Those on the trains weren’t much luckier. Many were evacuated to Dresden, where on February 13, 1945, less than a month later, the city was bombed by British and American planes with incendiaries, starting a firestorm. Thousands of the refugees from Breslau were among the more than 50,000 people killed.
My mother was in Breslau when it was besieged by Soviet troops starting in February of 1945. At one point the children in the city, including Traudel and her younger sister, were forced to dig trenches on the outskirts of Breslau. To get back into the city, they had to run over a bridge as artillery shells screamed overhead.
Traudel was even arrested by the Gestapo when she went looking for her grandparents and ventured into a part of city that had been banned to civilians. She was released only after a young Army officer, a friend of the family who later married her younger sister, managed to get her freed.
She survived the ravaging of Breslau by Russian troops, who pillaged and raped their way through the city. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed and 10,000 civilians were killed in the house-to-house fighting. When Russian troops came into Breslau, Traudel and her family found refuge in the priest’s rectory of one of the churches in the city. They could hear civilians screaming in the streets as they were assaulted and killed by Russian soldiers. At one point, my mother and her sisters hid on the roof as soldiers gang raped her grandmother while they forced her grandfather to watch.
Like so many others, my mother’s professional career as a ballerina was cut short by World War II. We have a photograph of her that was taken right after the war ended. It is the type of glamour shot you see of Hollywood actresses from the 1940s. She is stunningly beautiful in that picture. We have no doubt that with her talent for dancing, singing, and acting, that if there had not been a war she could have had a wonderful career, maybe even going to Hollywood and becoming a film star like Ingrid Bergman. That is how much promise one sees in that one photograph.
When Breslau and other parts of Silesia were handed over to Poland in 1946 and all Germans were ordered to leave, our grandmother managed to smuggle all of her daughters and herself into Western Germany. Traudel was very fortunate once again.
The Soviets would not allow the family to leave together, so my mother had to leave with her grandparents and one of her childhood friends. They were loaded into cattle cars and during the trip west, at one stop, they heard clanking sounds. They later learned that the Soviet troops had divided the train in half, with their car at the very end. The other half of the train was sent east into the Soviet Union, where the Germans disappeared into the slave labor camps of Joseph Stalin.
Our mother made her way with the help of the Red Cross to a refugee camp in the American-occupied sector of Germany in Bavaria, where she joined the rest of her family and met our father. Anatol von Spakovsky was a former White Russian officer who had fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
When the Communists took over at the end of the civil war, he escaped and settled in Slovenia where he became a college professor. He was forced to flee in 1944 to avoid being arrested and shot by Tito and Yugoslavian Communists.
Our parents were married on January 23, 1948 in the refugee camp where they had met. Our father had a gold family ring that he took to a jeweler, who melted it down and created two wedding rings, one for our mother and one for our father — I wear my father’s ring today as my wedding ring.