Introduction by Clare Westmacott
Klara Mehlich. Portrait by her husband Robert Seuffert sen.
My grandmother Klara Mehlich wrote this diary from December 1940 to November 1944 while living in and around Cologne. She wrote them for my mother who was married to an Englishman Jack (my father) and living in England. They are an account of her life during the war years and my grandmother hoped that if she were unable to give them to my mother herself, that they might somehow reach my mother one day. They both survived the war and eventually the diary was given to me.
My grandmother came from a colourful background. She was born in 1889, the daughter of a farmer’s daughter who – as family lore has it – ran off with a bare-back rider when the circus came to town. As a child my grandmother travelled extensively to cities all over Europe including Saint Petersburg and London. They were a large family and she lost several brothers in the First World War.
She was a lot younger than her husband. He was an artist and Professor of Art in Cologne and she had been one of his models. He was born in 1874 in Cologne the son of a sculptor who came from southern Germany to work on finishing the cathedral. My grandfather’s first lessons were from his father and between 1897 and 1908 he was the pupil of Eduard von Gebhardt at the Dusseldorf Academy and master pupil of Peter Janssens. As a student he travelled to study in Berlin, Munich, to the world exhibition in Paris (1900), to Belgium, Holland and Italy. The Italian trip was the result of winning a prize to study there for a year.
His province was the painting of historical, religious and monumental works and his work was displayed in several cities in Germany including Berlin. One of his early murals painted in 1902 was a ceiling painting “Prometheus brings the heavenly fire, the truth of art and the light of perception to humanity” for the opera house in Cologne. He was responsible for large murals in many churches and secular buildings, one example being a mural in the treasury hall of the Nassauer Landesbank in Wiesbaden painted in 1915. He was a highly regarded portrait painter and belonged to a circle of artists known as “Der Stil”.
He was appointed as a teacher to the Cologne arts and crafts college school in either 1912 or 1914 and became Professor at that institution in 1923. He retired in 1936. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the War including the ceiling painting from the opera house but some exist in museums in Cologne and some religious works went to the USA and some are in private hands.
My grandparents had three children, my mother Liese Lotte born in 1912, Walter who was four years younger and Robert (called Röbi) who was born in 1920. They were comfortably off, although somewhat Bohemian and lived in an elegant house in the Wiethasestrasse in the district of Braunsfeld in Cologne. They moved in fairly elevated circles and were members of the best social clubs before the war. Among their circle was Konrad Adenauer who was Lord Mayor of Cologne and who was dismissed from the post by the Nazis in 1933. After the war he became the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The children had a governess until they went away to school, my mother to a convent school and Walter was sent to the Jesuits. Röbi went to the local school.
My mother came to England in 1936 to be an au pair. She met my father and married him in a civil ceremony in 1937 by special licence before she had to return to Germany shortly before her visa ran out. It was then easier for her as a married woman to return to England permanently in March 1938 when they married in church and my grandmother gave her away at the wedding. My parents visited the family in Cologne in summer 1938. My mother became a naturalised Briton upon marriage and was therefore not subject to internment. I was born in 1940 (Klaerchen in the diary) and my brother Nigel was born in 1943.
It is clear what my grandmother’s political views were during the war and this diary must have been written secretly, and to judge by her handwriting sometimes in great haste. In fact she was once summoned to the Gestapo over a letter she had received and she also records in the diary the illegal activities she did undertake.
They are a very personal account of her life during this period reflecting the experiences of a housewife desperate to find food for her family, of a citizen enduring the privations of the war without compromising her principles, but above all of a mother whose desire for the safe return of her children was paramount, all within the context of the horrors of the war. At first she seems to have some difficulty getting her diary up and running but it soon becomes apparent that her digressions are both relevant and interesting.
Her diary reveals inconsistencies in her relationship both with her children and her husband which in respect of her children at least can only have been as a result of the stresses of the war. For example although the diary is dedicated to my mother she not infrequently imagines my mother is not even trying to keep in touch. Her relationship with her son Walter fluctuates from being very close and loving to indifference. Only Röbi escapes criticism.
As for her relationship with her husband, clearly it had broken down long before the war started but the shared love and concern for their children retained by a thread the bond that had once existed between them.
Her relationship with God was also very personal and not without humour. Her faith faltered on occasions but on the whole she believed that if God willed it her children would be returned to her.
