FREEDOM JOURNEY

A story of survival and hope

 

Shana Neesvig

PERSONAL HISTORY - Michael Totzauer holds a piece of the Berlin Wall that was gathered by his son, David, who took part in breaking down the communist-built wall in November 1989.

"This is a solemn, but glorious hour," President Harry S. Truman announced over radio waves reaching across America. "I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day."

The day was May 8, 1945, when Germans unconditionally surrendered during World War II; finalizing the reign of the Third Reich and the war itself.

Over vast seas, in Czechoslovakia, 16-year-old Michael Totzauer was busy digging trenches for the German military. Now, 75 years later, he recalls May 8, 1945, V-E (Victory in Europe) Day with clarity and celebration.

In Plzen (or Pilsen, as named by Germans and used by Americans, something Michael cannot understand), Czechoslovakia, on December 12, 1928, Maria Rozena Totzauer brought Michael into the world. Sadly, 10 years later, Michael's father died from tuberculosis, leaving mother and son to fend for themselves during perhaps the most unstable and dangerous times in European history.

"The Germans were heading into Czechoslovakia and taking a piece at a time," said Michael, now 91. "They would come to the border of Poland and enter Czechoslovakia. They loved Hitler, they would get citizenship in Czechoslovakia," he continued. "They had all the Czech rights but loved Hitler and were taking over. This was their thinking and they were hated by us Czechs."


Sanders County Ledger canvas prints

As the German military continued to take Czechoslovakia, "one chunk and then another and another," Hitler's following, who resided in Czechoslovakia, sent claim to him that they were "being prosecuted by the Czechs," Michael stated, recalling 1939.

The Czechs were on their own, that is until 1942, when other countries were being influenced by German and Russian control. "Other countries were not involved until they were being attacked," he said. "Countries began bombing in Czechoslovakia." Referencing Michael's antiqued pages of journal entries that were written through time, preserving historically significant details, he recalled that bombings occurred during the day by American soldiers and at night, the British bombed, trying to hit German utilized railroads and factories, ridding Nazi influence.

Captured

The war with the Nazis took place from 1940 to 1945. "When I was 14 years old (in 1942), they closed the schools and put us boys on trains to Poland borders, the fighting front where Russians were also invading," recalls Michael, who admitted that he and the other boys were angrily throwing rocks off the train trying to demolish anything they could out of hatred for the Nazis. "They (the Germans) said, 'OK, you're going to go dig the trenches for us.'" The young boys were captured and ordered to help the Germans defend themselves from the Russian invasion, in their own country of Czechoslovakia.


As armed German soldiers guarded the young boys while digging trenches, Michael and the other boys found themselves surrounded by bombings in the distance that began to grow closer. "And here we were, stuck in the middle of the Russians fighting the Germans and the Germans fighting the Russians," on Czechoslovakian soil. "This is something I will never forget," he said with clear, bold eyes partnered with the unwavering voice of a brave, seasoned gentleman.

As the days of captivity and digging trenches continued, Michael recalled May 8, 1945, when a "lady on the radio who spoke in my language told the soldiers they were losing." She announced the Germans surrendered. Michael recalled the Nazi soldiers tearing off their uniforms because they did not want to be recognized as a German any longer. The end of Nazi rule in Czechoslovakia had arrived.

Although it seemed good news to all Czechoslovakians, the Nazi surrender was the beginning of another era, as Russian tanks continued their move across borders embarking into Czech territory. "Russian tanks were driving down the main highway on their way to Praha (Prague)," Michael recollects. Upon being released from his capture, he walked from where he was digging trenches, "in the middle of nowhere.


"I walked for several days" before catching a flatbed equipment train to Prague, on my way home, to Plzen." He recalls the train being fully loaded with kids and soldiers who would just jump on, catching a ride home. "Many good Czechs were giving food to us kids along the way," he said of the train ride through his native land.

Michael explained with solemn, melancholy words how he arrived just days after the hanging of Germans from lampposts in the city of Prague, which took place a few days after May 8. A sobering thought of the anger, hatred and how the Czech people felt about the end of the Nazi invasion.

