This biographical text was written by Fellowship care-giver Jan Kortenkamp, who interviewed Karl and Renate in 2018. At that time Jan also read a brief memoir Karl had written earlier in his life in German about his childhood and youth. Jan’s original text was edited and expanded by Renate and Andrea Hiller.
Karl Heinz Hiller was born in 1925 in Zittau, a town in eastern Germany right on the border to Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Rudolf Hiller and Erika Hiller (born Hussmann). He also had two younger sisters named Anne and Claudia.
Karl’s grandfather, Karl-Gustav Hiller, founded a bicycle, motorcycle and utility vehicle factory called “Phänomen Werke Gustav Hiller AG Zittau” in 1888, which was later directed by Karl’s father starting in 1921. At the end of the Second World War the factory was taken over by the Russians and later became a GDR enterprise under the name of “Rohrbuhr”.
In 1932 Karl started attending the Volksschule (Elementary School), and because one of his grandmothers (his father’s mother) was Jewish, he and his family faced ongoing hardships and discrimination under the National Socialist Regime. From Easter 1936 on, Karl started attending the Gymnasium (Middle- and High school, grades 4-13), which included classes in ancient Greek and Latin. In order to be allowed to attend the Gymnasium -- to his great dismay -- he had to join the Hitler Jugend (Hitler’s youth organization).
While in school, one of his teachers drew his interest towards Chemistry. So much in fact that Karl set up a small laboratory in the basement of the family home. Outside of school, he and his sisters were given private lessons in English by a lady who inspired in him a love for British culture. His knowledge of English made it possible for him to listen to the London broadcasting station on his radio and to hear Winston Churchill’s speeches during the war. He received his Lutheran-Protestant confirmation in 1940, however, over time he became disenchanted with traditional organized religion.
In order to be conscripted into the military, Karl received his provisional high school diploma (Abitur) in 1943 at age 18. Unlike many other young men, he was not drafted at 16, which he attributed to the “quiet situation in his hometown and the great work of his teachers”. His first assignment was work duty in Lower Silesia. But after a few months of boot camp he came down with a case of jaundice. He was put on sick leave for 3 months and after that in 1943 sent to Denmark for his time as a recruit. Karl looked back on this time as some of his “most unpleasant memories”.
From March through June 1944, he was sent to a Navigation school in Liepaja, Latvia. His Jewish lineage prevented him from becoming a reserve officer. While at Latvia, he was in utter dismay, when he witnessed the suffering of a group of laboring enslaved Jewish people. He wrote later how he was moved to “pray for England’s victory, while wearing Hitler’s uniform.” After the navigation school, he was enlisted on a ship off the coast of Norway, where he served as an assistant to the helmsman. The vessel Karl served on was assigned to accompany trade ships; to his great luck, it was never attacked by the allied patrols that were present in the Baltic Sea. His shipmates and the beautiful Norwegian landscape led to him remembering this time as a not-so-bad a chapter in his life, and his love for sailing and the sea stuck with him for the rest of his life.
With the capitulation of Germany, Karl’s service abruptly ended. In a brief memoir, he remarked that the capitulation “came as a great relief” but also left him wondering what happened to his family that lived in the East. He was sent to a Prisoner of War camp where he spent three months and was not able to get information on the well-being of the rest of his family. Since he was proficient in English, he worked as a translator for the British while in the camp. In January 1946 he was released to Hamburg but not allowed to go home to reunite with his family. However, he learned that his family was still living in Zittau.
In Hamburg, Karl was able to take a course that gave students that earlier had to join the war a chance to complete their high school diploma. After half a year he finished the course and started studying Chemistry at the University of Berlin. Since the situation in Berlin after the war was dire, he decided to study in the United States and got a bachelor’s degree at Duke University and later his PhD at Northwestern University, where one of his uncles, who had fled persecution, was teaching medicine.
After graduating from university, Karl first got hired by Standard Oil in California and did research in the lab at La Hoya. In California at the Laguna Beach Yacht Club, he met his first wife, Brenda. With her he had two children, Christopher and Erica. He then got hired by BASF (German chemical producer) and first took on an assignment in the headquarters of the company in Ludwigshafen, and later he directed a dye plant in New Jersey. The marriage between Karl and Brenda did not last, and his wife and children moved back to California. Brenda and Karl continued their relationship on friendly terms, and the children spend most summer vacations with their father and Renate (his second wife). Chris and Erica adored their father, and his love for them and their children was constant and deeply felt.
Karl and Renate met in a French class in New York City, and they got married in 1970. They first lived in New York for a while and then moved to New Jersey. Here they had two children, Severin and Andrea. In 1975 Karl took on another assignment at BASF, Ludwigshafen, and the whole family moved to Germany and lived in Heidelberg for 6 ½ years. It was at this time that they discovered Anthroposophy and Waldorf education.
In 1982 they moved back to New Jersey (with Karl still working for the BASF company), and their children went to Green Meadow Waldorf School, where Renate soon became an engaged volunteer. Karl and Renate moved to Spring Valley in 1993 to be closer to the Threefold Community, since Renate was teaching at Sunbridge College and serving the development of the Fiber Craft Studio. They have been well known and active in the Threefold Community ever since. Karl joined the Fellowship Community in 2016 and moved into Hilltop House in November of that year, and Renate moved into Pine Lodge in September of 2018.
His passion for the sea and sailing stuck with Karl for most of his life. He sailed on Lake Michigan, while at Northwestern University and joined the Laguna Beach Yacht Club, while living in California. The family also spent many summers sailing in Spain. Karl still managed to go to Spain in 2016 and even did some sailing, and he celebrated his 91st birthday there with his family.
Karl’s interests were many and went well beyond sailing. His other great love was reading, and he spent countless hours devouring books: fiction, history, geography, world politics and so on. He had an incredible memory and was able to converse deeply on a wide range of topics. Although essentially of an introvert nature, he was a very social human being and kept friendships alive over many years in Europe and in the US. His love for his family and his interest in everyone’s life was steadfast and deeply felt.
Karl also had a special connection with nature, loved hiking and working in the garden, wherever he lived. His love for animals, especially for his basset hound Hannibal, and for Nicki, the family cat, was quite moving to observe, and he was the one, who fed the birds in winter time. Since his youth he liked to ski and play tennis, and he loved to participate in cultural life, going to museums, concerts and theater performances. He also was an avid and accomplished bridge player and for a while played with a group of people at the Fellowship, long before moving here. His business travels took him all over the world.
He spoke four languages fluently: German, English, Spanish and French, and he spoke a bit of Russian and could read the Cyrillic alphabet.
Karl is survived by his wife Renate, 4 children: Chris, Erica, Severin and Andrea; and 4 grandchildren: Sonia, twins Max and Daniel, and Dante; as well as his sister Claudia.
His family remembers him as a very loving and supportive father and husband, and he will be greatly missed.
To make a gift to the Fellowship Community in honor of Karl please visit fellowshipcommunity.org/donate