Woman, 94, forms unlikely friendship with NYC middle schooler over German language

A woman with no family in New York City didn't talk to anyone at the nursing home until a middle school student said something that made her face light up. They recently celebrated her 94th birthday, too.

When Basti Williams, 14, an eighth-grader at the Allen-Stevenson School, visited the Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in the fall for a few hours with his classmates, he approached Hildegard, who was slouching down her wheelchair staring at a newspaper.

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Basti introduced himself, to no avail. The staff told him that Hildegard, whose last name was not released, mostly kept to herself. But since her name was of German descent, he tried again but this time, the youngster said it in German, which he is fluent in.

Hildegard, 94, talks with New York City middle schooler Basti Williams. The two became friends through their shared German heritage.

Hildegard, 94, talks with New York City middle schooler Basti Williams. The two became friends through their shared German heritage. (Basti Williams)

Hildegard’s face lit up. They started talking and as time went by, she began opening up, and shared with Basti about how she grew up in a Catholic home on the border of Poland and Czechoslovakia during World War II.

The 94-year-old woman spoke to Basti and other students from his school about being a little girl during the Holocaust. She told the group about how her mother wouldn't let her go out and play because they were so scared of "that man" and then told them about how it made her realize the most important thing to give the world is love.

“I froze, lots of emotions hit me at the same time, the look in her eyes filled with so much pain and sadness, bringing tears to my eyes," Basti recalls. "I started having flashbacks of what we learned during history class. And here I was, finding myself speaking to someone who lived through it all.”

Basti Williams and his family visit with Hildegard, who has become part of their family.

Basti Williams and his family visit with Hildegard, who has become part of their family. (Basti Williams)

Since that first meeting in the fall, Basti and his family have continued to visit Hildegard every week, and she has become a part of their family.

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“I was deeply touched when Basti’s family baked German pastries and came to visit me," she said. " It felt like long-distance family visiting: we shared baked goods and laughs. I don’t have many visitors and no family members left … what they have been doing for me and other residents is very nice and heartwarming.”

Basti Williams celebrates Hildegard's 94th birthday at the nursing home in the Upper East Side. The two became friends and eventually family through their shared German heritage.

Basti Williams celebrates Hildegard's 94th birthday at the nursing home in the Upper East Side. The two became friends and eventually family through their shared German heritage. (Basti Williams)

On Thursday, Basti and his family celebrated Hildegard's birthday at the nursing home with a cake and balloons.