Between Two Homelands: Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany

Between Two Homelands: Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany

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Between Two Homelands: Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany by Hedda Kalshoven

In 1920, at the age of thirteen, Irmgard Gebensleben first traveled from Germany to The Netherlands on a "war-children transport." She would later marry a Dutch man and live and raise her family there while keeping close to her German family and friends through the frequent exchange of letters. Yet during this period geography was not all that separated them. Increasing divergence in political opinions and eventual war between their countries meant letters contained not only family news but personal perspectives on the individual, local, and national choices that would result in the most destructive war in history. 

This important collection, first assembled by Irmgard Gebensleben's daughter Hedda Kalshoven, gives voice to ordinary Germans in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and in the occupied Netherlands. The correspondence between Irmgard, her friends, and four generations of her family delve into their most intimate and candid thoughts and feelings about the rise of National Socialism. The responses to the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands expose the deeply divided loyalties of the family and reveal their attempts to bridge them. Of particular value to historians, the letters evoke the writers' beliefs and their understanding of the events happening around them.

This first English translation of Ik denk zoveel aan jullie:  Een briefwisseling tussen Nederland en Duitsland 1920-1949, has been edited, abridged, and annotated by Peter Fritzsche with the assent and collaboration of Hedda Kalshoven. After the book's original publication the diary of Irmgard's brother and loyal Wehrmacht soldier, Eberhard, was discovered and edited by Hedda Kalshoven. Fritzsche has drawn on this important additional source in his preface.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079856
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/15/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Hedda Kalshoven is the daughter of Irmgard Gebensleben. Peter Fritzsche is W. D. and Sara E. Trowbridge Professor of History at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Life and Death in the Third Reich and many other books.

Read an Excerpt

Between Two Homelands

Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany

By Hedda Kalshoven, Hester Velmans


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09617-4


TO HOLLAND (1920–1929)

A large number of Germans opposed the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic, holding it responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I (the "stab-inthe-back legend"). This sense of illegitimacy, deep mistrust of Germany's new Social Democratic rulers, and general resentments against the Treaty of Versailles created conditions in which right-wing nationalism found growing support among all social classes. The Treaty of Versailles dictated limits on the size of the military and required the payment of reparations for the destruction that German armies had caused in northern France and Belgium, and the treaty also sought the extradition of German war criminals, including Kaiser Wilhelm II who had fled to Holland in November 1918. Despite repeated demands, the Dutch refused to extradite him.

In the first difficult years after the war, Dutch families provided vacation homes for thousands of impoverished and malnourished children from Germany, Austria, and Hungary. After Irmgard (generally known as Immo) returned from her stay in the Netherlands, she remained in contact with her host family in Utrecht. In 1921 August Brester traveled to Germany with college friends and took time to visit the Gebensleben family in Braunschweig. The next year, Immo journeyed to Holland for a second time.

Irmgard Gebensleben to her parents Karl and Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 13 June 1920

[...] The journey went quite well. At one stop, we each received a cup of milk. We were delayed for a long time in Arnhem. All the people at the train station looked at us with curiosity. Some even came into the train and talked to us, but we couldn't understand much because the Dutch language is actually quite different from low German. As a test, I am sending you a page from a calendar to see if you can read it.

In Utrecht, all the kids got off and a man read out our names and led us over to our foster parents. The Bresters are already pretty old, their sons are around twenty years old. We took the streetcar to Willem Barentzstraat. From the outside, the front of the house is pretty drab looking, but in the back there is a balcony, a porch, and a charming little flower garden. At home, we had a warm meal consisting of soup, meat, vegetables, and stewed fruit. Just imagine that in Holland the meals are completely different. In the morning at 8:30 you have coffee and bread, at noon coffee and bread 1 more time, and a warm meal at 5:30. In between, they drink tea nonstop. Frau Brester is always running around holding a "kopje" of tea. Instead of tea, I get milk. Herr Brester says that I have to drink 1 liter of milk a day, later on more. He calls me Irmi or Immi. The others call me Irmgard. Thank God they can speak a little bit of German. [...]

Everybody rides bikes in Utrecht. There are only a few people who walk on the streets. There are also not so many motorcycles or cars. Even with all these new sights I am terribly homesick. I just can't stand it sometimes. It is because everything is so strange, and I have to settle in. But my foster parents are awfully nice.

Elisabeth Gebensleben to her daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Braunschweig, 15 June 1920

[...] Hilde [Immo's travel companion] is also homesick, and with that we have arrived at the sore spot of this beautiful trip. I want to confess something to you: I am a little homesick for you too. But we are both quite brave and don't give in to such things for long.

Irmgard Gebensleben to her parents Karl and Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 21 June 1920

[...] First I will answer your questions. Herr Brester was a senior official at the post office but is now retired. The older son, Carel, is studying mathematics and physics and August is studying medicine. Both of them are awfully funny. During mealtimes, they are always making jokes so that I can barely stop laughing. [...]

