In 1979, Hilde Matheson ’77, looking back on her time as a displaced person living in Austria in the years following World War II, wrote a poem:
“Refugee child of today,
I reach out to you from yesterday.
I see the terror in your eyes, and
my heart constricts.
I wake up screaming in the night and
can’t distinguish whether it was you. . .
Matheson, who is now in her 90s, shared that poem during a March 10 appearance at Shenandoah University. She spoke as Ukrainians streamed out of their country, fleeing a Russian assault. Matheson, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Shenandoah, said she feels “such sadness” when she sees images of these refugees in the news.
She calls herself a World War II survivor, and honestly answers “yes,” when she asks herself if she would go through another lifetime, knowing the hardships she would have to face because she loves life. She, too, like the refugees in the Ukraine, was racing away from a Russian advance. In Matheson’s case, her family of ethnic Germans was leaving the small farm in Poland where she was born and raised.
“I was 14 years old and petrified with fear,” she said. Her family stayed ahead of the army and crossed into Austria, where she would live for almost 10 years in a camp for displaced persons, engaging in a wide variety of work, ranging from shoveling gravel on a highway crew and doing farm tasks to being a maid in an American household, which is the first place she ever ate cereal. Having milk again was wonderful, she said.
It was also where she encountered a Methodist minister and his family, whose influence proved to be life-altering. She opened her heart to God, she said, and she worked with U.S. students who helped her and fellow young refugees build a new church in the displaced persons camp. Through those students, she also met a college dean, who set the wheels in motion to send her to Louisburg College in North Carolina.
Once Matheson arrived in the United States, the schoolwork was difficult — her education had been interrupted. But, with an assignment in one hand and a dictionary in the other, she completed her first year of schooling, made the honor roll, and was offered a scholarship to a different school. However, instead of continuing her education at the time, she married and raised a family.
Years later, she picked up her education again at Shenandoah, earning a bachelor’s degree. She then went to West Virginia University, where she earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology. She worked with a variety of organizations in the Winchester area, including Northwestern Workshop (NW Works) and Winchester Medical Center. At the latter, she prepared a compact disc of words and music to be listened to before and after surgery.
Her career and life has truly embodied the 2022 Women’s History Month theme of “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” It is also a life in which she has been provided with healing and hope through her deep faith, which she described in many ways, including five simple words written by the poet Rumi: “What you seek is seeking you.”
She said she knows so well that life isn’t a bed of roses, and she’s not sure how she’s maintained her sense of hope other than, “I love life, and I want to experience it.”