Yesterday I wrote about Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, and told you that it was towards the fluffier end of the Persephone Books canon – and promised to take you to the other side of their spectrum today. Well, here it is – one of Persephone’s non-fiction titles, On The Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, translated by her daughter Ruth Evans, and first published in 1979.
On The Other Side is effectively Mathilde’s diary, framed through letters to her children in Britain (although she never sent them), and documents what life was like in Germany during the Second World War. Despite having read a lot about the British Home Front, the German equivalent is a perspective I have never read firsthand. It helps that Mathilde is a delightful person, easy to empathise with – what other response would we have to someone who would say this?
Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings on loves, whose fate one worries about day and night.
This is going to be one of those ‘reviews’ which are, in fact, mostly quotations from the book – because the excerpts I’ve selected give such a comprehensive overview of the diary that it would be a waste of time for me to try and paraphrase them.
Rather naively, I hadn’t really realised that people like Mathilde existed in wartime Germany. I thought the German public would have been divided into those who supported Nazism, those who were apathetic, and those who lied to so much by Nazi propaganda that, though not sympathetic to those views, had no way of knowing what was going on. But Mathilde shows that there were many exceptions:
Practically everyone knows that all that bluff and rubbish printed in
the newspapers and blazoned out on the wireless is hollow nonsense, and
when big speeches are made nobody listens any more.
Indeed, the account she gives of the appalling public life of Jewish Germans could scarcely be bettered by a textbook in its fullness, nor its empathy
Perhaps you cannot imagine what life is like for Jews. Their ration cards are printed on the outside with a large red J, so that everybody knows at one that they are non-Aryan. All women have to add the name Sarah to their first names, the men Israel. They never get special rations, such as coffee, tea or chocolate, nor do they received clothing coupons. After 7.30 at night they are not allowed out into the street; their radios and telephones have been removed. Practically every shop and restaurant has a notice saying ‘Jews are not wanted here.’ It is so vile and mean that I can only blush with embarrassment while I write this. But you and your children must know of this, that things like this are possible in Germany under our present regime. You will hardly credit all this, or the fact that we others have stood by and said nothing. And there are much, much worse things. Many people have committed suicide because they could not bear this indignity. Then, like vultures and hyenas, they [the Nazis] rush in and grab the belongings of the dead; honest names are smeared with filth, and decent Germans have been driven to emigrate by the thousand.
When reading about the war from the perspective of a British person (or, I daresay, the French, Belgian etc. – I haven’t read their accounts) there is much pain and anguish, but little internal conflict. Love of country and hatred of the enemy can be expressed in a single breath, without contradiction. While individuals may question the point of war as a concept, or the political manoeuvres of those in power, this couldn’t compare to the conflict Mathilde experienced with love of country and hatred of Hitler.
But however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany. It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope. Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed. And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being ‘chosen by God’. May he and his followers be caught in just retribution.
However engaging and thought-provoking On The Other Side was for Mathilde’s accounts of the war, the actual events were very similar to those in Britain – shortages, bombings, fear for loved ones. It is certainly all moving, but it has become familiar ground in fiction and non-fiction. The part I found most fascinating concerned Mathilde’s experiences after the war was over; it was, again, something I had never read about from a German’s perspective.
6 May 1945: It is Sunday and I almost hesitate to put pen to paper. Too much has happened in the few days since last I wrote. The whole world has changed and part of the crushing nightmare that oppressed us for so long has been lifted during these five days. I have listened quite openly to an American and to a British radio station, no longer threatened with the death sentence for this. I can go along the road and proclaim loudly, “Adolf Hitler, the most evil criminal in the world,” and nobody will tell me to shut up. Can you imagine that? And can you picture our Andreasstrasse full of English trucks and private cars; on the pavements and in the front gardens a milling crowd of English soldiers – and it is a Welsh regiment, Ruth dear. They serenely patrol the district: one is sitting in the middle of the road playing with a dog, another one is playing a recorder on a balcony; a couple tumble in and out of the house, for downstairs a captain has moved into the bottom flat. What a lot of coming and going!
Although Mathilde and her husband welcomed the end of the war, and were very grateful for being in the British-controlled part of Germany (apparently other areas, particularly that under the rule of Russia, suffered greatly), the British army were, probably understandably, reluctant at first to sympathise with the German public. This was perhaps the most moving passage in the book:
He [her husband] was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for. Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach. And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people? Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers? Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population? Who was it, I ask you? We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence.
As I promised at the start, I have mostly quoted from the book, rather than giving my own views. It’s one of those books which I believe is too important to have me weigh in on it. I couldn’t say that I loved Mathilde’s voice as much as I love Nella Last’s, but they are books which ought to be read alongside each other. On The Other Side couldn’t be much further from The Winds of Heaven, but both exemplify what makes Persephone Books wonderful – books which enrich the reading life, whether through delightful fiction or thought-provoking non-fiction.