There are also inconsistencies of fact in her diary but one can only assume that she wrote down what she believed to be true. For example although she clearly was suspicious of Nazi propaganda she nevertheless believed a report that York Minster had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
With the benefit of hindsight it is fascinating to read her accounts of events in relation to what we now know to be the facts. For example her account of what happened on the night of May 30 1942 was actually the first thousand-bomber raid on Cologne, indeed the first thousand-bomber raid of the war. Then there is her observation that the Jews had to start to wear the star of David badges. “What good is that going to do? It can only cause bad feeling even among decent people. People shake their heads in disbelief as they walk by.”
Although I thought I knew my grandmother well and loved her dearly, as a child it never occurred to me that she never spoke about the war (she was more interested in showing me the beauties of the countryside or taking me to museums and art galleries).
I went to Germany for the first time in 1948 at the age of seven and I will never forget the sight of Cologne on that first visit. There was destruction everywhere and little bunches of flowers left in remembrance on the heaps of stones. My grandmother was in hospital in Bensberg in the Bergische Land being treated for her heart problem with leeches. Something else I will never forget is the sight of a jar of them sitting on the window sill above her bed! Later at every opportunity my mother and grandmother sat talking and talking for hours on end.
Now I have at last worked my way through the diary I admire her stoicism, integrity and courage throughout a ghastly period of history and feel I know her much better than I did before.
Goethe wrote, “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality”. I believe that this statement was never more true than in this diary.
After the war
Clare Westmacott remebers her first visit in Germany in 1948 and shares her impressions in videos she produced for an online seminar of the Cologne City Museum on International Women’s Day 2021.
In the chaotic aftermath of the war, all sorts of people, refugees from the east, homeless from the cities and some former POWs were all thankful to find accommodation and work in the countryside. My grandmother was lucky to have three rooms on the farm where she had worked in exchange for food. She had a small kitchen, a sitting room and a bedroom. The loo was a shared earth closet in the farmyard which was emptied once a year and spread on the fields as fertiliser. She had the things she had managed to get to Schloss Ehreshoven brought to the farm and was very fortunate compared with many.
The farm itself, in the hamlet of Oberschoenrath, was called Knipscherhof and consisted of two farmhouses owned by two brothers. The older of the two houses was built in the 18th century with low beamed ceilings and small rooms, the newer one built fifty or sixty years later. It had large airy rooms. There was in addition a very small house which had originally been the bakehouse supplying the farmer and his labourers with bread. Eventually my grandmother moved in there but immediately after the war it was occupied by a variety of refugees all of whom had a tale to tell.
For quite a long time a middle aged woman, her father and father-in-law lived there. The two men, their wives and a widow, fled west as the Russians advanced. All three women had suffered multiple rape by the Russians. The two old ladies died on the journey. One of the old men had become clinically insane from grief and cried continuously. The other man was unfit to do any work. The widow worked day and night to support them all for several years.
Röbi and Walter came home at different times. Walter came home first and his room was a hovel above the cowshed and overlooking the midden. The room had no light or heat and the walls were wattle and daub filling in the wooden framework.
Röbi returned after he had been POW in Canada. When the POWs were being repatriated after the war many from Canada (Röbi included) were sent to camps in Oldham. Subsequently Röbi was among those transferred to Wetherby, three miles from my parents’ house. At first no fraternisation was allowed and my parents used to leave cigarettes in the bottom of our hedge for the prisoners to pick up as they marched past to the various agricultural duties they had to fulfil. Later when things were more relaxed he was able to visit us and painted lovely portraits of my brother Nigel and me which I now have, and the other POWs made us both lovely wooden toys.
Some time after the war ended a large parcel was delivered to the farm in Germany. It was from Canada and contained some of the paintings he had done whilst a POW there and had been returned by the Canadian authorities.
On the farm, Röbi was more fortunate than Walter and got room at the top of the newer farmhouse which he turned into a studio as it had good light. Any room not occupied by the farmers and their families was filled with refugees, whole families in one room sometimes. Eventually they all moved on. Röbi lived and worked in the former bakehouse and later was able to rent a studio from the city of Cologne.
He became a painter like his father. He was a fine portrait painter but a hopeless businessman and immediately after being paid for a commission he would spend lavishly and most generously until it had all gone and then he would be penniless and starving again until the next time he got paid or until my grandmother bailed him out. He was a lovely man with a great sense of humour. He once took me into his studio to show me ‘Germany’s secret weapon’. It was a portrait of the rather large, hideously plain wife of a rich industrialist! One of his most prestigious commissions was to paint a portrait of Konrad Adenauer after he became Chancellor of West Germany. Röbi died in 1980.
Walter was always a scholar and a gifted linguist (in 1936 he had actually enrolled in Bonn to do Rabbinical Studies but events overtook him) and he never completed any of his studies. After the war he did various jobs, mainly office work and taught Latin and French but he also spoke Arabic and Greek. He married twice and had three children. Walter died in 1999.
