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On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940–46

by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
Persephone book no:

74 75 76

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ISBN 9781903155653

Persephone book no. 75, On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, are 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. Discovered in a drawer in the 1970s, they were translated by her daughter, the late Ruth Evans, and first published in England and Germany in 1979.

Tilli Wolff-Mönckeberg was the daughter of a lawyer who later became Lord Mayor. She was intelligent and well-educated but married very young and had five children. Unusually for the time, she and her husband separated during the First World War and Tilli returned to Hamburg, did some translating and took in lodgers. In 1925 she married a Professor of English who later became Rector of Hamburg University. By the time the letters begin, therefore, in October 1940, her personal life is slightly complicated, with her children living in far-flung places; her youngest daughter Ruth is living in Wales and her Hamburg relations disapproving of her unconventional personal life. They would have been even more disapproving if they had known that Tilli was keeping what was in effect a diary: the discovery of the letters would certainly have resulted in her and her husband's arrest. In the first one she 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 Führer's blind lust for conquest, his megalomania being the driving force.

But On the Other Side is not a political book. Instead it is an evocation of daily life in Hamburg during the war years and immediately afterwards (the months after May 1945 make up a third of the book, partly because it was easier to write without the constant threat of bombing and partly because there was no danger in writing). Tilli is very like Vere Hodgson in her observations and her humanity and her bravery and we have published her letters partly to provide a parallel with Few Eggs and No Oranges, Persephone book No.9. In fact Vere's book also began as letters which she herself turned into diary form in the early 1970s.  'If you want to know what it was like to be a civilian in wartime Germany you must read this marvellous book' wrote Timothy Garton Ash in the Spectator in 1979, going on to add: 'The letters document the terrible suffering caused to the German civil population by Allied bombing. It is difficult to read these pages without feeling that this kind of bombing was worse than a mistake' (the issues covered in the Afterword). However, this is not a harrowing book, it is gentle and domestic, human and humane and Tilli did survive.

A 1926 Bauhaus wall hanging by Anni Albers 
Picture Caption
Hamburg after the 1943 Allied bombing

Read What Readers Say

The Captive Reader (via Instagram)

‘On the Other Side’ is one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings. As sympathetic as I found Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

Frederick Taylor, ‘Literary Review’

These are the unvarnished, often raw, impressions of a decent, intelligent woman living through impossible times… Persephone Books has yet again performed a great service in publishing a handsome new edition of a neglected treasure. The afterword is a model of concise and erudite contextualisation that makes clear how urgently we need to read and reread such revealing tales from “the other side”.

The Independent

A riveting glimpse of civilian life in war-time Germany.

Categories: Biography Diaries Overseas Translations WWII

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