The Lost Boys, by Catherine Bailey. Penguin, Random House, £20
AT the start of the Second World War, beautiful, blonde Fey Detalmo, granddaughter of Admiral von Tirpitz, daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, German Ambassador to Italy, was living a fairytale life in Brazza, a strikingly lovely palazzo in northern Italy, attended by loyal servants and doting estate workers.
She’d moved there in 1939 on marrying Count Detalmo Biroli, an Italian cavalry officer. They had two exquisite blond sons, Corrado and Roberto. In 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the Germans arrived at Brazza and Detalmo disappeared to join the partisans. Fey was out of fairyland. Alone at Brazza, she began writing a diary, eventually producing seven volumes. Ulrich put his into a tea-caddy buried in a foxhole, to be retrieved by his wife Ilse after the war. All over Europe, people were secreting desperate journalism.
At first, life with the Germans at Brazza was not too bad. Fey was under the control of Lieutenant Hans Kretschmann, who was friendly and, like the other officers, loved her boys. But she was threatened by ‘Garibaldi’ communist partisans, who saw her as a class enemy and local people suspected her of collaborating with the Nazis. On September 9, 1944, Kretschmann marched into her bedroom and told her coldly that her father had been executed and it was his ‘duty to report her to the authorities’.
Hassell had been hanged with piano wire the day before, after being implicated in the July Plot to kill Hitler. His trial was witnessed by Helmut Schmidt, later Chancellor of Germany. After the war he wrote to Ilse, telling her what a ‘huge impression her husband had made on him in his last hours’. The book is full of such intriguing little details. Who knew that Hitler took to wearing a ‘metal-plated, bullet-proof cap,’ of extraordinary weight?’
Deltamo’s activities threatened the safety of his family and Fey had agonised over whether to flee. But she felt safe at Brazza, which she described as a protecting ‘mother hen.’ She now shared the fate of the other families of the July Plotters, described by Hitler as ‘a brood of vipers,’ a poisonous aristocratic bloodline which had to be wiped out. Those families were known to the SS as Sippenhaftlinge (‘Kin Liability’) and singled out for special attention.
Using a mixture of narrative voice and first-person diary accounts from many different languages, we are dragged with Fey into the Nazi terror machine. On September 27, 1944, her children were dragged away and she was arrested. The boys were taken to an SS orphanage in Innsbruck, once the HQ of the Rudolf Steiner schools. Fey had no idea where they were and was taken to a Gestapo prison.
Her safe, pampered life was over. She was now living with prostitutes and petty criminals, sharing one bucket between five. On her 26th birthday, she was deported east. ‘I was utterly powerless,’ she wrote in her diary later, ‘in the hands of these criminals, without news from home and forced to leave my children alone in a strange country.’
During the journey by cattle truck, she scrawled a note about her situation and her missing children and dropped it out on to the tracks as they entered a station. She frequently found herself travelling with other members of the Sippenhaft. In Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, where prisoners were seen gnawing on human bones, they watched the glow from pyres and smelled ‘a sickening smell of burning flesh.’ They suffered from typhoid, dysentery and scarlet fever, and starvation.
Their importance as hostages kept them alive and spared them the full horror of the camp system, given basic food and segregated into sick rooms. They moved on to Buchenwald, where they saw ‘human skeletons marching in columns,’ and Dachau, where they met Prominenten. These were distinguished prisoners such as French Socialist Leon Blum, who became President of France in 1946, the Wittelsbach family which had produced two Holy Roman Emperors, and Prince Xavier of Bourbon, pretender to the Spanish throne.
During this nightmare Fey fell in love with a fellow prisoner, Alexander von Stauffenberg. He was the brother of Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the colonel executed after leading the July Plot. Bizarrely, their journey was often trailed by Alexander’s wife Melitta, one of Goering’s favourite pilots. Even in Buchenwald, she was able to land and have a few minutes with her husband. She was later shot down and killed by an American fighter plane.
As the German defeat loomed, SS chief Heinrich Himmler opened private negotiations with a Swedish diplomat, Count Folke Bernadotte and promised all executions would stop. Later he gave an order that all the hostages were to be taken to a hotel in the Alps and shot. But history overtook him. He was soon on the road himself, sleeping under hedges.
Bailey is brilliant about the horror and chaos of the German retreat and Soviet invasion. If you ever wondered why the Red Army conducted such an intense rape campaign in Germany, Bailey has found a clue in the writing of Major Lev Kopelev, later arrested by Stalin.
He noted a conversation with a military superior who mentioned deliberate strategies to get exhausted Soviet soldiers to continue fighting. ‘The soldier must go on hating so he can get his revenge. He must be told that when he gets to Germany everything is his – goods and women, do what you want!’
By 1945, there were at least 25million ‘displaced’ persons in Europe, including many lost children. An Allied programme for finding youngsters specifically excluded ‘enemy’ children such as Corrado and Roberto. Reunited but trapped in the south of Italy, Fey and Detalmo could not get permission to hunt for them. Ilse aged 60, now in Munich, had lost her husband,
brother, and her two sons were missing. She’d received no letters from Fey throughout the war. The Red Cross didn’t hand on telegrams Fey had sent.
Incredibly, all she’d received was the scrawled note Fey had dropped from the train when she was being transported. Ilse found a wrecked car which would still go, persuaded an American colonel to give her petrol coupons and set off for an orphanage in the mountains.
With no luck there, she headed for Bad Sachsa in the new Russian occupation zone, about to be sealed off. Her pass only got her to the frontier, the rest was on foot. The local mayor was so amazed at her courage that he drove her to the orphanage. Inside, they found only one child, the grandson of Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig, hanged with the other July Plotters.
They begged to take the child with them, but were refused and both returned weeping. The reader is likely to join in as the story, always harrowing, becomes increasingly moving. Ilse found the children. Corrado, aged four, said simply: ‘Can we go home now?’ She couldn’t recognise Roberto, aged three, who identified himself by naming his pony. They were only ten days away from being given to a local farmer.
The final chapter is fascinating on how the family got back together; Fey still deeply in love with Alex and angry with Detalmo for failing to rescue them. He bewildered by a wife and children who’d been changed and damaged.
It’s encouraging that a woman has written such a tough book about the Second World War without anachronisms or feminist goggles.