in Frankfurt. They took a train to Paris and another train to Calais, France, where they boarded a ship.
On the morning of the fourth day at sea, Rieber-Wicke stepped on deck and saw the Manhattan skyline.
“Den Anblick werde ich nie vergessen,” she said Tuesday — “I will never forget the sight of it.”
She wasn’t done traveling yet. She boarded a Greyhound bus to Portland, where the family of Dr. Henry Skinner picked her up. For the next year, she shared a room with their daughter, Patricia. Life was different here.
Battle Ground, which only incorporated the year before, had fewer than 800 residents. The graduating class at its only high school numbered 125 students. Dusseldorf was a large industrial center, albeit a bombed-out one at the time.
People weren’t starving anymore in Germany, but food was still at a premium. In Battle Ground, Rieber-Wicke found a grocery store where you could pick things off the shelf and take them to a register. At home, things were still stocked behind a counter.
Everyone drove a car here. The neighborhood where Rieber-Wicke grew up had no cars back then.
The girl wore her first evening gown that senior year.
The yearlong stay affected her throughout her life, she said. Rieber-Wicke started law school but ended up studying American literature and linguistics.
During her studies and in the workplace, she noticed that her political and cultural boundaries stretched beyond those of many of her friends and co-workers. That sense of how big the world was drove her to a career in journalism, she said.
Rieber-Wicke became a successful radio journalist in Germany, hosting first youth programs and later a widely heard show for listeners older than 50. She retired in 2001.
Her life’s story was used in German AFS brochures, which is how a German film crew found out about her. School reforms in Germany include plans to award diplomas after 12 years instead of the current 13, said Anne Heringhaus, co-director of the documentary on former exchange students. As part of that discussion, some school officials suggested students couldn’t afford to spend a year away from German classrooms under the 12-year proposal. The filmmakers disagree with that notion.
“We basically want to spur (students’) interest in going abroad,” Heringhaus said.
And so they’re following 15 former students from the past 60 years, to show how they were touched by the experience and by the people they met.
Rieber-Wicke is a prime example. Before Tuesday’s reunion, she’d been back three times over the years. She loosely stayed in touch with a few of the old classmates. But she always was in very close contact with Pat Larson, nee Skinner, whom she calls her “American sister.”
Pat and her husband, David Larson, spent time with Rieber-Wicke in Germany. She visited them in Oregon, where they’d moved. When email came online, the two wrote to each other even more frequently than they had with letters.
“I always had so much fun with Patty,” Rieber-Wicke said this week, sitting by the lake the two visited often as teens.
Then her ever-present smile dropped for the first time that afternoon.
“Ja,” she said quietly. “She was always full of life. She never lost her sense of humor.”
Pat Larson died in 2010.