Christine Kelly is the granddaughter of Edina Winkelbauer, nee Clam-Gallas (1889-1970), a member of the old nobility who was a nurse with the Knights of Malta on the Italian front in WW I. On her mother's death Christine Kelly inherited a collection of more than 500 letters – correspondence between members of her family during World War I and World War II. The letters her grandmother sent from the front and others exchanged by family members during World War II are a moving document of the times and reveal how the wars changed her family’s fortunes and impacted the lives of her ancestors. In the second part of an interview for Czech Radio Christine Kelly talks about the collection of letters relating to the Second World War.
“My grandparents met during WWI on the front. Then they got married in 1922, had four children and my grandmother always spent summers with the small children in Pasek, while my grandfather stayed in the hospital in Vienna where he worked as a surgeon. So there was a correspondence going on back and forth. The letters begin again in 1939. The day the war broke out, September 1st, 1939.
“She was in Pasek, he was in Vienna and they were writing to one another. I always imagine that on that day, because they were listening to the radio. She describes what the children are doing while they’re upstairs listening to the radio. The boys are smoking too much they want to listen to jazz music instead of listening to the news. You know, I think to myself, I am a mother of two children, and if it was me and I am watching the war start, have three sons and I have lived through one war already – WWI - and I know what that looks like. Know that my sons are probably also going to die. But despite that she was brave, always spiritual. Unselfish. It must have been a very difficult moment for her when the Second World War came.”
That’s a very sad tale. How did your father reflect on all of these stories?
“Well what’s interesting is that my father, when we were growing up, always said, you know, that he lived through the war and had two brothers who died. We were always curious and we asked him about it but he never said anything that gave me the impression he felt bitter or angry about what had happened to him. He always sounded very philosophical. There was never anything that made me think that he was crying about it and the WWII letters were with my grandmother all her life. She made these nice bundles: One bundle for one son in 1941 and the other one for the other son the same year, etc. It was very organised.
"When she died those letters went to my aunt who lived in Salzburg and when I visited her she said: “It’s too hard for me to read these letters. Send them to your father in America.” So, one year when I went home, I took them back with me and I said: “Oh daddy, here are these letters”, and he said: “I don’t know if I can [read them] it’s too much for me.” I know he read a few but he couldn’t really read much of them and I remember, when my mother was very sick in 2009 and I was cleaning in the basement, I said: “Either we read these letters and we do something with them or throw them away.” My father said “Oh, I can’t do that. If you want to do that you can”.
“So I started reading them and of course it was one letter after another. You just couldn’t put them down. And then there was one letter that I found which had never been opened and that was just the most amazing moment, because my father had written this letter to his brother and by the time it had arrived the boy had died, so the letter was sent back to the house and you can imagine my grandmothers reaction: the boy had died and she saw the letter written by her other son and she thought “I’m not going to throw the letter away. I’ll put it away with the others.” And that’s how it was when I found it.
“It was just incredible because the contents, and of course I opened it immediately not spending any time thinking: “Oh my god there’s an unopened letter.” I just immediately opened it and it was this so very beautiful and philosophical letter! I mean my brother was eighteen when he wrote it and his brother was 21. But it’s the conversation that two men have when they are 80 because the story of the letter was: We are going to die. It’s incredible. So I had this letter and now comes the story about how it came to be on the BBC.
“The BBC is wonderful of course. They have wonderful radio documentaries and one of them was about the British museum and its director who made one of these documentaries which was called ‘The history of the world in one hundred objects’. He started with a very old stone tool and then went on through Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine history, all the way up to the most modern thing which was a micro-chip or something like that. He described these objects in words which was strange because you go to the museum to look at something, but his description was so beautiful and it made your imagination active.
“So I listened to the program and I thought: “I must go on the BBC website and look at the picture he described that day.” which I ended up doing. Then, on the BBC screen, there was a box and the box said: “Which object would you put into a museum of the history of the world?”, and this was a couple of days after I had found the letter. So I took a picture of the letter and the envelope which of course had my father’s handwriting with his brother’s name on it and, there was also this message written in a red pencil which said: “The soldier is dead, return to sender.”
"So anyway, I had the envelope and the letter and I took a picture and I emailed it to the BBC. One could also write, in 150 words, the story connected to the object. I wrote them my story and then four days letter I got a telephone call saying this is the BBC were very interested in your story. Would you like to tell us about it? I then told them that my father was coming to visit me right then and they said: “Great! We’ll come and interview him and we’ll make the documentary.” And that’s the story about how the BCC found out about my letters.”
The letters composed a great novel about people confronted by the 20th century and the war. How do the heroes change in the story?
“It’s incredible, when you see my father in the letter as a boy. I mean he describes when he was in Pasek in 1940 with the forester. They went into the woods to shoot a pheasant and discovered a camp that had been made by some Russians. So these Russians had stolen a chicken, cooked it in a bucket and my father and the forester found this.
"Then he writes to my mother about this and he says, you know: “You won’t believe what we found! It’s just incredible!” You see him as a boy and he had no idea how the world was going to change for him. The world was immortal. This beautiful world of childhood was immortal to him and then, one by one, you see these dreams dying and falling away. Then, towards the end of the war, in one letter, he says: “There will be nothing left of our world and beautiful childhood except ashes and broken pieces of buildings.” Very sad and yet, when the war ended, and my aunt also said this, everyone stopped thinking about the tragedy and started thinking about the future. You know, it was the future, the future, the future and in this way, I think, so much of the sadness was just pushed away.”
The collection of Edina Winkelbauer’s letters will be published in German in 2015, a century after she went to serve as a nurse on the Italian front. The publication will contain photographs that she herself took during the war years.