Tuesday, 2 March 2010

On the other side - Letters to my children (Mathilde Woolf-Monckeberg)

Letters to my children is a Persephone title that I might not have picked up had I not decided earlier in the year to try and obtain (and read!) the complete set of Persephone books. Written by Mathilde Woolf-Monckeberg in Germany during the Second World War, these letters were the letters that she was not able to write to her children:

"My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war, was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title "Letters that never reached them" so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like, and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the "organisation" was marvellour, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence"

The author was 60 when these letters were started; she had five grown up children, having married young. Having separated from her first husband, she had remarried by this point to a Professor of English at Hamburg University. The children lived across the globe, in Wales, Chicago, South America...

Life in wartime Germany was harsh. In the first letter we read about the shortages, but also about the conditions being imposed on Jewish friends, which had led to many committing suicide. It was almost impossible for Tilli to communicate with her children; she relied on news being sent via the family in Chicago, but even then she had to wait a long time for news of her latest grandchild. Similarly, when her son Jan died of a ruptured bowel after surgery in South America she did not hear for a while. It's difficult to imagine not being able to be in touch with those who one loves.

The letters continue into 1945, describing what life was like after Germany lost the war. Like Britain, the hardships continued well into the 1950s, and were not mitigated by the sense of victory. Tilli's husband however was appointed to the position of Rector at Hamburg University, and at least the threat of bombing had disappeared.

Domestic life is a common thread amongs many of the Persephone series and this book is no exception. We read about Tilli queuing for frozen vegetables and her joy at coming away with three packets of apple sauce.

Persephone mention on their website that this book was partly published to provide a counterfoil to Vere Hodgson's Few eggs and no oranges; it is certainly easy to forget that the German people suffered just as bad deprivations as those in England, and suffered just as much, if not more in some ways. Allied bombing was just as traumatising, and people in Germany lost relatives and friends as a result too. Letters like this did not get out of Germany because the country had to promote an image of a nation that was able to defeat the British in order to destroy British morale.

This Persephone edition is particularly interesting because it contains an afterword written by Tilli's daughter Ruth, who discovered the letters languishing in a drawer in the 1970s and translated them for publication. There is also an afterword by Christopher Beauman which contextualises the letters historically and a preface which provides the background to Tilli's circumstances.

I thoroughly recommend this fascinating and engrossing account to provide a counterpart to reading about the Second World War in England and for supplying an insight into what domestic life in Germany was like at this time.


  1. I have few Eggs an No Oranges and will be receiving On the Other Side soon. I am looking forward to reading both. I imagine they will both be very interesting.

  2. Verity, I've nearly finished reading this title, it's very interesting and yes it is a great companion to Few Eggs and No Oranges, which was my first ever Persephone purchase.

    I'll respond to your email soon, promise!

  3. Really interesting Verity. I do think it's really important to read about 'the other side'; the German public were just as much innocent bystanders as the British were, and they suffered unimaginable loss and deprivation too, though their experiences don't ever really get read or written about in Britain. I'd really like to read these letters just to get that different perspective.

  4. I minored in German history at University but since the focus was on more scholarly titles, this one had passed me by. Sounds infinitely more cheerful that "A Woman in Berlin", my favourite diary-based book about the fall of the Reich and the beginning of the Soviet occupation. As much as I love reading books about England during the war, I'm far more drawn to books set in Germany or the occupied countries, perhaps because they are more difficult to find.

  5. Dear Verity -

    Another fascinating review from you - thank you.

    I would really like to read this book as as well as being a kind of "view from the otherside" which is obviously interesting and important - the censorship issue really fascinates me too and I always think with letters that one very important thing to bear in mind is what has not been stated -

    Very interesting - thank you.

    I didn't realise that you were also ploughing your way through the Persephone titles - you will need to have two opposing libraries!



  6. Jeanette - they make a good pair, although Letters is somewhat shorter!

    Geraldine - I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

    Rachel - it was really good to gain that other perspective.

    Claire - I hadn't come across Woman in Berlin - that sounds like an interesting title that I should look after!

    Hannah - thanks for your kind comment. I think you're right about the "unsaid" in letters, but I think that might apply less with these ones. The Persephone title reading is an attempt also to gather the whole collection - I don't have many more to read actually (maybe 8?); it's a slightly less daunting task than the VMCs!

  7. I thoroughly intend to read this at some point as I respect Persephone for publishing a title that gives insight into the other side, the other side that was/is often ignored/censored/vilified. So much of my war-reading has been one-sided and I look forward to changing that.

  8. I've been interested in this one and you've thoroughly convinced me to read it. Great review.

  9. I've never heard of this before! This is a side of the war I don't think much about, addicted though I am to books set in Britain at the same time period. I might see if I can get this for my mother and maybe coincidentally borrow off her. :P

  10. Claire - I am sure you will find this intriguing and it does create a good balance.

    Tara - hope you enjoy it!

    Jenny - I think it's really easy to forget about the other side. I hope your Mum appreciates the gift :)


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