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Despite German Oppression, Croton's Cornelia Cotton Found Artistic Side

Croton's Cornelia Cotton developed a lifelong appreciation for the arts despite an upbringing in Germany during the era of the Third Reich, which dissuaded citizens from enjoying art not approved by the government.
Croton's Cornelia Cotton developed a lifelong appreciation for the arts despite an upbringing in Germany during the era of the Third Reich, which dissuaded citizens from enjoying art not approved by the government. Photo Credit: Contributed/Maria Cudequest

CROTON, N.Y. – Cornelia Cotton grew up in a family of artists in her native Germany during the reign of the Third Reich. Moving to America and settling in Croton allowed her to embrace her passion for the arts.

Cotton was one of the original founders of the Croton Council on the Arts. She has been active in the various cultural and political activities, and also helped found the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct and the Croton Housing Network.

In December she published her first book," Stepping Stones," a collection of short stories about her life. “It’s not an autobiography, it’s not a memoir,’’ Cotton said. “It’s a collection of stories. I’ve had an interesting and adventurous life.” The book is available from the Old Book Room, 111 Grand Street, Croton-on-Hudson, or via hessianhillspress@gmail.com

Cotton’s father was a musician and her mother was a dancer. Her mother had some Jewish heritage, her parents were politically active and the family also had relatives abroad. “We had a number of strikes against us,’’ Cotton said. “It was anxious and hair-raising at times. But we made it through.”

Cotton and her family hid their passion for the arts from the government. “They considered much of the pre-Hitler era art as degenerate,’’ Cotton said. “Many writers were banned, and musicians had to flee. I often think how lucky I am and my family was that we did survive the whole thing. You think of all the people who died. We were extremely privileged and very lucky.”

Cotton said living in Germany during that era especially affected her education – “School directors turned me down because of my heritage,’’ she said – but she did eventually get accepted into a semi-private school. She came to the United States in 1948.

“After the war, we could breathe easy again,’’ she said. “But they were difficult years in a different way. There was little to eat. There were epidemics raging. And there was little we could do about it.”

Cotton was 20 when she came to the United States and earned a degree at the Georgia State College for Women. Her life turned when she met her future husband, Bill, at a teenage work camp in New York. “He was a photography counselor and I always had an interest in photography,’’ she said. “That gave me a chance to see what was going on. As my husband always said, things developed after that.”

The family moved to Croton and Cornelia’s love of the arts took hold. She enjoyed a career as a portrait photographer, started an art gallery and began writing. She still writes about local art and music events for The Gazette. Bill, who died in 1992, taught wood shop at The Walden School in New York and was also an accomplished photographer and musician. Cornelia and Bill built their home, and raised three daughters.

For the past few months, Cotton has given public readings of her new book at the Peekskill Museum and the Croton Council on the Arts.

“The book was a big adventure,’’ she said. “It’s a very labor-intensive thing. Now I understand why publishers only take things that are guaranteed to make money. It’s very expensive.”

Cotton’s book may have been a labor of love. Given her background, she’s appreciative of the opportunity to write it.

“I was destined to do what I did in America,’’ Cotton said. “It was inside me all along. When I moved here, I could transform it all into reality. It’s like I hit the payoff.”