By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
When Jack Schultz sat down to interview his longtime friend Dr. Peter Kollinger about his 93 years of joy, accomplishment and survival, the project involved writing a newspaper or magazine article.
“I was just thinking of an article. Then it expanded into more. Then it became a book,” Schultz explained during a lecture and book-signing for “Peter Kollinger: An Incredible 90+ Years.” “Peter kept talking and I just kept taking notes.”
Schultz had heard Dr. Kollinger first tell many of his memories after competitive volleyball games at the Schultz home on the shore of Lake Sara. There was talk of East European history and culture and the nightmares of life there after World War II ended.
“I’ve known Peter for 50 years. So I wanted to tell his story and that’s when I invited him down to Texas to stay for some interviews,” said Schultz, who later interviewed Hans Kollinger, Peter’s cousin. This is the Effingham businessman’s third book. He also authored “Boomtown USA” and co-authored with Dr. Nash Naam “Lake Sara: The Hidden Jewel in America’s Heartland.”
On Monday night, Schultz sat between Peter and Hans as they told their stories to an overflow crowd in the lower level meeting room of the Suzette Brumleve Memorial Effingham Library. Some wanted to buy the book, while others wanted to hear first-hand from the two men well-known in the Effingham, Beecher City and Stewardson communities.
The book tells how Peter Kollinger and Hans Kollinger escaped death and confinement in Eastern Europe with the end of World War II and the Communist takeover of that region.
Both men grew up in village of Ernsthausen, a German Catholic community, in the eastern section of the former country of Yugoslavia. They were part of a German minority with the section of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which was dissolved at the end of the First World War.
Peter told of how he learned football — or soccer — from his grandfather. And he learned how not to motivate a stubborn donkey pulling cans of goat milk. It involved a stick; not a whip.
The cousins had a good life in Yugoslavia. Then late in 1944, Peter was forced into the German Army to fight against the Soviet Army advancing into Poland. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Kollinger threw down his rifle and started marching back to restart his life from before the war.
He luckily gained some civilian clothes before he met a group of Czech guards. They were shooting German soldiers, possibly SS troops, out of revenge. Others were being sent to labor camps.
He later learned it was unsafe to travel back to Ernsthausen. He found out that family members, including Hans, were being held in concentration camps. It was part of the post-war madness in Eastern Europe.
“Peter explained to me that when the Germans controlled Yugoslavia, the German communities were treated well. The Serbian villages were not. Then after the war, the Communists took over and they were seeking revenge. Livestock was considered more valuable than some people after the war,” Schultz explained.
Hans Kollinger, an 84-year-old now living outside Beecher City, offered details on how he and his family escaped from a concentration camp across Yugoslavia. There were many close calls. At one point, a loved one feared what would happen if they went on. They had been put through a series of tortures in a water-filled cellar when they tried to escape during the previous winter.
“We tried to escape during February. When you’re desperate, you’ll try anything,” Hans said.
Through luck and a Hungarian officer’s concern for his mistress seeking safety, Hans and his family made it to Austria. They escaped the Iron Curtain.
Peter Kollinger would complete medical school in Austria. He also told how he met his future wife, Milla, in a fairy tale setting by a mountain stream. He helped her with preparing some beans – not so romantic – but it gained him a date after the dark-haired teenager gained permission for a first date from her father.
They were married and eventually set off for America, like Kollinger’s medical school classmate, Hans Rollinger, who later ended up in Illinois with work in Farina and then Vandalia.
The Kollingers — Peter’s parents came with him on the sea voyage to the United States — arrived in New York and celebrated when they saw the Statue of Liberty. Kollinger remembers how his father’s status was questioned because of his loss of an arm years before. Franz Kollinger would work for years in America and did not collect a Social Security check until he was 85.
First moving to Chicago, the Kollingers invested in real estate, which proved quite lucrative. Then opportunity came for practicing medicine in downstate Illinois in a town called Stewardson.
When Dr. Kollinger arrived in Stewardson, he was met by a group of leading citizens. There was a reception at the school. Some residents had planted a garden for the young doctor and his wife. There was even a nice deal on a large brick house that served as his doctor office.
Dr. Kollinger made sure he was fair on his fees. He first charged $3 for visits to his office. House calls were $4 in town. He added another $1 if he had to go out into the country.
Peter and Milla would raise three boys — Herbert, Edwin and Erich– in Stewardson. After being affiliated with St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital – what some of his early patients in Shelby County referred to as the Nuns’ Hospital – for most of his time in Stewardson, Kollinger moved to Effingham.
While there, he would be instrumental in turning Effingham into a regional medical center, Schultz said.
“He built Lake Land Nursing Center. He helped with the surgical center. He helped bring the first CAT scan into Effingham. He recruited many doctors to come to Effingham. He was very visionary,” Schultz said.
Milla died in 2014. Edwin died about one year ago. Dr. Rollinger is gone now as well. But Peter Kollinger is still going strong at age 93.
“He goes to the Sports Center to work out five days a week. And he talks with a lot of people out there, too,” Schultz said.
On Monday night, there were 80 copies of the book sold, which left many of the audience asking for more. Schultz said extra copies will be available in about 10 days at the local library and the Agracel office in Effingham.
But Dr. Kollinger mentioned he has some hand-written notes on memories and facts he forgot to offer to Schultz during the interviews. Will there be an expanded edition of Peter Kollinger’s life story?
“That’s another story,” Schultz said.