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World War II refugee talks of plight

During her time as a German refugee running from the “raping Russians” during World War II, Johanna McCloskey recorded the harsh realities of her life in a small journal.
That journal traveled with her on hikes through “snow up to your hips,” on rides hitched on freight trains, milk trucks and coal cars.
For nine months of traveling, McCloskey’s goal was to escape Russian-occupied territory and make it to western Germany and eventually the United States. The trip was not easy and more than once, the miserable teenager contemplated suicide.
“It was a scary experience and a very lonesome one, really,” she said.
McCloskey, now 80, spent much of her adult life trying to forget that experience.
She never told her family about the frostbite and cold. She didn’t speak of seeing Holocaust victims released from concentration camps or running from her hometown to escape “the raping and killing and what-not” that ensued once Russian troops took over.
Instead, she tucked it away. Eventually, even her journal was illegible as age made the pages darker and the pencil lighter.
One day, however, she went to hear Krista Blume Mercer read from her book, “German War Child.” Upon hearing that story, McCloskey spoke up about her own.
“People there were just mesmerized by the little part of the story that she told,” said Margaret Bigger, who went on to become McCloskey’s editor.
After the reading, Bigger convinced McCloskey to join a class she was teaching on putting memories down on paper for family.
That first meeting eventually turned into the book, “Flight from the Russians, a German Teenager’s World War II Ordeals.” One of the key components of writing the book was unlocking the mysteries of McCloskey’s journal.
With the magic of modern technology, McCloskey managed to copy the pages and make them bigger, lighter and legible.
The result was temporarily traumatizing.
“I was very unnerved by what I had gone through and forgotten,” she said. “It came back and engulfed me.”
McCloskey’s journey began when she was 19 years old and working as a secretary for the Hitler Youth. Her family did their patriotic duty and supported Hitler.
“That was the way life was, I didn’t have anything to compare it to,” she said. “I didn’t know anything else. That’s all I can say.”
While working as a secretary in east Germany in 1945, Russian troops were pushing into the country.
This is what instigated McCloskey’s escape, along with the flight of many other women and children in eastern Germany.
Before she left, her boss told her he was saving a cyanide pill for her – just in case. The two were separated, and she never received the pill. McCloskey believes if she had, she would not be alive today.
After fleeing her home, McCloskey traveled from town to town seeking a safe place with no word from her family.
Her fellow refugees stole from her. She struggled to find food and lodging, especially after destroying her identification when overcome by fear. Throughout the journey, there was the threat of the Russian soldiers.
“I tell you, my biggest fear was being raped, and I had close calls,” she said.
She was often isolated and depressed, writing in her journal, “I feel so very lonely, even though I am surrounded by so many. I am full of despair and terribly homesick like never before.”
After much struggle, however, McCloskey did make it to American-occupied territory. Following the end of the war, she even worked for the United States service in West Germany.
That was where she met Charlie Cotter, “a handsome Boston Irish G.I., very handsome.”
The romance turned into marriage, and McCloskey was granted her wish – she moved to America.
“I was actually in heaven,” she said. “I was American and I had my Charlie.”
The couple had three children. They eventually divorced, but McCloskey remembers it as “a great love.”
After raising her children, McCloskey went to college, eventually earning her master of fine arts degree. Thereafter, she became recognized for her oil paintings and weavings, many of which are now in private collections.
Her piece, “Flucht, 1945,” adorns the cover of her book. It depicts the bloody flight of refugees in the dirty snow from her hometown.
Although she spent most of her adult life living in the north, she chose to move to Denver in 1989 to be closer to her son, who lives in Davidson.
She now lives with her second husband and spends time creating art and working out. She also has to fit book signings into her schedule.
“Flight from the Russians” is available on Amazon.com and can be ordered from bookstores including North State Books in Lincolnton.
For McCloskey, the experience has been a little overwhelming.
“I’m not shy. I have a big mouth,” she said. “But when it comes to myself, I feel embarrassed.”
Her editor, for one, is happy McCloskey overcame that embarrassment in order to tell her story.
by Sarah Grano

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