Edeltraut Luise Bilger died quietly in her sleep on Tuesday, March 28, at Agrace hospice in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. She was 87. Small and soft-spoken, with a voice that carried the lilt of the Black Forest, she had a gentle, watchful presence, sharpened by formidable intelligence and moral conviction. As a mother, she raised five children with unfailing kindness and good humor, as sympathetic to their foibles as she was delighted by them. As a historian and a child of World War II, she had the same clear yet forgiving eye for human weakness and its often terrible consequences. She had an abiding sense of the tragic—“Das Lebe isch hart,” she liked to say: "Life is hard"—eased by a lightness of being, an ability to laugh at the hardest moments and lift the spirits of those around her. She was tremendously loved and will be deeply missed.
Edda was born in the village of Aulfingen, Germany, and grew up in Weil-am-Rhein, along the French and Swiss borders. Her childhood was laced with wonder and fear, shuttling between the walled gardens of her beloved Bläserhof, the former Benedictine monastery where her family lived, and terrifying flights to the Black Forest to escape bombing raids and advancing armies. After the war, she earned her Abitur—the German baccalaureate—at Hans Thoma Gymnasium in nearby Lörrach. She was named valedictorian of her class and delivered her senior oration on Hermann Hesse, the writer closest to her heart along with Camus and Baudelaire. She earned an Education degree in Freiburg and taught first grade in the village of Inzlingen. Her little charges came to trust her so completely that one or two would line up on many mornings to have their loose teeth pulled. In 1958, Edda married Hans Bilger, her friend and former classmate, whose exuberant mind and rollicking, temperamental spirit would never cease to charm and exasperate her. They were inseparable until his death in 2013.
In 1962, Edda and Hans emigrated to the United States with three young children in tow: Martin, Eva, and Monika. They settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Hans became a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Oklahoma State University. Edda kept house and had two more children, Burkhard and Andrea. She raised her unruly brood on Bratkartoffeln and chicken pot pies, Bratwurst and beef stroganoff, as attached to her new home, with its sunlit prairies and cross timbers, as she was to the German traditions she’d left behind. As soon as Andrea was in first grade, Edda went back to school, earning a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in history from Oklahoma State, and a Diplôme d’études approfondies from the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France. Her graduate work focused on questions of patriotism and nationalism among German-Americans in World War I, and among French collaborators in World War II. She taught European and American history for many years at Phillips University in Enid and St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee. When her eyes began to weaken, Hans drove her to and from her classes. After their retirement in the early '90s, she and Hans took up a second residence in Madison, Wisconsin, and helped take care of Andrea's daughter, Magdalena. They were soon joined there by Monika, then Eva and a growing crowd of grandchildren.
In the last six years of her life, Edda's mind slowly failed her, losing strand after strand of itself until there was little left except her unwavering affection for those around her. If she always said that life is hard, she lived as if it were lovelier than that—a continual surprise, a series of unexpected delights. She could find them anywhere: in an old Romanesque church or an over-air-conditioned Denny’s; under a stand of giant Sequoias or a patch of runty blackjack oaks; around a campfire listening to Hans play his Echo Harp or in her living room with her children, dancing to Herb Alpert’s “Spanish Flea.” As a young girl during the war, she had learned that disaster can strike from anywhere, at any moment. Best to live as if every day is a gift. And she did.
Edda is survived by her five children, their spouses—Mike, Traci, Jim, and Jennifer—and twelve grandchildren: Emma, Hans, Sofia, Cecily, Madeleine, Ruby, Magdalena, Keston, Kai, Ian, Evangeline, and Chloe. Our family would like to thank the nurses at Agrace for their extraordinary kindness to Edda in the last two years of her life. A memorial service will be held on June 26 at 2:00 p.m. at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.