Now that it’s spring, you’re apt to find Dorothy Mitchelson on the patio at the BTV Bistro, sharing a laugh with a neighbor, or enjoying a cup of tea.
After moving to Butterfield in 2018, she quickly found the bistro to be an easy place to make new friends – or just relax into the moment.
If you know Dorothy Mitchelson, you know she has a light, easy friendliness about her. She’s also someone who cares about helping those who are less fortunate — and who possesses a deep reserve of inner strength.
The story behind Dorothy’s strength and resilience dates back to another time, another place, another life, really. It’s a story that she has chosen to share with residents at Butterfield.
You see, this diminutive woman with lilt of a German accent spent part of her childhood under the terror régime of Adolph Hitler. With her father missing and feared killed, 8-year-old Dorothy and her mother were captured by the Gestapo while trying to flee Germany and sent to live at Dachau, the infamous Nazi camp, where they stayed until it was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945.
For the next seven years, Dorothy lived in Displaced Persons camps until she and her mother came to America. Finally, free in a strange new land, her life blossomed: she built a career in the U.S. Air Force, met and married the love of her life, and raised three beautiful children.
Dorothy Mitchelson’s story of triumph over tragedy has resonated with residents at the Village, and they’ve invited her to share it again and again. Most recently at the BTV Lodge to a group of about 40 people from First United Presbyterian Church.
“Each time I’ve given my story, I have people from the audience come up to me afterward,” she said. “Some were servicemen who were at Dachau when it was liberated, or they knew people who were there. There have been tearful reactions. One person said hearing my story helped him heal. There are still many people today who are affected by the horrible brutalities that happened there.”
TRIUMPH OVER TRAGEDY
In the 1920s, Dorothy’s father and his parents fled their home in Katyn, Russia, which was under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Her father Paul Pantelejewa attended the University of Prague in Czechoslovakia and met Dorothy’s mother, Magdalena Von Steeger, who hailed from Austria. After Dorothy was born, the family moved to East Germany, where her father worked for a German engineering firm. When Hitler took over, her father was forced to work for the Nazis.
Because of his nationality, Dorothy’s father was persecuted. In fact, his parents had both been shot and killed by Communists some time earlier.
“My father disappeared just before World War II was over,” Dorothy said. “We had the Red Cross searching for him, but thousands of people had disappeared during the war.”
Fearing their Russian name would draw attention to them and put their lives in danger, Dorothy and her mother tried to escape from Germany. They were caught by the Gestapo near Munich, imprisoned and sent to live at Dachau, in barracks just outside the front gates. That is where the Allied Forces found them when they stormed the camp in 1945.
“My mother communicated with the Americans who found us in a holding barrack to let them know that we were prisoners,” Dorothy said. “The Americans (initially) had no clue of the horrors that were inside.”
But they soon found out.
All across Europe, Displaced Persons camps were being established to house, feed and render aid to the many homeless people who had lost everything. Dorothy and her mother lived in DP camps over the next seven years at locations including Munich, Aschaffenburg, Wurzburg and Bremerhaven.
On Feb. 23, 1952, they left Germany for good, headed for the U.S. on a transport ship with a sponsor through the Church World Service. Mother and daughter arrived at Ellis Island and went to live with a kindhearted sponsor family, for whom Dorothy’s mother worked as a housekeeper and cook.
Now a teenager, Dorothy attended high school in Bedford Hills, N.Y., while living with a wonderful family who had daughters her age. She thrived in her new world.
“Coming to the U.S. and going to school, it was just so wonderful,” Dorothy said. “People were so kind and accepting. The family I was with, they gave me a pair of penny loafers with a penny in each one, and a pair of dungarees — I was American!”
FEAR NO MORE
Dorothy graduated in 1956 and worked briefly for Bell Telephone Company before joining the U.S. Air Force. She was stationed at MATS Air Force base in Charleston, S.C. – home to the 628th Air Wing.
“The Air Force was where I really learned to have confidence,” Mitchelson said. “Getting up at 3 a.m., following orders, doing a good job – all while keeping a positive attitude.”
She was assigned to the supply squadron of the purchase order department, where she met Stu Mitchelson, a young airman who was attending college at night. They began dating and fell in love.
Once their military tours ended, Stu returned home to Massachusetts to attend Boston University and graduated with a business degree. Now engaged to Stu, Dorothy went to live in Greenwich, Conn., to care for her mother, who was battling cancer. Sadly, Magdalena died on Dec. 28, 1959.
“My mother possessed so much strength,” Dorothy said. “At eight years old, my childhood was protected by good parents – especially my mother. Of course, she was living in fear. I did not understand at the time. But now almost sixty-four years later, I have come to the realization that ultimately she was able to see me graduate from high school and do things like join the Air Force – she had accomplished a good future for me.”
Dorothy and Stu were married in 1960 and made their home in the Boston area, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida to accommodate his job with an insurance company. They enjoyed traveling together, visiting family in Massachusetts, and watching their three children – Gary, Dana and Tracy – grow into successful adults.
Shortly after his retirement in 2005, Stu died of a heart attack. He and Dorothy had been married for 45 years.
In 2011, Dorothy’s daughter Dana’s husband, Chris, took a job at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville. The couple loved Northwest Arkansas and asked Dorothy to join them. She did and built a home in Fayetteville where she lived for five years until becoming a Village resident.
Between Butterfield’s lifelong learning classes, Tai Chi, dinner parties, and concerts at the BTV Performance Hall, Dorothy’s schedule stays full, and she likes it that way.
“This is the ideal place to live for me,” she said. “We have a wonderful calendar of events each month, and so many of the fun things to do are conveniently in-house. I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
Being part of the Village has given Dorothy time to devote to community projects she cares about. She’s been an active supporter of the Single Family Scholarship program of Northwest Arkansas, which provides support and access to higher education for single parents across the region.
Dorothy likens the warmth and support she encountered as a young person coming to the U.S. to the kindness and encouragement she’s received at Butterfield.
“Right away, my neighbors introduced themselves and asked what they could do to help me,” she said. “It’s automatic and something to pay forward. When I see we have a new person on our floor or in our area, I turn around and do the same thing for them.”
Dorothy has been working on writing her memoirs — a project that was initially intended solely as a gift to pass down to her children. The response to telling her story at BTV has been heartwarming and affirming.
“It’s wonderful to have this feedback from these wonderful people,” she said. “I’m grateful that there is still interest in these kinds of stories from the past. Stories are valuable and they’re the best gift you can give your children.”