After days of travel, Michael arrived in Prague and found that the United Nations had assumed command there and was forbidding continued movement of the Russians through Czechoslovakia. Michael continued home, heading west another 56 miles to Plzen. "When I finally got home, I'd finally seen an American for my first time," he said, throwing his hands in the air with excitement, reflecting utmost gratitude for the assistance from American soldiers. "I found my mother, and two American soldiers; one black and one white. They were invited in for dinner that night!"

Written in the journal entries was something that had made a deep impression on Michael. With American arrival and cleansing of the Czech lands of Nazi rule, the soldiers went to prison camps and rescued those the Germans had captured. Beverly, Michael's wife of 60 years, read from the writings, "Those in camp were like walking skeletons. People were warned not to feed them because it would kill them," from lack of subsistence for so long.

Out with the Bad, In with Worse

For the next few years, Michael reclaimed a fairly normal life. He re-enrolled in school, attending a Czechoslovakian business college. While he was studying and gaining a strong, influential, anti-communist voice, the Russians were gaining control of Czechoslovakia and communism was taking hold.

"I was running into trouble and I knew they would get me because I was anti-communist," Michael said, reflecting on his fear felt at that time in 1948, when he, an outspoken anti-communist, graduated from college. "I knew when they (Russians) took people, they never came back. They were burned. I had to run away."

Michael explained the cruelty of the communists as far greater than that of the Nazis. "'Whatever you have to do, do it now,'" is what Michael said his communist uncle had told him upon meeting, "'because if I see you at the border, I will have to shoot you.'"

It was with two other friends that Michael planned his escape from Czechoslovakia in 1949, "leaving the country on train, going as far as we could" after his mother's brother-in-law forewarned him. They heeded caution and respected escapee recommendations relayed over radio waves by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). For starters, no plans of the escape were to be revealed to anyone... period. Second, escapees were to have developed a valid reason as to why they were in the border region, such as visiting relatives. Lastly, there were essential items to be taken on the voyage; all personal documentation (Documentation of Legitimacy), food (which consisted of a salami stick and hard bread) and lastly, black pepper to serve as a weapon of defense.

It was at this time the ever-lasting memory, to be forever engraved in Michael's mind, occurred. "This is when my crying mom and I walked to the streetcar, both knowing I wasn't coming back for many years – but would as soon as I could. I kept looking out the streetcar window at my crying mom, a picture I cannot get out of my mind." As both had suspected, Michael never returned home, to Czechoslavakia, while his mother was alive.

Escape, or not?

According to Michael, Russian communist soldiers were highly trained in noticing differences between the attire and behaviors that distinguished members of various regions within the country. Soldiers dressed as regular pedestrians would stage themselves outside the train station and pretend to be reading the newspaper. What they were really doing was paying close attention to passengers exiting the train, looking for potential escapees.


Sanders County Ledger Garage Sale Special

One of the boys travelling with Michael was not dressed appropriately enough to be from the district they travelled to and was spotted. Immediately, the boy was nabbed and taken away, while Michael and his friend continued to do their best to blend in with the locals, by behaving in jocular fashion, they headed to seclusion in a forested area. As the boys continued west, "anytime we crossed electrical lines, we would destroy them," Michael shared. "It was getting dark and we had to go through a communist platform with armed patrol up top," so they stayed still in the forest for the night and planned their next move.

"We heard gunfire and dogs in the near distance, so we decided to hunker down in a thicket and spread pepper," these words revealing the importance of the black pepper – to keep the dogs from catching their scent. "We heard the Russian soldiers and dogs as they passed right by us that night."

Three days later, the boys arrived at the long-awaited platform designating the border and were within reach of freedom. "I was crawling on my chest in the dark so we wouldn't be seen. We got under the platform and suddenly realized we crossed the border. It was October 15, 1949, and ironically, Michael, who was now 20 years old, found himself a free man. He was free in Germany, of all places, and under American protection.

