Readers of PJ Media may have noticed I have not published much lately at the website. That is because my mother, Traudel von Spakovsky, unexpectedly passed away recently just short of her 84th birthday. This has been pretty tough for my family — we are close-knit, which is not unusual for immigrant families like mine. But if the readers of PJ who usually read my political articles will indulge me, I want to tell you a bit about my mom because her story is so emblematic of the many members of her generation who survived World War II, and it is a story understood by so many immigrants to our shores. Unfortunately, so many of them are leaving us now that I am afraid that what their experiences can teach us is being lost.
What was amazing to me at the funeral service in Huntsville, Alabama, in the church where she had been a member for more than 30 years, was how little many of the attendees knew of the trauma my mother had experienced early in her life. She survived some of the worst fighting of World War II, but never spoke about it. She survived all of it because she was a woman who, just like our grandmother, had a heart of gold and a spine of steel. She lived a quiet but active life in Huntsville and we wish we had more years to spend with her.
Traudel was born in Breslau, Germany in 1928 in the midst of the Great Depression. Her parents wanted to name her Sonja, after Sonja Henie, the first international skating star of the 1920s. But they weren’t allowed to because of the rigid German law that said that only “approved” Germanic names could be used for children. That gives you a flavor of the culture she was born into, but also how different her parents were — they were people who were quietly willing to try to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.
Traudel’s father, Paul Glaeser, was our grandmother’s second husband. Her first husband died in the influenza epidemic that swept through Europe in the 1920s. When he died, the hyperinflation in Germany was so bad that the life insurance payment my grandmother received was just enough to buy a box of matches. I sometime worry that if we don’t get our federal budget and our borrowing under control, I may end up experiencing that same type of economic collapse, something unimaginable not too long ago.
Our mother was a superb dancer who started her ballerina training at the age of eight. She was the youngest person ever accepted into the ballet and opera company of the City of Breslau.
Not only did she dance, but she sang, too. The ballet and opera company in Breslau broadcast its performances on the radio, so she was singing in operas in national broadcasts as a child. Traudel successfully completed her professional examination as a ballerina at the age of only 16 in 1944 in Dresden. She was fortunate to have left the city to return to Breslau before Dresden was firebombed. In fact, in 1943 at the age of 15, she was dancing with a ballet company in Dessau, Germany, a city that was under constant bombing attacks. Performances were often interrupted as the company had to evacuate the theater and go down into bomb shelters.
She grew so fearful of the attacks and was so concerned about her family in Breslau that she quit the company and went back home. One month later the theater was destroyed in the middle of a performance by a direct hit — many of her friends were killed. When the Nazis ordered all of the theaters closed late in the war, my mother was forced to work in a factory under very hazardous conditions.
A few years ago our mother had to have extensive back surgery that left her in a rigid upper body cast for six months. One reason she needed that surgery was because of an injury she suffered when she was just a teenager. One night, as happened on too many occasions, a bombing raid hit Breslau. Traudel was rushing with one of her best friends to try to get into the basement bomb shelter. As she got to the top of the stairs, a bomb went off in the street. The blast blew Traudel down the stairs into the basement, injuring her back. Her friend did not survive.
We have a haunting oil painting of my mother when she was sixteen, painted by a severely wounded young soldier in a shelter as they waited out a bombing raid. The painting has spots all over it because they had to roll it up while it was still wet when they were forced to leave the shelter.
Traudel’s father was a businessman and her mother ran a flower shop. They had numerous problems during the 1930s and the war because they refused to join the Nazi Party and because Traudel’s maiden name was Glaeser, which everyone thought was Jewish.
In fact, our grandmother used Mom’s extensive ballerina training and singing lessons to keep her out of the Hitler Youth, telling the authorities that Traudel was simply too busy to be able to participate. That shows you just how wily our grandmother was. She was absolutely determined that Traudel and her three sisters would survive the war. They did so despite starvation, bombing raids, and an inability to escape Breslau because the Nazis wouldn’t let civilians leave until Christmas of 1944 during one of the bitterest and coldest winters on record. My mother’s family couldn’t even get close to the train station as panic set in and the crowds tried to desperately get onto the last trains leaving Breslau — trains already packed with refugees from other cities and towns further east who were fleeing the approaching Soviet troops. At one point the crowd panicked when it became clear there weren’t enough trains to evacuate everyone, and 60 to 70 children were crushed to death.
Staying in the city was not the worst thing that could have happened, however, even as the Soviet army approached. Many other families who could not evacuate by train tried to walk out of Breslau in the frigid January weather. Later that spring when the weather thawed, 90,000 corpses of men, women, and children who had frozen to death were found in ditches along the roads leading out of Breslau.