My Wounded Heart, by Martin Doerry, trans. John Brownjohn

A heartbreaking pretence of normality
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The Independent Culture

Virtually no Jew was able to smuggle a letter out of Auschwitz, let alone receive one. Letters would have given a slender meaning to their lives and a sense of connection to the world they had lost. Without them, Jews felt more painfully estranged. As far as we know, Lilli Jahn managed to smuggle one letter out of Auschwitz. Dated 5 June 1944, it was addressed to a non-Jewish relative and contained the falsely consoling words: "I'm so very happy." Two weeks later, at the age of 44, Lilli Jahn had died.

My Wounded Heart, an epistolary memoir, is based on the 300 or so letters Lilli wrote to German friends and her five children over the turbulent years 1918-1944. As well as providing a fascinating record, her correspondence vividly recreates the atmosphere of wartime Germany. At first, Lilli could not believe she was at the same risk as her co-religionists elsewhere in Europe. Lilli was born into the cultivated German Jewish middle classes, virtually indistinguishable from the non-Jewish majority.

Her letters become more urgent after September 1935, when Hitler issued the most murderous legislative document known to European history: the Nuremberg Laws. German Jews were excluded from citizenship and forbidden to marry "Aryans". Lilli's five children, though "half-Jews", were turned overnight into biological heretics in danger of their lives.

Lilli's husband, a Protestant doctor based near Frankfurt, came under increasing pressure from local Nazis to separate from Lilli. In 1942 he divorced her, and life went from bad to worse. Next year, Lilli was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a "corrective labour" camp at Breitenau, leaving her children unprotected. The eldest, 15-year-old Ilse, was forced to become a surrogate mother as she struggled to look after her younger siblings.

Miraculously, Lilli's letters to her children from Breitenau have survived. Her grandson, Martin Doerry, has edited them with explanatory passages, and performed a difficult task with exemplary tact. The letters are heartbreaking. Maltreated by prison guards, emaciated and in rags, Lilli struggles to reassure her children that there is nothing to worry about. By a superhuman resolve, she enquires after their school lessons and even their new pet budgerigar.

Her pretence of normality did not last long. In the spring of 1944, after six months at Breitenau, Lilli was deported by the Gestapo to Auschwitz. Most Germans knew by now that there was a death-camp in occupied Poland, and Lilli was under few illusions.

Though harrowing, her letters offer a moving portrait of resilience in the face of evil, and speak of a time when Germany had departed from the community of civilised human beings. We are still learning to understand the catastrophe to which Lilli Jahn bore witness; My Wounded Heart is an essential document.

The reviewer's biography of Primo Levi won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award