My grandfather died of a heart attack in December 1946 whilst living in the Black Forest. He never saw any of his family again after he finally left Cologne. He was buried in the churchyard at Hinterzarten in the Black Forest. Although he had intended to divorce my grandmother he had not done so and so she received a decent pension and was able to live very comfortably for the rest of her life. When Cologne was rebuilt after the war a street was named after my grandfather in the residential district of Klettenberg.
My grandmother always planned to return to live in Cologne but never did. My mother was able to visit her for the first time in 1946, one of the first civilians to travel to Germany after the war, and from 1947 we spent the summer holidays with her on the farm for several years. After she moved to the little house it was modernised and got a flushing loo and bathroom and it had a garden. It had two bedrooms, a dining kitchen, a sitting room and underneath there was a large cellar.
She did not believe in killing spiders and the whole place was festooned in cobwebs. In spite of this she insisted on maintaining an elegant life-style and retained her love of strong coffee which was always served in exquisite antique china that she had saved from the bombing in Cologne. She spent a lot of her time walking in the locality, knitting, reading and embroidering, bottling fruit and making jam. She went to Cologne from time to time to visit Röbi and her dressmaker. She always wore beautiful clothes and went to the same hairdresser, Herr Kilian, for over sixty years. He was the same age as she was.
She walked for miles and miles through the countryside visiting the isolated hamlets many of which still have paintings by my grandfather or Röbi, or pieces of her beautiful embroideries and tapestries which she gave to the farmers who had been good to her over the years. Walking with her was to experience almost a royal progress as she proceeded on her way.
“Good morning, Frau Professor,” was the usual greeting from the country people and she enjoyed the increased status this title gave her. It must be said however that a great mutual affection and respect existed between them and many of the older people had known her and her husband from before the war and they were happy to indulge her little idiosyncracies. I suspect though it must have been immensely satisfying to have the title without the difficulties of having the husband who had provided it.
My grandmother idolised Röbi, something I think is obvious in the diary and although he had many girlfriends, my grandmother always seemed to put a spanner in the works and he never married. I went to stay with my grandmother when I was pregnant with her first great grandchild, and yet it was me she wanted to climb out of a first floor window into the branches of her greengage tree to pick some fruit because she did not want Röbi to do it in case he fell.
My grandmother died of heart disease in 1972.
As for the people of Oberschönrath, the farmers, their labourers, the blacksmith and the publican, five generations of our families have remained in close contact throughout almost eighty years. Not only did they feed my grandmother during the war years when she had nothing, they looked after her when she was old and frail and when she died they cherished her memory and tended her grave.
People and Places
The Reinemanns were friends and neighbours of my grandmother and their daughter Bully was my mother’s best friend. They were both very glamorous and always dressed in the very latest fashions. They were members of the same tennis and social club in Cologne and they were part of the bright set in young Cologne society. They enjoyed tennis and fast cars in summer and every winter they went in a mixed group to the Alps skiing.
Kurt Korsing was a friend of the family, part of their social circle and had once been engaged to my mother. He was a lawyer.
Biba was one of Röbi’s best friends. They were at school together and spent hours discussing life and the universe in the many cafes and bars available to them. They also shared a love of horses and went riding together whenever they could.
Liesel was another of my mother’s friends and part of their social circle. Like my mother Liesel went to the Art School in Cologne after they left school. They both studied dress designing.
The Reinartz family were relatives of my grandmother. They had two daughters Gerda and Sybilla who were the same age as my mother and Walter. They led a very different life from my mother’s family. They were very pious and the daughters stayed at home and never went anywhere.
Katy Harz was married to a Jew and she left Germany for England ahead of her husband who needed to finalise their affairs. Sadly he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Katy Harz got a job working for a family in the village where my parents lived. On Katy’s day off each week she and my mother used to meet until Katy was interned. It was purely coincidence that they both came from Cologne. They had not known one another before. Frau Nanzig was Katy’s mother.
The announcement of my grandmother’s death in the newspaper listed the chief mourners and their addresses, including that of my mother. Katy Harz happened to see the notice and contacted my mother and they met in Cologne. She had returned to Cologne after the war and miraculously so did her husband although he returned from the concentration camp with his health ruined. However they did have a few happy years together before he died.
Kurt Korsing, the Reinartz family and Biba all survived the war. My grandmother never forgave Kurt for what she considered to be his lack of effort with her letters and refused to see him. Biba and Röbi resumed their friendship which continued until Röbi’s death and the Reinartz cousins maintained contact although they were considered by my grandmother to be far too prim and obsessively tidy. Not traits she particularly admired.
