By Michele Dargan, Special for the Civic Association -- Hildegarde “Hillie” Ercklentz Mahoney remembers when she was preparing to celebrate her eighth birthday with her family in Japan on June 22, 1941.

She, along with her parents and two brothers, were headed to Germany, after the bank her father worked for closed the New York office and summoned him to Germany during World War II.

Image: Tom Peterffy, PBCA Director, Hillie Mahoney PBCA Director, Bob Wright, CEO Civic Association 

They traveled by ocean liner from San Francisco to Japan and were only supposed to spend a week in Japan before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway to Germany.  

But when Hitler invaded Russia, her birthday party was cancelled and the family was stranded in Japan.

Journey InterruptedIn her memoir Journey Interrupted, Mrs. Mahoney tells the story of her family’s struggles, strength and survival, while living in Japan during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. [Amazon: Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at WarJourney Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War]

“I had no intention of writing a book, but after returning to America in 1950, people kept telling me that I must write that story,” she said. “It’s such a little known story about World War II.”

Mrs. Mahoney, a Civic Association director, spoke about her book during a Visionary Leader Luncheon held April 27 at Café L’Europe.

Civic Association Chairman Bob Wright welcomed everyone.

“We hold these meetings each season to get to know the distinguished men and women who serve on the civic association board,” Mr. Wright said. “Our directors have amazing personal stories.”

In 2008, Mrs. Mahoney produced a documentary called Journey Interrupted about her years in Japan during World War II. Her book by the same title was released in 2016.

When her father came to America from Germany after World War I, he was studying to be a concert pianist, but because of the poor economic situation, he became a banker.

“We were not as in such a dire situation as many others,” said Mrs. Mahoney, who was born in Germany and came to the United States as a three-year-old.

When her father’s employer closed the bank in New York, he was reluctant to go back to Germany, because he enjoyed living in New York. But her mother was afraid that if they stayed, he would have to look for another job and may not find one right away. That’s when her parents decided to go to Germany, get the bank’s affairs in order and return to America at the end of the summer.
After the German invasion of Russia, the family stayed in Japan, waiting for an opportunity to go back to America.

“We sat and we waited,” she said. “In September, my parents put us into school, because there was nothing yet. We came home on Dec. 8, 1941 and my parents were sitting there ashen. The Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor and that sealed our fate. We couldn’t go one way or the other.

“We tried to make the best of the situation,” she said. “The good things were that we learned a lot about the culture. We learned Japanese and a lot of other things.”  

In the fall of 1943, three German battleships exploded in Yokohama Harbor, near where the Ercklentz family was living. The explosions were deemed sabotage and all foreigners were sent out of Yokohama and into the mountains to live, she said.
The worst part of living in Japan was the winter season in the mountains, she said. 

“There was no heat in the house, except in my bedroom and that’s where we ate and slept,” she said. “You went to bed with everything you had with you. We froze our tails off and had literally nothing to eat.”

After the war was over, her father, who was born in Germany, tried to get back to America, but “General McArthur said all ‘enemy aliens’ had to go back to their country of origin,” Mrs. Mahoney said.

At that point, the family went back to Germany and was reunited with all of their relatives.

“The reunions were very happy, but everyone was in dire straits,” she said. “In America, we had a lot of friends, but no relatives and in Germany we had a lot of relatives, but no friends.

“Finally after three years, the immigration papers came through and we came back to America (in October 1950),” she said. “We lost literally everything in Germany and in America. At age 17, I had to get working papers and got an office job.”

She stayed at that job until a conversation with a friend pointed her in another direction.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Hillie you’re making $25 a week. That’s ridiculous. I’m making $50 an hour as a model.’ I said, ‘Well darn it, I’m going to try that.’”

At the first modeling agency, she was told that she would have to lose 10 pounds in order to work there. The second agency told her that she had to be 5-foot 9-inches.

I said to myself, ‘Well here I am too short and too fat.’ The third agency said, ‘Sign on the bottom line.’”

In 1956, she entered a beauty contest to become Miss Rheingold.

“The prize was $50,000, 1956 dollars, so you can imagine after having lost everything how interesting that was,” she said. “They got down to the final six contestants and there was voting at any store that sold beer. One fine day in November, I was home and got a telegram that said ‘Congratulations Miss Rheingold of 1956.’”

Mrs. Mahoney speaks four languages: English, German, French and Japanese.

Mrs. Mahoney is co-founder and chairman of the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute in Boston, a trustee at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a director of The Charles A. Dana Foundation, and the Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She serves on the honorary board of the Boys’ Club of New York and on the national board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Locally, she is a board member of the Hospice of Palm Beach County Foundation and the Preservation Foundation.

She has been honored by the American Ireland Fund and the Boys’ Club of New York. She received the Bronze Keystone Award from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She received the Woman of Distinction Award from Birmingham-Southern College and Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Holistic Integrative Health (HIH), a premier medical wellness and diagnostic center located in Royal Poinciana Plaza, sponsored the luncheon. HIH also underwrote the books, which were given to everyone in attendance. Thomas Peterffy, a Civic Association director, is the founder of HIH.

 Photos by Capehart

Visionary Leader Series - Hillie Mahoney April 27, 2017