The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, On the Other Side (1979, Persephone 2007)

This precious Persephone book is a collection of letters written from October 1940 to January 1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg to her children while she was living in Hamburg, separated from them by war (4 of her 5 children were living overseas by then, most in Allied countries). She wrote moving letters of her life under the constant air raids, especially the bombings in 1943 which practically destroyed everything in the city. She wrote letters but had no means to send them, so it actually reads like a rather down-to-earth diary, although perhaps the cool tone and the stiff upper lip are all for the sake of her children (and maybe the Nazi snitches who might have stumbled upon them, so she barely touches any political subject before the very last days of the war).

Is there anything more depressing to read that the diary of a woman who survived the massive terror bombings in Hamburg, Germany during WW2? Well, to start, I could think of a few even more depressing ones about that period, to be honest (If you want to go that way, there’s the diary of the anonymous woman from Berlin, or of course the Diary of Anne Frank). Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg wasn’t your average German citizen on any account: even without knowing anything about her, I knew, from having been to Hamburg, that there is a big street named after her family and a metro station too. Born in 1879, Mathilde was married to a university professor who was never a Nazi, but she was indeed a woman of considerable means. She had domestic help throughout the war and knew people who could help her with permits, with resources, who could secure a hospital stay when needed and sometimes a letter from the overseas children. Luckily, her home was never bombed out and she didn’t lose everything in the fires or destructions. In short, there were many people a lot worse than herself.

But still, the book is a harrowing read, because Mathilde is such a nice little old lady and she sees her life gets smaller and smaller every day. Every comfort disappear until very little is left. Parents and friends die around her. She’s never sure if she is going to come back home alive when she goes queuing up for hours to get some food. Very little food. She’s left with her memories of past family reunions, of past Christmas, of past luxury, and you can’t help but feel for her.

The quality of this writing is that it hasn’t been retouched later on with the knowledge of what was going to happen next (or at least it doesn’t feel so). Each letter is written with the mood of that day, the latest peril still fresh in mind. It’s heartbreaking to feel that at the armistice her hopes were so high that the situation is going to improve soon, and yet the state of Hamburg and the German population at that time is in such disarray that the situation actually worsened before it could improve. For an Anglophile such as Mathilde, the general distrust of the occupying British army, that often regarded the whole German population as Nazi collaborators without exceptions, was a bitter disappointment too.

I had a summer job in Hamburg once while I was a student. The city seemed very unwelcoming to me. Very unromantic, tough and cynical. There were traces of the bombings if you knew where to look: so few buildings were dated pre-1945, and so many were just ugly concrete, hastily built buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, and there was the lone spire of Nikolaikirche, an old Gothic church that was destroyed during the attacks except for its tower that is still standing as a memorial against war. The city must have changed beyond recognition within just a few years.

I guess my appreciation of the city would have improved if I’d read Mathilde’s letters back then. I’m glad that the letters were saved and published, it’s a precious testimony, both intimate and universal, from a viewpoint that rarely gets to light, especially for the immediate after-war period.

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2 thoughts on “The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

  1. I am glad they were saved and published too – we so often don’t think about the people who were not Nazis who were caught in the midst of all that horror. It’s amazing people made it out of that place and time alive with all the destruction and food shortages. Great review!

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