Meet Your Neighbor: Hillenbrand taught hundreds of local children to dance

1 month ago The News-Messenger

Meet Your Neighbor: Hillenbrand taught hundreds of local children to dance

After WWII, he left Germany and found new life and creativity in Fremont

FREMONT - Many people in Fremont know Ernst Hillenbrand, the ballet dancer who talks with a congenial German accent and taught hundreds of young girls to move gracefully across a stage.

Hillenbrand, who founded the Fremont Ballet School, danced with the Toledo Ballet, flew airplanes, and restored award-winning antique cars, gives the impression that his life has been filled with leisure.

On the contrary, Hillenbrand learned to embrace the good things in life because he had experienced humanity at its worst as a child growing up in Nazi Germany. He was born in Mainz in 1935, just four years before World War II began in Europe, to parents who defied the Nazis. They lived in constant fear of reprisal from their own government and of attack by enemy forces.

“I was born in the city, so we had air raids. We had bombings. By the time the war started, I was old enough to realize things were not so good,” Hillenbrand said. 

Hillenbrand lived with bombings, hid in family basement

Hillenbrand said the city was often attacked with phosphorous bombs.

“On impact, they exploded and would start a fire,” he said. “During the war, we spent a lot of time in our basement because of air raids. My dad had the basement shored up with posts and beams. Toward the end of the war, the air raids got stronger. The Allies wanted to destroy the whole idea of Germany.”

Hillenbrand wasn’t old enough to fight in the war, but his older brother and sister were forced to serve in the German Army and were eventually sent to Allied prison camps. Both survived the war.

All that time, his father served in an underground resistance against the Nazis.

“He was considered an untrustworthy German. He was in the underground against Hitler, but they couldn’t prove it, or he would have died,” Hillenbrand said.

Among other dangerous duties, Hillenbrand’s father would listen to the BBC’s German-language radio broadcasts that provided updates on military movements across Europe. Listening to the broadcasts was a crime under the Nazi regime.

“Minivans with antennas on top could pick up who was listening, so my dad had lookouts,” Hillenbrand said.

After the war, Hillenbrand became involved in gymnastics and then ballet. At the age of 16, he joined the Raimonda Ballet Company in Germany.

“I fell in love with ballet and all the lovely girls in it,” he said.

During a trip to America to visit family, he decided to stay.

“I wasn’t planning to stay. I couldn’t speak one word of the language. And I hadn’t thought ahead. How could I support myself dancing?” he said.

Herman Gonawein, a German-born homebuilder in Fremont, offered him a job.

“He invited me to come to Fremont. I had no clue about building a home, but I came to Fremont and fell in love with the area. I fell in love with the people,” Hillenbrand said.

Homebuilding eventually became a side job as Hillenbrand joined the ballet world in America. Homebuilding and dancing may seem like conflicting occupations, but each are founded on creativity. Choreographing a ballet isn’t completely different from designing a home. Throughout the years, Hillenbrand built 20 homes.

“I’ve always had a real love of creativity,” he said. 

Hillenbrand built the Fremont Ballet School

But ballet was his passion. Hillenbrand became a teacher for the Maria Miller Dance Studio in 1954 and joined the Toledo Ballet in 1956, where he remained for 40 years. He also danced with the Ballet Theater of Toledo, taught in Cleveland for a short time, and taught ballet at Heidelberg University for 35 years.

In 1964, he bought a house at 405 E. State St., moved the house to the back of the property (it’s still there), and built Fremont Ballet School in its place. There, he trained and inspired generations of dancers. In 2019, he sold the school to former student Lily Adams, who is carrying on Hillenbrand’s tradition.

“I’m so delighted Lily is in my life,” he said.

In his spare time, Hillenbrand learned to fly, but he sold his Cessna when he began restoring antique cars. He restored 18 cars from scratch, all of which won national awards from the prestigious Packard Club or Antique Automobile Club Association.

Hillenbrand’s childhood was filled with the trauma of war, but it cultivated the perspective that life can, regardless of hardship, be good.

“Growing up in the war, you were just more mature. You didn’t have that kid feeling in you. You were a young adult,” he said. “Over the years, I was so happy all the time. Life is precious. Life is wonderful.”

Contact correspondent Sheri Trusty at [email protected]
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