'Until We Meet Again': An Immigrant Heroine Passes On
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.
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.
Economic conditions were still so bad in Germany then that Traudel, a gifted seamstress, made her own wedding dress from a silk parachute that our grandmother managed to find on the black market. And when her father died shortly after the birth of her first child, my older sister, she had to dye her wedding dress black so she would have something to wear to the funeral.
In 1951, just like many other European refuges, our parents immigrated to the United States with a three-year-old daughter. My mother spoke no English at all and they arrived in the United States with almost nothing more than their clothes and their child -- the same American story of so many other immigrants before them and since. Our father had been promised a teaching job at a college, but the visa process took so long that by the time they got here, the offer had fallen through. They settled in Chicago where my brother and my other sister were born and our father worked in a factory.
In 1957, the family moved to Jacksonville, Alabama, where our father was finally able to get a teaching job as a professor at Jacksonville State University and my mother became an operating room secretary at a local hospital. She also taught classical ballet and the German language at Fort McClellan. They eventually ended up in Huntsville, Alabama (Rocket City USA), where I grew up.
Huntsville was a fascinating place to live for all of us when we arrived there in the midst of the Apollo moon program. My parents became friends with many of the German scientists and engineers who lived in Huntsville and had come there in the 1950s to help start America’s space program (one of them, at the age of 98, was at my mother’s memorial service).
My mother’s experiences during the war helped shape her, but they did not dominate her life. Though she had emotional scars from the war, she spent over 60 years in the United States, becoming a proud American citizen not too long after she immigrated here.
We had a wonderful childhood. We never had a lot of money. But we never wanted for anything, and I can never remember thinking that we were somehow deprived. We had a happy house with not only our father and mother, but with our grandmother who came to the U.S. a few years after my parents immigrated.
We were typical American kids during the day growing up in Alabama. But we went home to a house where at dinner every night, there were detailed discussions and debates about history, politics, science, culture, and the arts. And stories about life in dictatorships and how fortunate we were to be growing up in freedom in our great democracy. While we realized how terrible our parents’ experiences had been, we also realized that those experiences helped spur their decision to immigrate to the United States -- thank goodness that gave us the ability to be Americans.
We learned more from our father and mother at the dinner table than we ever learned in school. And we will always be eternally grateful to our parents for that education and the love they gave to all of their children.
Of course, there were occasional cultural hiccups. We still kid my older sister about how she had to spend hours convincing our father and mother out of having our father put on his tuxedo and escorting Christine to her high school prom her senior year. That was how things had been done in Old Europe, and it was hard to convince our parents that things were a bit different here. Although my sister says it turned out her date was so bad she would have had more fun with our father. Now that I have teenage daughters, I think my father’s instincts were correct.
Everywhere we lived, our parents inculcated us in the arts, taking us to concerts, plays, libraries, and museums; introducing us to classical music and ballet and the many things they felt were important to the cultural education of their children.
Our mother taught us a great many things, one of the most important of which is that you cannot give up no matter how dark the future looks. Her example showed us the perseverance and admirable determination that allowed her to survive near escapes from death, starvation, poverty, the loss of those you love, and moving to a new place to start over where you don’t even speak the language and you don’t have a penny to your name. She was a tremendous example to all of us of our duty to our family and how to overcome adversity.
When I was going through a particularly nasty confirmation battle several years ago when I was nominated to the FEC, friends used to ask me how I could stand the personally venomous, malicious, and vitriolic attacks launched on me by the Left. I used to laugh at that, because I knew that it was nothing compared to what my parents, and particularly my mother, had gone through. She gave me the perspective to realize that.
We remain grateful for the many years we had of my mother’s graceful and loving presence and we have faith that she has been reunited with our father, our grandmother, and her grandparents. We did not say goodbye to her at her memorial service because that is a word that has a finality to it that we do not accept.
The Germans have a farewell that means until we meet again. So our family only said “Auf Wiedersehen.”