For the six long years of the war, during which Hamburg was all but flattened by incessant bombing raids, Mathilde was cut off from any contact with her children and grand-children. One son died in Spain, her other children were living in Wales and USA. Unable to send letters, she still wrote, and in this way sustained an emotional link with her family, as well as leaving an incredible record of those terrible times, for future generations. These days of constant mobile phone and email contact, it’s impossible to imagine how painful this must have been, never mind the added terror of bombings, both day and night, no electricity, water, or fuel, and a scarcity of food.
I was born at the end of the Fifties. Rationing was over, but there were still patches of wasteland where nature had taken over the bomb-sites, and there was still a sense of frugality that’s alien to the young innocents of today. My father wouldn’t speak about fighting in France, and the Netherlands, and liberating Belgium, until he was old – when, for a time, he was unstoppable. Consequently I read, and pondered much, in my twenties, about those truly ghastly years. I was trying to make sense of it all – something I know now to be impossible.
On the Other Side is a compelling read, bleak and horrific, at the same time as uplifting. Mathilde’s letters are testament to the fact that it’s possible to survive such appalling suffering, even as an old woman, and retain hope and humour, and a love for the beauty in life.
Mathilde was far from being a Nazi. In her own words – English people were mistaken in their opinion that all Germans were Nazis, that we were all collectively responsible for our present dilemma and had to do penance for the Nazi government. I tried to explain our own personal opinion. We hated the regime from the very beginning, abhorred it more day by day. But it was totally impossible to form an opposition, spied on as were from all sides...it would have cost us our lives, or we should have ended up in concentration camps...I would have been prepared to commit murder to get rid of that scoundrel.
Her daughter, Ruth, who lived in Wales, wrote
Apart from the obvious calamity of total war and the hardships caused by eventual defeat, a number of Germans had also had to face the dilemma of an almost schizophrenic split between love for their homeland and disgust with its rulers.
I question what we would do faced with a similar situation today, or then. Faced with a fascist regime, or similar, would we leave the country? Where could we go, if we even had the financial means? I’m so attached to this country, to my patch of Derbyshire, I can’t imagine tearing up my roots. Would we stay and fight? I’m not sure I have the courage or the energy, though perhaps we never know until faced with the situation. Words are empty. Judgement is always easy.
On a happier note, when I was a child, a delightful thing happened every January. Just as Christmas was over, and the long winter still ahead, a huge parcel would arrive from Hanne-Laura in Munchen Gladbach. It was full of things we never saw in England, cinnamon biscuits, wooden ornaments decorated with painted flowers, embroidered clothes, a beautiful Christmas angel with a wax face and a golden gown. Hanne-Laura was my mother’s pen-friend from immediately after the war, which seems extraordinary given the anti-German feeling of the time. I half remember my mother speaking about an organisation who fostered positive feeling between our two nations, and how one of her teachers at Nottingham High School had offered the opportunity to the girls to befriend a poor German girl of their own age. The two girls never met – my mother, though German-speaking, never visited Germany – but so began a friendship, through letters, that survived many years, despite (maybe because of?) the post-war hostility, the shadow of those terrible times.