Irmgard Gebensleben to her parents Karl and Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 3 July 1920

[...] I went to the city with Herr Brester today. There was a great deal of activity because of the cattle market. Wearing their traditional costumes and accompanied by their animals, farmers converged onto the marketplace from all over. Then we took a look at the cathedral and heard the chiming of the bells. They have a wonderful, unique tone, which put me in quite a festive mood. It is also very interesting to read the prices in the shop windows. For example, a man's suit costs at most 40 gulden, and even that is pretty expensive. [...]

Elisabeth Gebensleben to Henriette Brester, Zennern, 7 July 1920

From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you and your husband for all the love that you have shown our Irmgard. Irmgard has been received in your house in such a friendly way. She writes such happy letters and postcards that I wish I could shake your hand and tell you in person how grateful I am. It is wonderful to know how well Irmgard has recuperated. She is very proud to report that she has already gained 6 lbs. In the last years, we frequently worried about her rapid growth spurt. Unfortunately, in Germany we are not in a position to care for our children as we would like. For us it is a question of adjusting to the circumstances.

As the question of handing over the former Kaiser was being discussed, and in spite of threats of the Allies, the Dutch refused to consider doing so, I said to my children "Hats off to the Dutch!" And now I want to say the same thing in light of the Dutch people's readiness to help and care for our German children.

Irmgard has had such wonderful experiences with you. She tells us of the nice walks that she has taken with your husband. The memories that she will bring back to Germany will last a lifetime. For the last several days, we have been spending our summer holiday near Kassel. I would very much like to accompany Irmgard when she returns from Holland and want to ask you to let me know through Irmgard which train she is taking back. [...]

Netherlands Commission for Vacationing Children from Germany to Jan Brester, Utrecht, 15 July 1920

Your foster child Irmgard Gebensleben is scheduled to leave for Germany on 20 July. Please make sure that on that day she is ready at 10½ o'clock, in the 3rd class waiting room of Utrecht's Central Station. Each child is allowed to bring along on the journey: 4 kg of foodstuffs, as well as provisions for the voyage.

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 21 September 1920

[...] And that is why we haven't written. But don't ever think that we have forgotten our little-big Irmy. That would be impossible! And do you think of us once in a while? But let me continue.

[...] After 60 days military service, Carel came back on 20 July. Stupid sergeants taught him all that was good and excellent. For example, how to shoot the person next to you through the eyes and the exact percentage of young men in war who go mad, etc.! An army chaplain also preached many excellent things, but he choked on the words "love of humanity," or maybe they just slipped his mind. In 1921, Carel will continue his training, this time for 75 days in order to become an officer. Hopefully he will then learn how to completely destroy his fellow man! That would be wonderful! That is just about the greatest thing in the world!

Carel says: "How stupid people can be!" [...]

August doesn't want to become an officer. He wants to try to heal people rather than kill them. He is one of those simpletons who actually think that is better! He also wants to do it that way because he himself desires it and not because this or that one ordered him to do so! Really, how innocent can you be!

[...] Do you remember the expedition to Vianen when we took the old horse-drawn tram on the way back and broke out in giggles when the blanket slipped off the horse!

Irmgard Gebensleben to her mother Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 17 June 1922

My dear sweet Mutti! This intimate greeting is not to show you that I am homesick. I don't feel that at all here. Just the opposite, I am so happy that I am allowed to be here and be coddled that I want once in a while to share my good luck with you.

Here it is simply—how should I say it?—I just can't find the right words. [...]

Yesterday [August] sat for a small examination. He looked very festive when he left the house: pin-striped trousers, a black frock coat, a black necktie, a black bowler, glace kid gloves, and patent leather shoes. He passed the examination with flying colors. Here he is not so gentle and quiet as he was with us last year. He teases me all day long. He is always telling me that Germany is a Dutch province and the German language a Dutch dialect. How am I supposed to put up with that?! [...]

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 25 August 1922

[...] Carel is busy training to be an officer. Today he had to commit to memory how many times you're supposed to rap your gun on the ground for a general. Did you guess four times? Wrong! It's just three. He also knows precisely how many times to do it for a colonel, for a major, for a captain, etcetera. Very important! [...]

In 1921, the Allies determined the amount that Germany was obligated to pay in reparations according of the Treaty of Versailles. These onerous transfer payments greatly undermined the purchasing power of the German mark, which had already lost value as a result of the costs of the war. In January 1923, after Germany failed to deliver coal as part of reparations, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr. The German government continued to print money in order to help support Ruhr workers who had gone on strike in protest against the invasion. By 3 September 1923, the value of the mark had fallen to such an extent that a single Dutch guilder was worth 4,620,000 reichsmarks; a day later the exchange rate was 5,087,250. At 10:00 A.M. on 2 October a guilder could buy 125,295,000 marks; at 11:00 A.M. it could buy 125,914,000. In early November an American dollar cost 4.2 billion marks. The psychological and political as well as economic effects were catastrophic. The German public blamed—not completely accurately—Versailles while creditors, especially among the middle classes, lost their savings. Debtors, including farmers with mortgages, of course, did better. The mark was stabilized only at the end of November 1923.

In May 1923, the Gebensleben family moved from Kaiser-Wilhelm Strasse to Am Fallerslebertor.

