I added this one to my reading list for the same reason that Persephone added it to its publication list: to round out the story told in its earlier publication, Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges. And, even though it might have seemed “a little much” to plan to read it immediately on the heels of Hodgson’s diaries, with Etty Hillesum’s wartime diaries in the wings, it turned out to be an amazing reading experience.
While Vere Hodgson lamented the situation in Leningrad, her own situation was relatively comfortable. She writes: “Dreadful to read about Leningrad. Just as I thought — all gas and electricity gone; they are cooking on brazers in the street. Every day it gets worse, and the only end is The End — with the Germans marching in because we cannot help them.” September 24, 1941
Just a few months earlier, on January 12, 1941, Wolff-Monckeberg writes (in letters that were never actually mailed to her children) of her own, relative comforts: “Is it possible that one can get used to war? This question tantalizes me and I am afraid of a positive reply. All that was unbearable at first, all that was impossible to fathom, has by now become somehow ‘settled’, and one lives from day to day in frightening apathy. And then suddenly everything explodes to the surface again. I think that our personal life is despicable. We still have our comforts and warmth, we have enough to eat, we occasionally have hot water, we do not exert ourselves apart from daily shopping expeditions and small household duties. W. sits in his armchair and reads novels. I spend ridiculous amount of energy making menus, scrounging small extras.”
As with Hodgon’s diaries (and also with Hillesum’s, which I’ll be looking at later this week), ordinary and everyday concerns lay alongside existential matters: “Everybody, not only us, looks unhealthy and prematurely old. My neck looks like a disgusting old hen’s gullet, I’m ashamed of it and cover it up. But what of it compared with the universal fear? The only thing that takes us out of ourselves is music, which we have revelled in this winter.” (March 2, 1943)
But Hodgson would have been shocked to think that a German woman “on the other side” would have been experiencing things much as she was. Instead, Hodgson writes: “The massacre of the Jews is awful to read of, and I don’t propose to bear anything but animosity to Germans as long as I live.” December 20, 1942
Nonetheless, the devastation that Wolff-Monckeburg witnesses is overwhelming and mirrors descriptions of the London bombings of which I have read so much more. Here is what Wolff-Monckeburg writes of the fifth winter of the war in Hamburg: “Nothing but heaps of rubble wherever one looks, hollow ruins of houses, empty windows, lonely chimney stacks, charred remnants of furniture, high up on a bit of wall a bath-tub, a forlorn bed-frame, a radiator or even a picture clinging precariously to the bombed-out shell of what was once someone’s home. In this dismal weather it is a devastating scene.” January 20, 1944
She is aware of the wider world’s opinion of her as a representative held accountable for horrors, and she writes on June 2, 1945: “One day perhaps these pages will land in your hands, a testimony of the most terrible time Germany ever experienced, the most bitter period we were forced to witness. We are poor, downtrodden and despised by all.”
Vere Hodgson writes at this time: “It is difficult to reconcile the docility of the average German with the inhuman brutality of others. Now they obey our orders just as they obeyed the Nazis. Are they just flabby robots? And the worst of them — Brutal Thugs? Certainly, Framer, the commandant of Belsen looks criminal — and so do the women who had charge in the camp.” April 27, 1945
I found the alignment, the comparisons and contrasts, between Vere Hodgson’s diaries and Mathilda Wolff-Monckeburg’s letters overwhelmingly powerful.