Johanna Higgins obituary

Other Lives: Teacher who endured early tragedy and poverty in Germany before settling in the UK

My mother, Johanna Higgins, who has died aged 85, spent most of her adult life in England after traumatic early years in Germany that were shaped by tragedy and deprivation brought about by the second world war.

Johanna was born in Ratibor (now Racibórz) in Upper Silesia, now in Poland, to German parents, Paul Wilke, a biology teacher, and his wife, Eleanor (nee Müller), a social worker, who settled in the Silesian city of Beuthen (now Bytom). As the second world war ended the Russians began to expel ethnic Germans from the region, and with little notice Johanna’s family were told to pack what they could carry and disappear.

This they did, but when Paul was later persuaded by Eleanor to nip back to the house to collect more belongings, he was intercepted by the Russian army and arrested. He never returned to the family, perishing shortly afterwards in the Zgoda concentration camp, which was set up by the Russians in 1945 and used to imprison and torture Silesian Germans.

In the meantime Eleanor and the children were put onto trains. For the 10-year-old Johanna it felt like an adventure, but for her mother, tormented with guilt and alone with five young children, it was a nightmare.

The six of them eventually arrived in ther village of Epe in West Germany, near the Dutch border, where some reluctant locals were compelled to take them in. The family lived in dismal poverty in a single room on a farm for many years before they could be satisfactorily rehoused. Johanna remembered the ice lining the walls, and how they scoured the fields for stray potatoes or carrots to supplement their meagre diet.

After attending Werner von Siemens Gymnasium school in Gronau, Johanna trained in Münster, to where her family had eventually moved, as a teacher of Latin and English. In her mid-20s, on a cycling holiday in England, she met Bernard Higgins, a teacher from Birmingham. They conducted their romance almost entirely by letter and married in 1963, moving to Dewsbury, Yorkshire, where they devoted themselves to family life.

Johanna ensured that our childhood home was rich with Silesian songs, foods and traditions, while also embracing British culture (including cryptic crosswords), which she adored.

Johanna taught at Brooksbank secondary school in Elland, West Yorkshire, striving to imbue working-class Yorkshire children with a love of Latin and the classics. She bore their regular taunts of “Nazi” with quiet dignity until her headteacher was persuaded to respond.

She remained at the school for the rest of her working life, and after retirement she travelled to Germany every year, visiting family and former schoolmates from those lean times after the war, reliving memories with laughter and tears.

Bernard died in 2017. Johanna is survived by four children, Gerald, Peter Anne-Marie and me, and six grandchildren.

Monica Burke

The GuardianTramp

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