Jan Brester to Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 14 September 1922

Strange times make for strange letters. I have come into 4,000 M. As you know marks are almost worthless here. An example: for 4,000 M à 0,17 I can buy 2 boxes of chocolates à f 3 and get about f 0.60 back.

Do I have your permission to give the 4,000 M to Irmy? But how do I get it to her? Do you think I can just enclose the banknote? I hesitated a long time to ask you, but it would be sheer nonsense not to do so. 100 M is still worth something in Germany, or not? Irmy will let me know if I have your permission, although a big thank you (for 2 boxes of chocolates) is completely out of the question. A registered letter to Banking house "Mutti" will follow promptly. Fun and treats give a girl an "onderkin" [double chin]. Irmgard will certainly tell you what a "onderkin" is.


Banking house "Mutti": From Friday, 15 September 1922 until 1 June 1923 pay Immo 100 M weekly allowance every Friday. Jan Brester.

Elisabeth Gebensleben to Jan Brester, Braunschweig, 16 September 1922

It is really too bad that you could not see Irmgard's joy when I gave her the enclosed letter. She clapped and sang and didn't know what to do with herself out of happiness. My husband and I thank you most sincerely for your generosity. The idea of "Banking house Mutti" is charming and I will very happily fulfill my responsibilities every Friday. There are many things we have to deny our children, often with a heavy heart. The times are hard and reason has to prevail. And yet one would so much like to indulge them! That is why your dear letter made me so happy: Irmgard can now treat herself to a few pleasures that would otherwise be off limits. I am not just thinking of chocolates and pralines, which she simply adores, but also theater or concert tickets.

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 20 October 1922

To Fräulein Irmgard Gebensleben.

Our firm today received a letter from Göttingen [where Carel was working on his dissertation] detailing how very expensive everything is in Germany. Wherefore we have decided posthaste to increase your allowance (as of today). Your banker will redeem the enclosed promissory note.

We have further ordered our representative in Gottingen to send you some postage stamps, since we wish to know often, everything, always and exactly how you are doing in these difficult times, and whether the abovementioned pocket money is not too hard hit by them.

My firm herewith furthermore sends you a loving kiss.

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, II November 1922

[...] How nice, that you are able to go to dances or the theater once in a while. I was astonished to read that it's a political party that organizes a ball. Politics and poetry don't usually mix, after all. [...]

And I should like you to give me a detailed description of the situation in Germany. How much do things cost? Is chocolate still available, and how much does it cost? How much, for instance, do you have to pay for a theater ticket? Is your allowance still sufficient for that sort of thing? You can tell me everything, you know that, dear child. [...]

Jan Brester to Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 5 May 1923

Banking house "Mutti" will soon be empty, so it may be a good time to purchase more marks. We have no way of knowing what you can buy in Germany for, say, 1,500 M. In Holland that amounts to about 15 cents, practically nothing (an eight-minute tram ride!). What do you think about a weekly allowance of 1,500 M? If that's too low, please let me know how much you think is necessary.

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 5 June 1923

My representative in Gottingen has come home with a balance of 23,515 M as well as 50 postage stamps a 300 M., plus one guilder. Since my account books have already been closed, I don't know what else to do with it. Perhaps you can use some of it, for Bach or chocolate. Or to buy a house and open a post office branch "Am Fallerslebertor"! The German mark keeps falling, the prices keep going up! [...] I'll write you a long letter in Dutch soon, so that you won't forget your (foster) mother tongue completely.

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 3 September 1923

[...] Since I have calculated that your weekly allowance (just 3,000 marks) isn't nearly enough, I am sending you several million marks more to augment your funds until 1 October (approximately one million per week). Please write and tell me how much the guilder is worth in Germany at the moment. [...]

Jan Brester to Elisabeth Gebensleben, Utrecht, 2 October 1923

Banking house "Mutti": I was surprised to see that it is 2 October already! I hardly dare ask you this: would you please pay out the millions from now until the beginning of 1924 as you see fit? To tell you the truth, distributing several hundred millions is not something I am used to. (I enclose two guilders—f 2.—.)

Jan Brester to his foster daughter Irmgard Gebensleben, Utrecht, 17 February 1924

[...] Carel is an officer! He now wears a belt around his waist that has a sword stuck in it. Great! Lucky fellow! From now on, if someone bothers him, he can just hack him in two. The stars on his collar twinkle like stars in the sky, and of course the sky and militarism have a great deal in common. He now also has a special distinction, and a word of honor. Mine is only second-rate. That's wonderful too!


Excerpted from Between Two Homelands by Hedda Kalshoven, Hester Velmans. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface Peter Fritzsche ix

Introduction xxiii

Note to the American Edition xxxiii

To Holland (1920-1929) 1

The Parents (1929-1937) 16

The Grandmother (1938-1940) 120

The Brother (1940-1944) 148

The Others (1945-1949) 215

In Closing 235

Family Trees 237

Maps 244

Suggested Reading 249

Index 251

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Between Two Homelands: Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Mary1938 More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best inside looks at what life was like for average germans during this time period. Fascinating reading!