by Leslie Anne Tarabella with Linda Higbee Smith
Karl and Erika Pellinat in their adopted city of Fairhope, AL
It isn’t a lack of words that makes this story difficult to tell. Instead, it’s because there is so much to tell, it’s hard to know where to begin. Karl and Erika Pellinat’s love story is an example of God’s beautiful timing, and yet it began with the horrors of war.
Captured by the Russian Army as WWII was ending and forced at gun point to join thousands of other young men on a march to a prison camp, young Karl jumped into a cold, wet sewer pipe and hid for 14 hours until the soldiers passed by. He fled to a nearby farmhouse where the sympathetic owners gave him shelter while advising him on a safe place to swim across a river to avoid capture.
After ducking through small towns for several weeks, Karl finally made his way home to Berlin, where he earned an engineering degree and worked to rebuild the ravaged city. As life under Russian occupation became increasingly difficult and a new wall began to separate East from West Berlin, Karl realized if he was to live as a free man, he must make yet another escape.
Standing across from the heavily guarded border between East and West Berlin, Karl asked God for help, and within the hour, a passing truck backfired, causing the guards to be distracted. Karl seized the opportunity and sprinted for the wall where he dove over a thick barricade of barbed wire. It was once again, God’s perfect timing that brought him to freedom.
Erika’s story had similar elements of danger and along with her family, fled from the Russian Army in 1945. Reunited after three weeks of confusing separation, Erika’s family settled into a refugee camp. Her siblings later died and after a few years of working in a children’s hospital, Erika made the decision to attempt an escape from Berlin. Taking only a few possessions and layering what little clothing she had, Erika left everything else behind, including her parents.
After suffering unspeakable hardships, both Karl and Erika were brought together once again by God’s good timing. The two decided on the same day, to attend the same Lutheran church, and join the same choir. Love at first sight was bliss after such harrowing years of suffering. After their first and only date, Karl left on a pre-planned trip to America in search of work. Staying in touch the old-fashioned way, with paper, ink, envelopes and stamps, their long-distance courtship blossomed. Erika finally joined Karl in Chicago, where they were married.
To strangers, Karl and Erika’s heavy German accents often seemed stern, yet their gentle spirit and love for others drew new friends to them everywhere they lived. Karl was awarded a patent used by IBM mainframes in the steel industry. Their son Martin completed the family as they were transferred over the years to Pennsylvania, Illinois, South Carolina, Michigan and Kentucky. Everywhere the Pellinats lived, they made church involvement a priority and joined the choir as well as many community groups.
The hardships of their childhood and teen years could have easily left Karl and Erika bitter and angry, but instead, they focused on the joy they found in their new country and with one another. Always good listeners, they helped those around them and entertained in their home — often turning a regular evening into an impromptu party by wearing German attire and serving homecooked native dishes. The charismatic couple drew people to them with their joy for life and willingness to help anyone in need.
Their faith, which was once forbidden, played a strong role in the Pellinat’s story. Recognizing how they had been blessed, they gave back more kindness to others than they ever received. After 28 years with IBM, Karl and Erika retired to Fairhope, AL where they again made friends and served others. In order to keep the historical lessons of war alive, the Pellinats shared their story with students in area schools. You can see their presentations on YouTube by searching for; “Karl Pellinat, My Life in Germany” and “Erika Pellinat, My Two Escapes.”
Karl and Erika Pellinat with their son Martin.
Since they first met in Hamburg, Germany, Karl often referred to Erika as his “American Hamburger.” The two proudly drove themselves to Atlanta at the ages of 89 and 83 to be sworn in as official US citizens.
It wasn’t unusual to see the two holding hands and strolling arm in arm, even after moving into an assisted living facility. Their tenderness for each other was evident to all who knew them and Erika was heartbroken when Karl died of natural causes on November 17, 2020 at the age of 96. Erika clung to her son Martin for comfort, then unable to bear the thought of losing Karl, Erika passed away seven days later on November 24th.
Together, the Pellinats defied death by bravely turning their backs on the Greater German Reich. Trusting God’s timing helped them focus on a future full of hope. Making every day a celebration, the couple found love in America, in their son, and in each other. Valentine’s Day is only one day on the calendar, but Karl and Erika made their perfectly timed love last for a lifetime.
Linda Higbee Smith and Martin Pellinat contributed to this story.
This story first appeared in Advance Publication Newspapers.