After the war ended and the foreign workers were released some of them ran riot and took revenge on farms, but often the farmers who had been kind were protected by their former work force.
Some of the former workers did not want to return to the east and Communism and stayed to work in the area or fiddled their way to America. At the Zum Haeuschen pub the boy they had employed stayed on and eventually married into the family.
Bernhard Miske, the Russian speaking German boy, worked on the Knipscherhof for several years after the war ended. The Red Cross eventually located his mother in the USSR and once she was too old to work anymore the Russians allowed her to come to the west. As a young man Bernhard was very handsome and Röbi painted a wonderful portrait of him. He married a local girl and they had a daughter. He died in 1977.
Herr Reinemann and Bully were saved from the Gestapo by the imminent arrival of the Allies in the New Year of 1945. My mother saw Bully when she visited Germany in 1946 but Bully got married soon after that and moved away and the contact was lost. After the war was over Herr and Frau Reinemann having stuck it out in Cologne throughout the war moved out of Cologne to live in Odenthal. It seems that they wanted to put all the terrible experiences of the war behind them and they cut themselves off from their contacts from Cologne and so contact with my grandmother was lost.
The Bergische Land which is the second important location in the diary besides Cologne, is a hilly area east of Cologne which was very rural with wooded hills and valleys. There were many small family owned farms dotted around the countryside. City people from Cologne would come into the Bergische Land to spend the day walking and would finish off the day at the local hostelry. My grandmother used to leave my grandfather at a very popular pub “Zum Haeuschen” and she would end her day sitting with the local farmers’ wives doing her knitting or embroidery until it was time for them to return to Cologne.
Oberschoenrath is a hamlet in the Bergische Land, overlooking Burg Schoenrath from where it was ruled in the middle ages. The “Zum Haeuschen” is still a very popular meeting place and very sophisticated unlike when my grandparents went there when the oxen who pulled the plough had their stall immediately adjacent to the kitchen. It was what we would today call open plan with the animals separated from the kitchen only by a half height partition and a step! From Oberschönrath which is situated on the first row of hills of the Bergische Land one can see Cologne lying on the plain below about twelve miles away.
Schloss Ehreshoven lies in the Bergische Land in the valley of the river Agger, a tributary of the Sieg and then of the Rhine. It was rebuilt in the late 17th century. It was built with a moat. The woodland rises steeply behind it. Today Schloss Ehreshoven is in immaculate condition and became well known all over Germany because a very popular TV series called “Verbotene Liebe” was filmed there, as well as another TV show.
Koenigsforst (King’s Forest) is a large wooded flat land area which lies between Cologne and the Bergische Land and is easily reached on public transport from the city. Although a lot of building has taken place after the war there are still miles and miles of woodland available for walking and riding.
The Schildergasse where my grandfather had his studio is in the heart of the city and today is part of the main shopping centre.
Cologne itself is a city whose origins lie beyond historical record. Once the Roman Empire had extended as far as the Rhine, the coloniser of the region General Agrippa in 38 BC allowed the Ubii, a Germanic tribe, to occupy the east bank of the Rhine and the settlement was known as Oppidum Ubiorum. In AD 50 Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius who came from the region succeeded in acquiring for her native town the official title of Roman colony, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. Under the Romans Colonia rapidly became an important industrial, commercial and artistic centre.
In the middle ages Cologne became the religious, intellectual and artistic centre of the Rhineland and she was also at that time the largest city in Germany with 40,000 inhabitants within its fortified walls. My grandmother refers in her diary to “the Ring”. This exists today and is a broad boulevard which circles old Cologne along the line of the 12th century medieval fortifications. The Schildergasse was one of the main streets in the medieval town running from east to west and the Hohestrasse intersects the Schildergasse from north to south. Cologne’s economic strength during the middle ages was no less impressive, rivalling even Luebeck in the Hanseatic League.
By the beginning of the 20th century Cologne was a major contributor to the Rhine-Ruhr industrial output and even during the First World War the British and French planned air attacks against the principal cities in the area which were producing large quantities of arms for Germany.
Today Cologne is once more a wealthy and beautiful city, having succeeded in combining the extensive restoration of the old city with some striking modern architecture. I am aware not everybody might agree with this. But I obviously never looked at Cologne with a critical eye. For me Cologne was synonymous with the exotic uncles, an indulgent grandmother and the museums and galleries. And most importantly, the past has not been forgotten, for example Old St. Alban Church has been left in ruins but has within the devastated structure a copy of the wonderful sculpture by Kaethe Kollwitz of a mourning father and mother. On a personal level I do feel some kind of connection when in Cologne imagining that wherever I go my mother’s family will have been there too.