Roy Orbison, in unmatched songs like “A love so beautiful”, evokes the poignancy of a partnership remembered but it takes the letters between two young Germans, written between late 1944 and early 1945, to ground the piercing tenderness in an all-too-real relationship.
When the Nazis gained power in 1933, Helmuth and Freya were newly married law students in Berlin. Their resistance to Hitler took active form when they began meeting in secret with like-minded acquaintances in 1940.
They discussed political and economic programmes for a European Germany that could emerge when Nazism was defeated.
When Helmuth was arrested four years later, Freya was thirty-three and the mother of their two young sons.
Helmuth was thirty-seven, caught by the Gestapo after having warned a colleague that the secret police knew about meetings involving people critical of the regime.
He was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and could have hoped for eventual release but then there was an attempt on Hitler’s life a few months later.
The Gestapo stepped up their search for any individuals they regarded as dissidents (this is part of the background to Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale) and one of those involved in the bomb plot against Hitler was a close friend of Helmuth’s. The bomb plotters were executed and Helmuth was moved to Tegel prison in Berlin to await trial.
By this stage, defeatism alone was a crime that could result in a death sentence.
The letters that Freya and Helmuth exchange begin in September 1944, after his arrival in Tegel prison.
They write to one another on an almost daily basis, steadfastly offering mutual support alongside a remarkable forthrightness as to the likely outcome for Helmuth: ‘Stay whole and unbowed, even when I’m no longer here’, he writes on October 6.
They each come to realize that Helmuth is likely to be executed but, as he explains towards the end of October, once’ you’re finally totally ready and prepared to die, you can’t make a permanent state out if it ….the flesh doesn’t play along. So you bounce back to life, maybe only a little’.
By November, with the trial imminent, anxieties increase and they hold on to a thread of hope that he can successfully defend himself. Religious faith offers solace in the face of the grim reality that executions can take place within days, even hours, of sentencing.
When the trial date is announced, Helmuth finds it difficult to compose a final farewell. Early in January, they see each other for the last time.
These letters are tragic testimony to an enduring and searingly honest love between two people.
They raised their heads above the parapet when so many others lacked the courage. When Freya died in 2010, Helmuth’s final letter was in her bedside table.
“Last letters: the prison correspondence 1944-1945”, by Helmuth James Von Moltke and Freya Von Moltke, is published by New York Review Books.