Meet our next FREDA girl, Annelies Atchley. Annelies lives in her art studio in Tiburon, California and has dedicated her life to educating children. In 1958, (she was 22) she immigrated to the United States from Switzerland on the Queen Elizabeth. She had $60 in her pocket, spoke no English, and had a dream to teach Kindergarten. Annelies’ life is one adventure after another (she studied ceramics in Italy for 2 years, started 2 private schools in Marin County, is a master woodworker, basket weaver, doll maker and bee keeper. She is the strongest, most independent, but loving person we have ever met and her ability to story tell and share her history is so inspirational.
We asked her a few questions about her life so far:
Can you share your story of coming to America? What made you want to move here from Switzerland?
I came to America to learn English. I am from Switzerland and everyone in my family speaks 4-6 languages, so my father wanted me to move to either England or America to learn the language. I chose America. So, in 1958 I took a boat to New Jersey; I was alone, with $60 in my pocket and didn’t speak any English. My uncle knew a women in Milwaukee that needed an au pair, so I was determined to find her. When I arrived in the US I met a women that spoke French and she helped me track down the family I was to work for in Wisconsin. I worked for the family for 8 months and then I met the women who ultimately helped me become a Kindergarten teacher. She pushed me very hard to work for what I wanted. I arranged meetings with school boards, took english classes and ultimately was offered a role as a teacher.
Were you always interested in art?
I wanted to go to art school but my father did not agree with this decision. I was 16, so he sent me to work as an au pair for a family. They noticed that I was interested in art and design because of the things I was working on with the children and the clothes I was making them. They gave me a block of clay and I modeled the clay very quickly of the father as he sat reading the newspaper. It was an exact duplicate of him and he said “wow, I have never seen that.”
Sculpting is not something you learn. I was born with the talent of seeing the depth of things. He was so impressed he wanted to tell my mother of my talents. I asked him not to, because I knew they didn’t approve but he called anyway. My mom called a sculptress in Holland that did Gandhi and the most famous people in Europe and I was offered a position to be her apprentice. I told her, “Mom, I don’t want to mold in dead clay, I want to mold real flesh. I want to become a Kindergarten teacher.” I still now think of that. That I said that and at 16 years old.
Do you have a favorite period in your life and why?
Interesting because they all lead to something else, but my favorite thing was my time during the war in Holland with my grandmother. I got validated there as a human being. When I was in Switzerland I prayed EVERY night “God, make me like the others.” Like my brothers and sisters. In Holland I was the only child in the house and they were very nice to me. They accepted me for the way I was. The house where we lived (Basten Asbeck, which is now a museum) was a on a big piece of land and had a garden that was a mile long…we grew all the food for the people.
My grandfather was in the underground hiding Jews in the house, which I didn’t know they were hiding. I thought they were my aunts and uncles. I called them aunt and uncle and as child, I ended up saving their life.
I was in Kindergarten and the sirens came. Everyone in my family was going down in the cellar and I wanted my doll, so I went out the door and walked down the cobble stone path to the gate. It was a big wooden door, like a castle would have. I walked out and it was so quiet and I wondered what was happening so I went to the plaza and there were all these soldiers standing around. They saw me and were kind and nice to me. They even gave me candy. I heard a loud speaker and some of the soldiers started to cry and it turned to chaos. The soldiers lined up and in that plaza they marched out three, four, five, six streets out to the village. They arrived at my house as I was walking in the middle of street with them, them holding my hand as we walked. They wanted to break in to look inside and I said “no no no no. Don’t come in.” They listened to me and put a Hitler cross on the door, letting me in by myself. This was the time they picked up the Jews in our village. My grandfather was so mad at me but then he realized I saved the Jews in our house from being taken.
What is your life mantra or motto to live by?
Do as good as you can to others. I like to give. Just live to make other people happy. Live to make others peoples life easier. That is why I was a Kindergarten teacher….so children don’t have to be afraid; they can do what they need to do.