In brief

5th March 2004 at 00:00
My Wounded Heart: the life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944. By Martin Doerry. Bloomsbury. pound;16.99.

Lilli Jahn's grandson, Martin Doerry, points out that the story of this German Jewish mother of five under Hitler is unusual in Holocaust literature because the subject did not survive. "The typical literary form follows the Schindler pattern - an adventurous escape from direct peril," he writes in the foreword.

Unlike Anne Frank, the most famous exception to the Schindler pattern, Lilli Jahn did not write as a would-be writer (she was a doctor, but forbidden to practise) although her letters are scattered with references to art, literature, music and philosophy. Her letters were written for her Protestant husband, who was persuaded by the Nazis to divorce her in 1942, and her family and friends. She spent six months in Breitenau labour camp from September 1943, then was sent to Auschwitz, where she survived only a few weeks.

From Breitenau, through one official letter home a month plus others smuggled out, she tried to keep running her household, but her oldest daughter, Ilse (the author's mother, aged 12 when Lilli was incarcerated), increasingly takes up the reins after school. Ilse's letters to her mother are packed with references to gathering food and clothing (we know Lilli received at least some of the food parcels), surviving air raids and, when the family is eventually bombed out, coping with living alongside her father's mistress.

Ilse often has no caring adult to ask about winter clothes, school work or piano lessons, so she continues to ask her mother. "Please write and tell me what you think," she urges, and Lilli is able to do so surprisingly often. Her last letter from Breitenau directs Ilse to a forgotten dress that she might be able to re-make. She adds, and underlines, "Please ask Daddy to go to the Gestapo again."

Geraldine Brennan

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