After my father’s death I found two drawers in his writing desk stuffed full of large envelopes into which he had carefully sorted a lifetime’s correspondence from friends, colleagues and lovers. They span seventy years, and the letters from around the time of the Second World War are among the more poignant ones.
One envelope is labelled “German”. Before the war my father and his father had many friends in Germany, and the advent of hostilities put many of those friendships under strain one way or another. Besides their names, I don’t know who any of the correspondents were and can only guess at the context of the letters and the reasons why my father kept them for so long.
Charles Henry Salter (1918-2008), right,
with Peter Wright and Pat Duncan. Photograph taken by Steve Hallett in the Dolomites late in 1938
The following letter from Venice, for example, hints at many events. My father received it soon after he had returned from a ski-ing holiday nearby in northern Italy. The author Marianne writes, in German, from an inn in the city. She is reluctantly leaving Europe. Is she a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany or Austria, which had welcomed the Nazis' Anschluss (annexation) in March 1938? Had my father offered to find her safe refuge in England? When she makes offers to my father “in the name of her parents”, is she travelling with them? Are they family friends? Have they even survived whatever Marianne is fleeing? Did she, after all, escape? I’ll never know.
I apologise for my faltering translation of the letter, but I hope that my words convey some of the intensity of the original.
The white marble facade of the Church of San Zaccaria, viewed from a balcony of the Pension Casa Fontana
Pension Casa Fontana,
S. Provolo 4701,
My dear Charles,
A few days ago I received your so very lovely letter, for which I most heartily thank you. How kind of you to concern yourself with us so readily. You are a true friend. However your trouble has been for nothing because we have found something at last and we are actually going to Mexico. Before that we may have to stay another month in France; but as long as we leave Italy before the 12th March, our life is safe.
Now that I know when we will be leaving the sunny South, I am sorry and sad; how many dear friends am I losing, and when will I return to Europe?
But we must thank god that at least he is saving us from certain death.
Venice today looks like something out of a fairy tale, like a beautiful colour postcard. The sun lights up the beautiful buildings and the white marble shines even whiter than before. A few warships lie off the Salute church, watching over the town.
The Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice in the 1940s, viewed from the dome of the Salute church
I wish I had come to England, and I wish I had seen you again; but it is not in God’s plan, and in my parents’ name you have an open invitation to visit us. I hope that you will always write to me, and that in your next letter you won’t forget to include your picture. I’m afraid I have no pictures left of me, but I will have some photographs taken in the next few day and then send you one immediately.
We were in Genova to get the visa for Mexico; it’s a beautiful town. On the way back I spent a few hours in Milan with my friend. Milan Cathedral is very beautiful and I liked Milan itself very much; it’s certainly a real city.
Now, dear Charles, I must finish because I have to rush off and will post this letter so that I don’t keep you waiting any longer.
With all my heart, thank you again in the name of my parents for your efforts. Send me your photograph and write to me soon and often.
With fondest greetings,
The Pension Casa Fontana, now the Hotel Fontana, still stands in the Campo San Provolo in Venice. Perhaps it still has its old guest registers!