On May 6, 1939, Ilse Weber, in writing to her sister-in-law, Zofiah Mareni, noted “You will probably be happy to know how do we live here now? Well, at least we’re not pestered by boredom. It’s like dancing on a powder keg. The air is impregnated with insane rumors, which we no longer believe.” Starting in 1933, Ilse’s letters recorded the lives of her small family during a time of increasing danger, when Europe descended from peace to the chaos of war and genocide.
In 1933, Ilse Weber lived in her ancestral town, Vítkovice, near the industrial area of Moravia-Ostrava in northern Czechoslovakia. She was thirty, married to Willi Weber, and had a son Hanus, aged two. As author of children’s books and radio scripts, she used her maiden name, Ilse Herlinger. She wrote in German, the language of that border region, thinking of herself as a Czech. Lilian von Löwenadler, to whom the letters were mostly addressed, was the daughter of a Swedish diplomat, with whom Ilse had maintained an epistolary relationship since childhood, enhanced by personal visits. At that time Lilian was living in England. In 1934, Ilse gave birth to a second son, Thomas. In 1938, Hitler’s Third Reich annexed Vítkovice and the rest of what it called Sudetenland. Soon after, it occupied all of Czechoslovakia.
In the spring of 1939, the Webers, now living in Prague, sent Hanus on a Kindertransport to London, to Lilian, who took him to Sweden to live with her mother. In 1942, Ilse, Willi and Tommy were sent to the Thersienstadt Ghetto. Working there in the children’s infirmary, Ilse entertained the patients with songs, accompanying herself on her contraband guitar. It is these songs and poems, mail correspondence having become near impossible, in which we can trace Ilse’s last years. As inmates disappeared on trains to ‘the East,’ Willi hid his wife’s music and poems in a work shed with his gardening tools. He went ‘east,’ followed, later in 1944, by Ilse and Tommy. In the autumn of 1945, Willi, having survived in a labor camp, was joined by fourteen year-old Hanus and they recovered Ilse’s songs and poems. After a year of anxious inquiry, they relinquished hope that Tommy and Ilse were alive.
We would not have the letters had not someone, decades later, while cleaning out a London attic, found them in a box.