Hildegard Sulima, 94, passed away Sunday, July 18 at the Westerly Health Center. She was a complex and talented woman who survived the vicissitudes of the 20th century with stubborn tenacity.
Born in Ansbach, Germany, on Feb. 1, 1927, she was the middle of three daughters of George Friedrich and Marie (Stürm) Jüdt. Hilde grew up on a small farm and was somewhat sheltered from the economic and political upheavals in Germany at the time. She attended grammar school in Ansbach and later became a seamstress. She began attending a prestigious fashion academy but her studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.
As a young teenager during the war, she was conscripted by the Hitler youth to help on nearby farms. Later, she spent many nights with her neighbors sheltering in beer cellars while Allied bombers were on the attack.
When the war ended she met the man she would marry, Alexander Sulima, a Ukrainian who had been captured by the Germans, and freed by American troops. They married in 1946 and soon had a baby daughter, Tamara, who died as an infant due to poor conditions in the hospital where she was born. In subsequent years, they had two more children, Rose Marie and Siegfried. Devastated by the war, Germany held little hope for the young family, who decided to emigrate. They lived in a Displaced Persons camp while waiting for a country to accept them. Finally, in 1951, under the auspices of Church World Service, they were sponsored as refugee immigrants by Grace Methodist Church of Westerly, who helped them settle on High Street.
Hilde vigorously embraced her new country, or as she once said, the country embraced her. She and Alex had another baby, John, and sponsored Hilde’s older sister, Hedwig and her family, to come to America. In 1954, however, a tragic accident claimed the life of her son Sigi, two months before he was to enter kindergarten. Eventually they bought land on Potter Hill Road and built their house. Hilde gave birth to her fifth and last child, Ronald, in 1959.
Ronnie was born with physical and intellectual disabilities and Hilde dedicated much of her subsequent life to Ronnie and others with similar disabilities. She was a founding member of what was then called the Westerly-Chariho Chapter of the Association for Retarded Children. Public schools offered little for disabled children in the early 1960s, so Hilde and fellow parents helped establish a school in the basement of Grace Methodist Church. She drove a minivan throughout South County to transport children to the school. The Mother’s Club, an auxiliary of the ARC, recognized her as Mother of the Year in 1969.
In 1975, she and Alex separated, and she moved with Ronnie to New London, to take advantage of the better facilities and services that Connecticut had for the intellectually disabled. She worked for the Weck Company of Mystic. In 1981, she joined the Environmental Services department of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital of New London, where she worked for more than 30 years. The hospital became a second family to her where she bonded with patients, especially those of German ancestry, and would voluntarily work weekends and holidays so younger coworkers could spend time with their families.
As she got older, her days at the hospital declined until she finally retired six years ago at age 88.
Unfortunately, Ronnie predeceased her in November 2019. She lived alone in New London until she moved to the Elms Retirement Center of Westerday in August of 2020 and then finally to the Westerly Health Center.
She is survived by her two children, Rose Marie Bartol (husband Peter) and John Sulima (wife Joanne) both of Westerly; three grandchildren, Allison Zoellner of Chicago, Illinois, Rachel Margaglione of Haverhill, Massachusetts and Catherine Camden of Cumberland, Rhode Island; five great grandchildren, Francesca, Veronica and Maria Margaglone and Henry and Timothy Camden. She is also survived by a nephew, Fred Bonnemann of St. Petersburg, Florida and formerly of Pawcatuck; and a niece, Barbara Bonnemann of Mulheim, Germany. She was predeceased by her two sisters, Hedwig Bonnemann and Gertrude Bonnemann.
The family especially wishes to thank the staff and caregivers at The Elms Retirement Center, Westerly Health Center and Beacon Hospice for the kind attention they gave Hilde during her last year of health struggles.
A Memorial Service will be held at Rushlow-Iacoi Funeral Home, 64 Friendship St., Westerly Monday, July 26th at 11 a.m. Internment will be private.
Donations may be made in Hilde’s memory to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Office of Development, 365 Montauk Ave., New London, CT 06320.
For online condolences, please visit www.rushlowiacoifuneralhome.com