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U.S. soldiers kept her family alive during World War II. She's made nearly 600 blankets for veterans years later

Lyndsay Jones
Lena Doering of Normal, with the American flag tree outside of her door.

It's hard to miss Lena Doering's apartment.

Although there's more than one unit in her building at Adelaide Retirement Apartments in Normal with some sort of patriotic decor on display, she's the only person who's set up an American flag tree outside her door.

It's kind of like a Christmas tree — but the theme is "America." And instead of ornaments, small, U.S. flags hang from its branches and it's strung with red and blue lights.

This might sound a little over-the-top, but if you know Lena Doering, then this is very on-brand. Among the things she is known for are her homemade, red-white-and-blue blankets that she gives out — for free — to former military service members.

"It has to be a veteran. Nobody else is allowed to have those," she said recently in an interview.

Doering has been at her crotchet blanket-making operation for veterans for about 20 years now, and she's approaching the 600-blanket mark — although she's made so many that she doesn't keep exact track. This includes at least three blankets she intends to finish by the July 4 holiday "in case I find somebody" who needs one.

The children of World War II

For decades, with the approach of D-Day on June 6 and any other World War II-evoking military holiday on the calendar, it's been common to lament the ever-increasing rarity of living veterans from that global clash. But so many years have passed now that even the children of World War II are becoming a rarity themselves — like Lena Doering.

Doering was just 5 years old in 1940 when Germany, under Adolf Hitler, invaded Romania, where her family lived. They were rounded up and put on a train heading out of the country.

"I was a sick child and Hitler killed all sick children," Doering said. "So when we got on the train, the train stopped at one point and all of the sick children had to die."

Death, however, would not come before torture.

"They tortured me. Cut me up and then gave me back to my mother and said, 'When she's dead, throw her on the pile' with the rest of the kids,'" Doering said. "Well, my mother didn't let me die."

Doering says her family hid in a wooded area before eventually getting on a train to Poland weeks later. They would remain there for years until they had to flee again. She said when they did, the traveling family arrived at a literal fork-in-the-road.

There were two groups down the way at the end of either fork: One group was Russian soldiers and another group was American soldiers. Doering said they didn't initially recognize that one group was Americans; it was one of them that called out to them in German.

"He kept yelling at us to come (that way) and leave," she said. "We went with him and found out they were the American soldiers. So, they saved our lives. If it wouldn't have been for that, we would all be dead."

Doering believes this was no coincidence.

"They were looking out for wagons and people crossing to get to safety. That's what the American soldiers did: Watch out for all of us," she said.

Deep devotion to the U.S. and its veterans

It's from these experiences that Doering draws her deep devotion to the U.S. and its veterans in general. Her late husband, Heinz, another child of World War II, another member of a German family trying to flee a war-torn scene, felt that same gratitude.

In an attempt to cross a small body of water, an American soldier grabbed Heinz, then 10 years old, and ended up taking a bullet for him.

"He was saved in that way," Lena Doering said of her husband. "When we came over here, we tried our best, but we could never find that man."

In the 1950s, both of their families emigrated from Europe to the U.S. — Lena's family to Bloomington-Normal and Heinz's family to Indiana. Eventually, they met and married in an all-German ceremony at a church in Danvers.

Neither of them ever visited Germany again. There were too many bad memories for both of them. Besides that, the shadow of the war followed them when they came to the U.S.

"I was a hateful person because of all of what I went through," Lena Doering said. "He taught me how to love myself — which I could never. I never liked myself."

Lyndsay Jones
Lena Doering has been at her crotchet blanket-making operation for veterans for about 20 years now, and she's approaching the 600-blanket mark.

Lena said it was Heinz who gave her the idea to begin making blankets for veterans. She said she remembers how he would stand particularly tall for the American national anthem, how they never missed a Veteran's Day or July 4 parade. Heinz had even joked about hoping to win the lottery so he could use the money to house homeless veterans.

"Before he passed (in 2005), he asked me if I would do something for the veterans. He said, 'Whatever it is — do something for the veterans.' I says, 'Well, I could crochet,'" Lena said. "He said, 'Good. Crochet a blanket and start giving them (out) and see what you do.'

"He passed away before he could see what I really did."

Most of the veterans that receive a blanket from Lena Doering did not serve during the World War II years. One man who received a blanket brought this up to her — saying "we didn't do that much."

"I says, 'Yes you did. You saved my life. You saved my husband's life.' He said 'But I didn't do it.' I says, 'I don't care. It was one of you people that did it and that's what matters to me,'" she said.

Lena Doering's blankets are more than a product of labor, and they're more than a trite gift: They're the tangible expression of a deep gratitude, born from a horrific, traumatic situation, that has yet to fade from her memory.

And if you thought some 600-or-so blankets was a lot for one woman to make in 20 years, Lena Doering would tell you she's nowhere close to being finished.

"I'm going to be 88 this year. My grandkids tell me I'm going to be 100. Can you imagine how many more blankets I'm going to make?"

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.