Dorothea Wohlgemuth Devrnja

Honored by:Zora Zimmerman
Brick location:F:26  map

As a young girl growing up in post-World War I Germany, Dorothea Henrietta Wohlgemuth was known as a leader and seeker of adventure. Thea (pronounced "Taya") was a happy, boisterous, confident child who often masterminded daring escapades with her friends. Her abundant energy, red hair and willingness to take risks made her unforgettable, and her loyalty sense of camaraderie and courage endeared her to her generation.

Born in 1919 in the milennial town of Mettmann near Duesseldorf in the northern Rhine area of Westphalen, Dorothea was the eldest of three children (her brother Artur was born in 1921; her sister Ursula in 1928). Her mother, Elfriede Reimann Wohlgemuth, and her father, Hermann Wohlgemuth, were descended from a long line of successful merchants (textiles), public officials and farmers. Throughout her childhood, Dorothea was surrounded by a large, loving, extended family.

After successfully completing business school, Dorothea worked as a secretary and bookkeeper for several years in the Mettmann area. In 1941, in an effort to flee the increasingly dangerous political climate of Germany, she found a secretarial position in an international medical curative spa located in Marienbad (Marianske Lazne) in the Czech Republic. Soon thereafter she founded and managed the social services unit of her place of employment. She remained in Marienbad throughout the remaining war years (1942-45). During this period, Dorothea met and fell in love with a Yugoslav prisoner-of-war who had been captured by the Germans during the bombardment of Belgrade in 1941. Quartered in a P.O.W. camp (Stalag 13) in Marienbad, he had been assigned to work in the spa's greenhouses when Dorothea met him. Defying the civil laws of wartime Germany of which she was a citizen, Dorothea married this prisoner, Milutin Devrnja--- a young scholar theologian and writer from Zemun Yugoslavia --- in a secret marriage ceremony performed by a fellow prisoner-of-war: a Russian Orthodox priest.

A week after the liberation of Marienbad by the U. S. Army in May 1945, Dorothea's and Milutin's first child, a daughter named Zora, was born. Within a few weeks after the birth of the child, the repatriation of war prisoners occurred and Milutin had to return to post-war Yugoslavia. Dorothea had to find her way back to her family in Germany. Without legal papers and a six-week old infant in her arms, Dorothea traveled for four months to complete a perilous 350-mile journey. Crossing forested mountains by night in bare feet and then moving from village to village, usually on foot but once hidden in the back of a coal truck, Dorothea experienced the terrors and anxieties faced by many refugees. She endured the difficulties with courage, ingenuity and an optimism that always prevailed.

With the help of sympathetic friends and strangers along the way, Dorothea and her child arrived in Mettmann in early October 1945. It was not until late spring 1947 that Dorothea and Milutin were reunited. After a year under the new communist regime of Marshal Tito, Milutin fled Yugoslavia, illegally crossing the border into Italy at Trieste. Making his way from a refugee detention camp in Italy to Paris, Milutin ultimately found sponsorship and legal employment with the French government as an interpreter (being fluent in French, German and Russian as well as his native Serbo-Croatian). In 1947, he was able to enter Germany and see his wife and daughter again. He then returned to Paris for another year, pursuing doctoral studies while waiting to be assigned to a position in the French-occupied zone of Germany. In 1948, Dorothea and Milutin found a home in Frankenthal (near Heidelberg), where he had been assigned. By then a second daughter, Slobodanka (called Dana), had been born to the couple.

During the next three years, Dorothea prepared herself and her two children for another momentous journey --- a trip to America, the land of freedom chosen precisely for that reason even though neither she nor Milutin could speak the English language. On January 1, 1951, they emigrated to the United States, leaving Germany at Bremen on a converted troop transporter named the General Stewart and arriving in New York City after two stormy weeks on the Atlantic. After living a few months outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in Alliquippa where work and housing had been provided by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the family settled on a farm in the valley of Conneaut Creek in northwest Crawford County near the villages of Springboro and Shadeland. They bought the farm with Milutin's fellow emigrant P.O.W. and cousin by marriage, Nenad Siljegovic, and his wife, Lilo, a childhood friend of Dorothea. Together the two families weathered the dramatic adjustment to a new culture language and environment.

Milutin continued in his position as editor-in-chief of the Serbian-language edition of Srbobran, the national newspaper of the Serbian-American Federation which was based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for another year, and then sought employment closer to the farm. During the next three years, Dorothea struggled along with the others to adapt to unusually primitive rural conditions---milking cows by hand, making cheese by hand, churning butter, and raising hogs and chickens. She ran a household of five small children, as both men worked in labor. Both families moved to Buffalo, New York after three years to have better standards of living and employment, and the farm became a summer home.

When Dorothea moved to Buffalo in May 1954, the third daughter, Nada, was five months old. In Buffalo, Milutin's mother joined the family for an extended visit and Dorothea began to work part-time as a bookkeeper in a furniture store (Goldberg's). It was here that she began to master the English language, while working daily with customers and staff. In 1956, Dorothea became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In the following years, while her husband studied part-time at Geneseo State College and Case Western Reserve University in order to earn a master's degree in library science, Dorothea managed to raise her children and maintain her position at the store. The household was a communal one, and it was large and complex, since it included the four members of the Siljegovic family, Milutin's mother, who stayed with them for 3 years, Dorothea's parents, who came to visit for a year, and, occasionally, Lilo's great-aunt, an American who had legally sponsored the two families.

Adapting to an American lifestyle and meeting economic needs were difficult. By 1960, however, life became more bearable: after working for one year at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Milutin found a position as a cataloger at the State University of New York's Lockwood Library in Buffalo and was finally living at home permanently. Nevertheless, the income Dorothea produced in her position was still desperately needed to manage the communal household. Dorothea was slowly assuming more and more of the management of the store while continuing as a bookkeeper.

In 1963, the two families decided to set up independent households and a new stage in Dorothea's life began. A few years later, Milutin enrolled in the Ph.D. program of the Department of Philosophy at SUNYAB, ultimately earning a doctoral degree in Philosophy (1972) after a 31-year quest.

By the mid-seventies, Dorothea's life had become secure and promising. Zora, the eldest daughter, had earned her doctorate and was teaching at the college level.

Dana, the second daughter, had decided to continue her education in Germany, becoming a teacher and director of a nursery school in Stuttgart.

The youngest, Nada, completed her education in business and had found a position in the Buffalo banking system. Then, in 1977, tragedy struck, A car accident took Milutin's life---on the eve of his retirement. The dreams that the couple had for retirement years were shattered.

The following years were heavy and difficult for Dorothea, and she poured herself into her work, also taking up community and church activities. With the birth of her first grandchild, Anna, in 1983, Dorothea at last began another phase of her life---one that was once again filled with hope and good cheer.

Today, in 1995, she has retired and has three additional grandchildren (Elizabeth Dorothea 1985, Olivia Ann 1986, and Nicholas Milutin 1987). She visits her children and family in various parts of the world often, and remains active in church and community activities. One of her goals is to write her memoirs, a goal we all want to see her fulfill. As you can see, she has an incredible story to tell.