Remembering Hedda Kalshoven

Hedda Kalshoven (center) with family in June, 1943
Hedda Kalshoven (center) with family in June, 1943

Hedda Kalshoven lived history, and as part of that living, restored it to the rest of us.

In 1920, her mother arrived in the Netherlands as part of a program that ferried German children to recuperation abroad after the end of World War One. The mother kept a running correspondence with German relations from her teen years into adulthood. Marrying a son from her foster family, she watched—first with interest, then aghast—as her German relatives embraced National Socialism and became engulfed in terror and world war.

Years later, Kalshoven discovered a trove of letters that chronicled that time in painfully intimate detail. “The decision to have this book published was not easy,” Kalshoven would write in her book of collected letters from that time. “My conviction that documents like these letters shouldn’t just vanish again in the end won out over the desire to protect our family’s privacy.”

The letters she curated provide insight into the thoughts and emotions of a family on the ground, from wonder at the Amsterdam Olympic Games to the suffering of the Depression and uncertainties of the Weimar Republic to the enthusiasm of German officials on the march into Poland. The details are every day, recognizable to us all.

[The Olympics] was really a wonderful scene, the vast array of flags from the most diverse nations and the enormous, excited mass of people. And along the way you could make a study of languages and races. You could see just about every human type: tall Englishmen, elegant Americans, short Japanese and Chinese, black-eyed Italians, even Negroes and Indians. There is great celebration at the conclusion of every match. The results are then announced over a loudspeaker usually in French, but also frequently in Dutch and English. Then, to the sounds of the national anthem of the victorious nation, the flags of the 3 main winners soar into the sky, while everybody stands and the respective countrymen sing along.

And then recognizable, but not quite:

Sonja just acquired a little doggy; he’s called “Strupp.” Half Pomeranian, half dachshund. Today I asked her: “What does he look like?” “Black, but he is not Jewish; he was born a Christian.” And with that dead serious little face!

And finally:

Friday last week, Mutti and I were admitted into the NSDAP along with a large number of prominent elites (ministers, directors, nobles, former leaders of the German Nationalists, etc.). A handshake made us duty-bound to show absolute allegiance to the Führer.

At Monday’s city council meeting every city parliamentarian as well as the entire city council showed up in a brownshirt—complete unity. Our unity is so complete that in the future some 90% of all council motions will no longer need to be discussed in parliament but will be taken care of in committee. As a result, time and energy will be available for productive work.

And so your “old” Vati had to quickly acquire brownshirt, cap and visor, belt, tie, and party pin. Mutti thinks that the uniform suits me well and makes me look decades(?) younger!!! Oh!!! Well, well, dear August, if someone would have predicted this! But it is uplifting to see the discipline that makes everyone exert themselves to serve the Fatherland—strictly according to the principle Public Interest before Private Interest.

In recent years, Hedda Kalshoven—despite initial reluctance—published selected letters from the trove, to the acclaim of historians and readers across Europe and the United States. It is with heavy heart that we have heard she passed away. It is with gratitude that we remember her decision to make the Press a part of the extraordinary gift she gave to history, and all of us.