You Write The Reviews: On The Other Side, By Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

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The Independent Culture

This book contains more than 60 letters written – but never mailed – by a middle-class Hamburg grandmother to her children during the Second World War and the subsequent occupation. The letters were retrieved after her death by one of her daughters, who translated them into English, conveying her mother's thoughts with great skill.

Maybe Mathilde never intended to send the letters. In any case, there were insuperable obstacles to doing so: by 1940, four of the Wolffs' five children were living outside Germany. Although news of the children and grand-children arrived sporadically, via well-wishers in neutral countries, much of each letter is taken up by speculation as to how they are faring. Frau Wolff (Mönckeberg was her maiden name) had good cause to worry. One daughter, married to a Jew, was living in Denmark when it was overrun by the Nazis (the family escaped to Sweden); the only surviving son, a communist, remained unheard of until news of his death in South America.

Mathilde's descriptions of the military and political situation are uncompromising. As early as October 1940, she condemns the "daily incitement of lies, not an honest war, but an illegal mean exploitation". By 1944, after her beloved Hamburg had been constantly pounded by British and US bombs, she writes: "Everything combines to drive us to desperation, but the illustrious party bosses still blabber of victory."

Just as well that the letters weren't mailed. The censor could scarcely have overlooked such treason; the author's life would not have been worth much, and her husband, a university professor, would have found himself on the street – or the Eastern Front. In the event, Professor Wolff continued to work with his students; as late as 1944, appreciative crowds braved the almost daily terror raids to applaud his public lectures on Shakespeare.

Many letters echo the kind of obsession with food common in British wartime diaries, along with lack of fuel and warm clothing and the impossibility of getting bomb damage repaired. University colleagues assemble at the Wolffs' apartment for lunch, each bearing his own sandwiches, while the maid, Maria, whose bad temper is another constant theme, manages a small pot of tea. Occasionally, a food parcel arrives from friends in the countryside, or extra rations are wangled. On other days, the Wolffs have little but stale bread and caviar tasting of boot polish.

Persephone has retrieved a riveting glimpse of civilian life in war-time Germany, first published in 1979, and made it available again in their elegant paperback format.

C Sladen, Ex-serviceman, Oxfordshire

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