Fans of Catherine Bailey who have been gripped by her two previous books, Black Diamonds and The Secret Rooms, will know she has an extraordinary ability to penetrate right to the heart of a family and uncover often painful stories about the protagonists as well as the wider circle in which they moved. Both previous books concerned English families, yet this time the family is half German half Italian, and the suffering encompasses the European tragedy of the last century. It is so harrowing there were moments when I had to put this book down, take a deep breath and reflect. Had this been a novel I might have found such constant battering faced by the young woman whose story this is scarcely credible.
However, Bailey is not only a natural storyteller, she is also scholarly, relying heavily on primary sources including diaries, letters and interviews with survivors, so her tale is shockingly believable and shines a powerful light on the unimaginable sadism enacted at the end of World War Two as the Nazis were in retreat and their captives forced to undertake death marches out of the camps. At the centre is Fey von Hassel, an aristocratic German woman, granddaughter of World War One Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who married Italian nobleman Count Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, in January 1940. For a few months the young couple lived a fairy tale existence at his family castle of Brazzá in Udine. One of Detalmo’s ancestors was the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazzá, who founded the settlement that became Brazzaville. In June 1940 Detalmo, an anti-Fascist with links to the Italian resistance, left to join his Cavalry regiment, returned for a short time in 1942 and then, after the defeat of Mussolini, vanished again in 1943. He eventually told Fey that he was remaining in Rome to help those working towards a democratic political future for Italy. By this time the castle was occupied by (mostly polite) Germans, who allowed Fey to continue living there. As the war dragged on life became more difficult and Fey saw her husband’s decision to remain in Rome, not return to Brazzá and help her, as a betrayal.
The crisis came following the failed assassination plot against Hitler of 20 July 1944. Fey’s father, Ulrich von Hassell, a diplomat and former ambassador to Italy, was an anti-Nazi, indirectly involved in this plot and one of hundreds rounded up and killed in the aftermath. Shortly after his execution Fey and her two young sons, Corrado aged 3 and Roberto 2, were also arrested. The threesome were sent on a long journey to Austria and Germany but at Innsbruck, on a bitterly cold December night, she was separated from her sons, told only that they would be placed ‘in a good children’s home’ with some SS ‘nurses’ until they could be reunited. She had no idea that this meant they would be sent to a Nazi orphanage where their names and identity would be changed in an attempt to prevent them ever being discovered.
This central section of the book covering Fey’s journey as a so called ‘prisoner of kin’ is both terrifying and thriller like. Anguished by the decision of her husband to remain in Rome and desperately concerned for her children, she is moved seven times in five months, taken on long train journeys without food or toilet facilities and in between imprisoned in various Nazi camps including Stutthof, Buchenwald and Dachau and occasionally hotels. She eventually became part of a large group of those related to anti-Nazi plotters, which also included SOE agents Peter Churchill and Lt Colonel Jack Churchill. At Stutthof they were all housed in a barrack just outside the camp walls but close enough to smell burning bodies. Yet their own fate was constantly in the balance as some of the group suffered dysentery, scarlet fever and typhoid. Fey’s personal trauma was made both more bearable and painful by falling in love with a fellow prisoner, Alexander von Stauffenberg, older brother of Claus, the army officer leader of the July plot. It was a romance heightened by war but, like so many wartime relationships, doomed. Although, as Fey always made clear, nothing happened physically between the pair, and although Alex’s wife, the part-Jewish Nazi test pilot Melitta died in April 1945 when her plane crashed while undertaking a courageous low level flight to offer support to the prisoner group, both Fey and Alex felt guilty about their relationship.
One of the most gruesome scenes described by Bailey occurred on the night of January 25th 1945 when a group of 1,300 Jewish women due to be marched out of Stutthof were forced to stand naked for hours in temperatures of minus 25 degrees for no reason. They huddled together trying to survive, needing constantly to urinate because of the burning cold. Some simply collapsed and died on the spot. Fey, held just outside the camp, was spared this sort of cruelty and Bailey recognises that, however appalling were the conditions for the special prisoners, ‘what none of them realised was quite how privileged they were’. As the war drew to a close it became clear that in spite of a rumour the group might be killed at any minute, Himmler was determined to keep them alive, hoping he might be able to use them as a bargaining chip in exchange for the lives of prominent Nazis.
Fey’s ordeal ended finally in May, 1945 although there was then fresh torment as she was not allowed into Germany to search for her children. That search, undertaken by her mother Ilse and sister Almuth, is almost a book on its own and it would be unfair to reveal how the boys were eventually found. That they were made Fey, in that sense, lucky. The problem of abandoned, lost and homeless children in post-War Europe was immense; in Czechoslovakia there were some 50,000 orphans and homeless children, 280,000 in Yugoslavia; statistics which cannot easily convey the individual heartache behind them. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency was by 1947 caring for approximately 500,000 orphans in Germany alone, many of whom had forgotten who they were or where they came from, or never knew, too young to remember anything about their previous lives and often too emotionally fragile to be told. In 1948 a report published by the International Tracing Service estimated that in Europe 42,000 parents were still searching for their children.
Fey, having made her peace with Detalmo, lived until 91, mostly at Brazzá. She had another child, a daughter Vivian, who died in 1997, and wrote an autobiography called “Niemals sich beugen” (Never Capitulate), based on her wartime diary because she wanted the world to know that ‘not all Germans were Nazis.’ Corrado and Roberto, after dealing with recurrent childhood nightmares, have both had successful careers – Corrado as an economics advisor to the EU, Roberto as an architect. The Lost Boys, written with their active cooperation, is an important book and goes someway to revealing the many courageous anti-Hitler elements in Germany but at the same the overwhelming impression left is of unimaginable barbarity, sadism and utter madness.
Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)