Memoir of the Past Brings World War II to the Present
By Mike Savicki
In the late 1930’s, as military forces reshaped Europe and the world braced for World War II, Johanna Cotter McCloskey lived a wonderful and privileged childhood in Breslau, Germany. Together with her parents, Helene and Georg, and her sister, Kiki, Johanna enjoyed many luxuries, attended school and celebrated the wonder of being a little girl in an exciting city. However, as Russian troops moved closer to her family home, and siege of Breslau began in 1945, everything changed for Johanna.
In the pre-dawn darkness of a cold January morning, she embraced her father for what she thought might be the final time and fled the city to save her life as the war approached. For nearly a year, Johanna lived as a refugee and dodged the Russian invaders as they moved across Europe. She left her only remaining possessions in a suitcase by the side of a road because she grew too weak to carry it and continued along with only the clothes on her back and a small journal in her pocket. Her coat became “a house, bed, blanket and pillow” while she endured seemingly endless months of hardship. By the end of her ordeal, her journal overflowed with details of a life transformed from luxury to extreme poverty.
Just over a month ago, sitting in the afternoon sun at her home near Lake Norman, Johanna removed that same journal from a small memory box. Its pages were yellowed with age and the ink had faded to the point of barely being legible. Nevertheless, the journal had remained with her for over sixty years. Imagine the places it had been.
“I had no need or desire to ever look at it,” Johanna said. “But from this journal, the idea for a book began to grow.” After attending a book signing in Davidson by a fellow German author, and sharing small bits of her story with others that day, friends and family began to encourage Johanna to write about her ordeals.
“Writing about yourself and your misery after sixty years is very tough. I never planned to write a book,” she told me. “I didn’t want to think about the experience because it was so painful, but people told me I owed it to my children and everyone to write it. My boys knew almost nothing of my flight.”
Flight from the Russians, A German Teenager’s World War II Ordeal vividly details Johanna Cotter McCloskey’s life, from growing up in Breslau, Germany, to fleeing the Russian invaders and later coming to America to build a new life. She writes about sleeping in burned-out buildings, eating whatever she could find and wondering, all along, if her father and sister had survived the siege.
“We looked at Johanna’s journal and, suddenly, we had history,” stated Margaret Bigger, an editor and author who worked with Johanna. “We had history that we could verify.” The book was published on the occasion of her eightieth birthday in 2005.
Johanna now speaks freely about her love of painting and the experiences of her life. She speaks about coming to America with her first husband, Charlie, raising three boys (Tom, Robbie and Peter), going back to school for both a bachelor and masters degree in Fine Arts and moving to North Carolina with her second husband, Buddy.
“The book created a lot of pain for me in my paintings and they became dull and not colorful anymore,” Johanna told me. “It became miserable for me to paint, but it is now coming back to me.” On the walls around her house that afternoon, the bright colors of her paintings seemed to jump off the walls, dance around the room and add to the brightness of the day.
For some Americans, it might seem difficult to accept a book written by a German in World War II. “You must realize we have this story because Johanna married an enemy,” said Margaret Bigger. “It says a lot about our culture because we don’t hold grudges. Americans are willing to move on, and that says a lot about our society today and who we are.”
Johanna was reunited with her father in December 1945. He remained in Breslau during the three-month siege and survived. Her sister survived, too, and now lives in Davidson. “My traumatic flight from the Russians became a flight into a fantastic future,” Johanna wrote.
And in our own lives, we should consider ourselves fortunate to meet someone as remarkable as Johanna Cotter McCloskey. Her book is a wonderful gift to us.
This article was originally published in the March 2006 edition of Lake Norman Magazine.