"But the BBC had warned because the communists put up false signs making you think you were in Germany, but were in Czechoslovakia," Michael said. These fake border signs, placed just within the Czech side of the property line, were designed to trick escapees into thinking they were free when they actually were not. Just when they were delighting in their freedom, they were captured. Michael, who spent much time educating himself prior to his escape, recalls listening for the language and closely watching the people. He was trying to determine if they had been tricked or not, before revealing himself.

"The first thing I did was kiss the ground!" exclaimed Michael, after determining that he had indeed reached Germany... and freedom. "It was then that I found God, although I did not know who I was talking to at the time. I said, 'If you get me to the other side, free, I will look you up.'"

Crossing the Sea

Michael travelled on foot, joining millions of refugees from multiple European countries. They were collectively utilizing refugee camps under U.S. and American allies' control as a way to move toward finding a better life for themselves. "I was put into different refugee camps as I walked ahead, slowly, going from camp to camp. I had no money, so I could not take a train. I just walked and walked."

It was almost a year of sleeping on refugee camp cots, catching a quick camp meal and continuing on foot when Michael reached his desired destination, the United Nations resettlement headquarters in Holland. It was through this office that many refugees were granted admission to a country of their choice. Michael was granted an all-expense paid voyage to England, on the Princess Beatrix, to attend a business college that emphasized butler and waiter practices, something he already knew about from his college days in Czechoslovakia.

"I have no English words for how I felt," explained Michael, who speaks French, German, Russian and English, in addition to his native Czech language. "Overwhelming! I've never even seen the ocean. A big boat and going to the next country. My goodness, what a situation!"

Oh, Canada!

In England, Michael received two letters offering employment. One invited him to Australia where he would work on a ranch, "playing with kangaroos," he recalls with humor. The other from Toronto, Canada, as a waiter. Although both promised to take care of Michael, he said, "Well, I was not sure about the kangaroo thing, so I took the Canada letter."

Unsure how he would fund his move to Canada, a Czech friend informed Michael about possible financial help. Even though Michael was unsure if this was legitimate, he decided to look into it and contact the source in England. Turns out, it was authentic. A forward-thinking Czechoslovakian president, who was an escapee himself, believed the time would come when Czech refugees would need financial help resettling. It is with these funds, set aside in England by the president, that Michael received full funding for his resettlement. He rushed to get his immigration papers in line for his trek to Canada. With his visa in hand, he arrived in Halifax on February 20, 1952.

Taking a train to Toronto was the plan. With the president's designated funds, a train ticket was purchased, and Michael arrived in Toronto. It was here that a fellow Czech friend contacted Michael and connected him with other Czechs. He also was introduced to church. Michael repaid his promise made the moment he crossed into freedom. He did indeed "look him up," and he found God. "Jesus was my job" at the Czechoslovakian Baptist Church, said Michael.

Having lived such a busy life up to this point, Michael felt unsettled in Toronto and had his sights set further west. In 1954 he took a train to Vancouver, British Columbia, and applied to Vancouver Bible Institute. This same year, Beverly, who lived in Vancouver, also applied at the institute. Marriage and college graduation where achieved by both. The year was 1959.

America,

the Beautiful

Within a few years, the two received permanent American citizenship when they were called to pastor a small church in Twisp, Washington. Feeling there was more in store for them, they relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Michael attended Bethel College and earned his teaching degree. Minnesota's Lewiston High School hired Michael in 1965 to teach history and foreign language. On the side, he began lecturing at multiple locations about the dangers of communism; relevant given the era of the 1960s.

It did not take long for word of Michael's anti-communism talks to reach his homeland, which was still under communist order. He recalls his mother contacting him in 1966 to tell him that "I couldn't return. I'd be arrested." Wanted posters were dispatched throughout Plzen, carrying his name and photo. Because Michael was speaking out of order against communism, and pledging allegiance to the United States of America, the Russian communists were commanded to capture Michael.

With high stakes set on Michael, his mother, Maria, was also being closely monitored by the communists. She and Michael desired to see one another again, but it was certain he could not return to Plzen to reunite. Maria developed a plan, a lie, so she could leave the country and visit Michael and his family.

