Catholic Herald, 16 March 1990
Review: A Mother’s War by Fey von Hassell (John Murray, £16.95).
There are some advantages to insomnia. I started reading A Mother’s War in the small hours and finished it six hours later – gripping stuff. It rather reminded me of The Past is Myself (Corgi 1989) by Christabel Bielenberg.
A Mother’s War offers another angle on the consequences of the plot to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944. Fey von Hassell’s father was executed for his part in the attempt and Hitler’s vengeance extended to the “kin” of the conspirators. Fey, as a daughter of one of the most prominent, was arrested. Ulrich von Hassell served as German ambassador to Italy from 1932 until 1938 when he was dismissed because of his anti-Nazi stance.
The first 90 pages of the book makes use of the author’s teenage diaries, and letters, to give a youthful insight into the privileged lifestyle at the Villa Wolkonsky (now ironically the residence of the British ambassador to Italy). By the time of her arrest in September 1944, Fey von Hassell was 25, married to an Italian, mother of two little sons, and living on her husband’s estate in northern Italy. She was forcibly separated from her two boys who were taken, unbeknownst to her, to a kinderheim institute where they were kept under false names for 11 months.
Fey herself was imprisoned as one of a group of “special category” prisoners – a group that included other “kin” of the Stauffenberg plotters, and many famous names such as the PM of France, Lѐon Blum and his wife. This group was shunted across war-torn Europe via a succession of prisons and camps, including Buchenwald and Dachau.
The constant fear of death – more likely from Allied bombing at this late stage of the war than from their captors in whose interest it was to keep the group alive as hostages – and the agony of not knowing what had become of her children, make this a very tense book. The reader shares the happy ending with relief.