By Cyd King
If you know Wulf and Ingrid Polonius, you know this well-traveled couple who are devoted philanthropists not afraid to get their hands dirty to help others, always seem to be looking on the bright side.
BTV residents since 2017, the Poloniuses suffered tremendously as youth in war-torn Germany and witnessed human devastation on a grand scale. But each and every day, the couple make it a priority to practice gratitude. And, they take it a step further: they put their gratitude to work, making personal sacrifices and sometimes tough decisions to help impoverished strangers living worlds away.
Ingrid and Wulfran “Wulf ” Polonius grew up in Germany and met at a dance hall years after World War II ended. The theme of the dance was “Carnival.” Wulf wore an original Marine uniform and Ingrid wore a top with the hand-painted slogan: “Catch a fish.”
She was in high school; he was working as a pharmacy apprentice. They married in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up.
The decades that followed would take the couple to Brazil and eventually to the United States, where they’ve spent the last 44 years.
Each location presented a new set of new challenges for the couple and their two children. Yet they joined
groups with whom they continually sought to help the underprivileged and outcast: residents of a leper colony in Brazil; students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Poloniuses’ adopted hometown of Ridgefield, Conn.; and the under-educated and disenfranchised men and women they came to know in a prison ministry.
With other volunteers, the couple conducted religious retreat weekends called The Walk to Emmaus at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Wulf and Ingrid and others in the Emmaus group met with prisoners two nights a week for more than 30 years.
“It was never a chore,” said Ingrid, who taught GED classes to the inmates at Garner State Prison in Newtown, Conn.
The Poloniuses also provided aid to Nicaraguans through a charitable venture called Quest for Peace. Wulf was treasurer of the group for 20 years and traveled to Nicaragua four times, once with Ingrid, to visit the foreign program the couple still supports.
“We visited an orphanage in the slums of Managua,” Ingrid said in a 2005 article in The News-Times in Danbury. “Four of the children there had been found living on the dump. The youngest was 7-months-old.”
After retiring in the Northeast, the couple moved to Fayetteville in 2017 to be close to their daughter, Ines.
At the Poloniuses’ Butterfield Trail Village home, they’ve surrounded themselves with mementoes from their lives, from Amazon Indian pottery acquired during their six years in Brazil, to Ingrid’s personal effects from her childhood during the second World War.
THE HUNGER WINTER
Ingrid was 3 when the war broke out and she quickly became all too familiar with the hardships it brought. Constant bombings had her family running back and forth to an overcrowded bunker 20 minutes away in her native city of Kassel.
The bunker had “very poor lighting and very poor ventilation,” Ingrid said. Occupants stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and one long night there was not even enough oxygen to light a match. A baby died in the bunker that night, not far from Ingrid.
For the last four months of the war, Hitler had ordered mothers with small children to be evacuated to the countryside. They soon experienced American tanks rolling through the village, and American soldiers kicked open the door to a farmhouse basement where Ingrid’s family was staying. Finally, a clear sign the war was over; Ingrid and her siblings were more interested in the half-eaten field ration one of the soldiers was holding.
The post-war food crisis of 1945-48 extended their suffering. “There was nothing to buy, nothing to eat,” Ingrid recalled. The family lived off what they could glean from the farmers’ fields after harvest.
If not for generosity of American Quakers who supplied school children with nutritious, warm lunches, their survival would have been in question. The container for this daily meal still has a prominent place in Ingrid’s kitchen at Butterfield.
After the war, at age 9, Ingrid found solace in organized sports, which sparked a keen interest in gymnastics. “That became my passion in life,” Ingrid said.
She was a champion in gymnastics at the University of Muenster. She also studied in Frankfurt and Dortmund, where she received teaching degrees in science and physical education. Ingrid taught geography, biology and physical education to middle-schoolers in Germany.
After she and Wulf settled in the U.S., she studied liberation theology with Gustavo Gutierrez at Boston College and received a Doctorate of Ministry at the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Ind. She retired in Connecticut as the director of Daystar, an adult education program of contemporary biblical scholarship.
BEYOND THE BUNKER
Wulf said the Polonius family name can be traced back to 1670, the end of the religious wars in Europe.
His father worked for Catholic newspapers in Germany in the early 1930s, but fear of running afoul of the Nazis caused him to relocate Wulf ’s mother and two older brothers to Berlin, where Wulf was born in 1934.
There, Wulf ‘s father took over a former Social Democratic newspaper, which led to his arrest and a three-month stint in prison.
“Later on, my father was forbidden from working at any newspaper or printing organization in Germany,” Wulf said.
Nightly bombardments forced the family to move in with Wulf’s paternal “oma” (grandmother) in Breslau, known today as Wroclaw, Poland. After some time, his maternal grandparents coaxed his mother into moving with her children back to Berlin. They made the move, but, tragically, during that same night his grandparents were killed when a bomb leveled their apartment building. More than 200 people died in the basement.
“From that moment on, we were in the bunker every single night with two exceptions – Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. That’s when the pilots didn’t like to fly,” Wulf said. In fear of a Russian takeover, in April of 1944 the family moved west. At the end of the war, Wulf and his family were hunkered in a dark bunker when Americans rushed in with flashlights.
Just after he and Ingrid married, Wulf received a doctorate degree in chemistry and began a long career as a director of technical operations in the pharmaceutical industry. He retired in 1995 as senior vice president of technical operations at Germany-based, and worldwide Boehringer Ingelheim.
HERE TO STAY
The couple’s daughter, Ines, and son, Joerg, were 1 and 4 when the family moved from Germany to Brazil in 1968. In the Brazilian city of San Paulo, the family lived without a telephone or mail service.
The city underwent economic and cultural changes during the Poloniuses’ time there. More families became able to afford cars, and Wulf ’s commute grew from a half-hour to 2 hours. Ingrid developed asthma from the toxic emissions.
Once they left Brazil, her asthma disappeared.
The family moved back to Germany for a brief period in 1974 before Wulf took on a new project in Oakland, Calif. They weren’t there long before he was called to plan and construct a pharmaceutical production facility in Ridgefield, Conn.
Ingrid and Wulf speak to each other mostly in German. Daughter Ines and son Joerg speak to each other in English and with their parents in German or English. Wulf is the only one in the family who still speaks some Portuguese, having had the opportunity to use it in his work setting.
Ines founded Communities Unlimited in Fayetteville, a not-for-profit that helps provide microloans to small businesses in seven states in the South. The organization also manages clean-water supplies and wastewater facilities.
Joerg is a pilot with American Airlines and lives in Miami.
Toward the end of their long tenure in Ridgefield, Ingrid developed severe spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within the spine. She lived in extreme pain and could barely walk, but she vowed to avoid surgery. Daughter Ines recommended acupuncture, and 147 treatments later, Ingrid was pain free.
“That made us think about how much longer we could live so far away and independently,” Ingrid said. On their last trip to Fayetteville as visitors, they took a tour at Butterfield. They were sold on becoming Village residents, and say they’re here to stay.