Maria went to communist authorities and told them she was going to get her son and bring him back. They agreed with her request, with conditions. It was said, "If you can bring him home, we will give him a job and house. All he has to do is denounce democracy and the United States of America." With dishonesty abound, she agreed, saying she was sure Michael would agree to these terms. The final factor was Maria had to pay for the travel ticket herself – impossible for her destitute economic status, as was the case with all Czechs living under communist rule.

"We did not have a lot of money either," Beverly said with tears settling low in her eyes. "We have four of our five children at this time and were not well off. We begged and borrowed eight hundred some-odd dollars and sent it. She came." It had been 17 years since mother and son has seen one another. It was a reunion they were able to celebrate for three months in the United States of America.

Maria was astounded with what America had to offer. "It was Christmas time," Beverly reminisced. "We went to the big store in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and filled two carts. Mom could not wrap her head around it," she said. "This is America! If you have the money, you can have all you want." In Czechoslovakia, people stood in line for hours upon hours to return home with one small loaf of bread and one milk, Michael added.

"'Your wife is magical,'" Michael and Beverly said with a longing smile. Maria said these words when she witnessed Beverly carry a load of dirty laundry downstairs, only to return with a clean, dry load minutes later. "I took her down to see the washer and dryer," Beverly said. Maria exclaimed, "Only in America!" Such excitement was shown over the toaster and automatic coffee maker, too.

One day Maria was home alone at the house and a man in uniform showed up. He entered the door to the mud room, which was closed off from the main room by a windowed door. Maria peeked through the curtain and saw the man look around, open the refrigerator, and take stock. Upon returning home, Beverly and Michael found her "petrified, thinking that the communists followed her to America." Turns out, the man in uniform was only the milk man taking their order. Maria returned to Czechoslovakia shortly after, knowing she had no other choice.

Full Circle

"Funny how things take full circle," Michael said, agreeing with his wife. Their eldest son, David, booked a trip to visit the European lands of his ancestry. At the end of his trip, after visiting Russian-communist ruled Czechoslovakia and seeing where his father lived, he ended his vacation time in Germany. On November 9, 1989, David was told he should stay indoors as there was a buzz of something big happening at Brandenburg Gate.

David, being Michael's son and also bold and brave, replied that he would indeed be going to the gate that night. He called his parents, who were watching the breaking news on television in America, to tell them about the masses of people yelling and climbing the Berlin Wall, destroying it as guards had weapons drawn.

"The wall comes down. Open the gate!" exclaimed Michael. The wall dividing communist-ruled East Germany from freedom in West Germany was no longer. Michael, who lived life under rule of Hitler's Nazis and Russian communists, had been gifted with five pieces of the Berlin Wall – pieces his son had a part in breaking off – the wall that supported communism.

Throughout their years in America, the Totzauer family had moved from Minnesota to California, where they operated a residential youth home for kids needing direction. In the 20 years they ran the ranch, they had the pleasure of helping more than 400 boys and girls. They returned to do volunteer work in Minnesota for three years and then back to California for a short time.

Beverly was called to attend to her elderly parents, who still resided in Vancouver. On their way to British Columbia, they travelled through Montana. They decided this was where they wanted to be some day. They bought property in Flathead County. After working in the Whitefish and Kalispell area, owning and operating a beauty school and construction business along with their son Steve and his wife, the family decided to retire in Trout Creek.

With sobriety, Totzauer said, "Now, listen, this is really important. You have to understand, I have lived through several world governments. There are five, I have lived four of them. Socialist, what Czechoslovakia originally was, Nazis, Communism, and Democracy. I just haven't lived with Capitalism." Proudly displayed on Michael's fireplace mantel are four flags: Czechoslovakian, English, Canadian and American.

Michael didn't forget about the friend who was captured during the first part of their escape journey. His friend fought hard enough and ran away, escaping capture. Michael and he met again, at the American refugee camp in Germany.

Turns out, life does have a funny way of moving full circle.

Totzauer's official Document of Legitimacy, which was required for him to prove his identity and allowed him to travel internationally with the help of the United Nations resettlement program.

 

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