On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

Hamburg after bombing

Hamburg after bombing

I finished this book last week and, though it is quite extraordinary, I have struggled to write about it. Many things I want to say jumping around in my head!

So I am going to use the format I used last time for the War Through The Generations Challenge – questions asked and answered – to try to keep things in some sort of order.

This Book is for the War Through The Generations Challenge?

Yes, it is. The challenge blog is here and is well worth a read.

This year’s theme is World War II.

I’m reading books about people who lived through world war two and whose lives were changed by it. Evacuees; a man unfit to fight who has to watch as his friends go to war; Londoners living through the Blitz. And, in this case, a woman who was trapped in Germany during the war while her children were abroad and out of reach

Interesting. So who was Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg?

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg (Tilli) was born in Hamburg in 1879. She was well-educated but married very young and had five children. Unusually for the time, she and her husband separated and subsequently divorced. Tilli trook her children back to Hamburg and supported them by working as a translator and taking in lodgers.

She remarried, happily, and by the time World War II broke out Tilli’s children were grown up and scattered around the globe. Unable to keep in touch, Tilli wrote letters about her life and put them away, maybe in the hope that one day her children would find them.

Well clearly the letters have been published? How? Who by?

Tilli stopped writing and put her letters away at the end of 1946, when contact with her surviving children was reestablished. They were found in a drawer in the 1970s, after her death. Tilli’s daughter, the late Ruth Evans, translated the letters and they were published in 1979.

And now the most important question – what do they say?

They say an awful lot!

In her first letter Tilli writes about the events leading up to the war, that the German people were led to believe that they had been wantonly attacked but ‘in truth this whole campaign had been planned long ago, the Fuhrer’s blind lust for conquest, his megalomania being the driving force.’

But this is not a political book. It is an account of daily life in a city at war, of friends and family.

The first thing I noticed was that so many of the things that Tilli wrote about could have been written about life in an English city at the same time. Bombings, shelters, community, damage, shortages, queuing…

What was clearly different though was the sense of purpose, that a necessary war was being fought. Tilli and her contemporaries found many things that happened – the Russians becoming enemies rather than allies, for example – incomprehensible.

There is much to take in, much to think about.

The most important thing though is the people in Tilli’s life – her family, her children, her sisters, her husband, and her many friends and neighbours.

Tilli’s letters are warm and engaging, and they form a wonderful record of one woman’s life in wartime.

Persephone Endpapers

Persephone Endpapers

I don’t really know a lot about the war. Is there anything to put this in context?

It is fortunate indeeed that Tilli’s letters were reissued by Peresphone a few years ago. The Persephone edition is, of course, beautifully produced.

Ruth Evans has written an introduction. She writes warmly of her mother and of the background her letters and their rediscovery. Her words are well judged – informative to interested readers, but at the same time protecting the privacy of Tilli and her family.

And Christopher Beauman has provided an afterword about the bombing of German cities. His words are thought-provoking indeed.

And so there is both personal and political context, making this a book that I would confidently recommend to anybody with an interest in the period.

War Through The Generations Challenge WWII


This is the first challenge of a new blog dedicated to challenges relate to war and its impact.

Their first challenge beginning January 1, 2009 is World War II .

Readers must commit to reading at least five books throughout the year.

The books can be fiction or non-fiction, and they can be about any aspect of WWII. WWII should be the primary or secondary theme, and it doesn’t matter whether the book takes place during the war or after the war.

I am by nature an escapist reader, but I am engaged to a lover of non-fiction and he has inspired me to learn a little more about the real world out there!

The six books I plan to read are less about the war itself than people whose lives were affected by it.

1. A Fine of 200 Francs,  by Elsa Triolet

Elsa Triolet worked with the French Resistance and this is fiction bases on her experiences. This book was first published illegally by Underground presses.

2. Doreen, by Barbara Noble

The story of a child evacuated from London to the country who becomes torn beween her mother and the family that took her in.

3. Few Eggs and No Oranges, by Vere Hodgson

Vere Hodgson worked for a London charity during the Second World War. She began writing a diary at the start of the Blitz.

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

These short stories first appeared in The New Yorker between 1939 and 1944. They are snapshots of people at defining points in their lives, viewed against the backdrop of the War.

5. On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46, by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

This is a volume of letters written (but never posted) by a 60 year-old woman, to her children living abroad, about the experience of living in Hamburg during the war. They were discovered in a drawer in the 1970s and published in England and Germany in 1979.

6. The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

This is the story of a young woman growing up in Nazi Germany.