Letters to the Russian Front
On her mother's death Chris Kelly inherited a collection of more than 500 letters written between members of her father's family during the Second World War. One of them had remained un-opened.
Adolf Winkelbauer had been removed from his post as head of surgery at the General Hospital of Vienna by the Nazis in 1938. He, his aristocratic wife Edina and the family had to adopt a muted existence in Graz. Two of the sons, Leo and Andreas were obliged to join the German army at the outbreak of the war. The sister, Edina, worked as a land girl in Bavaria. Chris' father Rudolf remained in Austria in an air defence unit.
Their mother managed to gather many of the letters they sent to each other during this period. They were written with an awareness of the censorship that was going on, but they still include snatches of the brutality of war. Rudolf, the youngest of the family and aged 17 at the time:
"...I feel very sorry for the poor bastards [Russians], who have a terrible time of it. Often we have to look on as some 16 year old Luftwaffenhelfer gives a Russian prisoner of war a kicking. It is stomach turning stuff, and even at that, it's not as bad as it gets..."
The over-riding emotion is one of loss, particularly of their idyllic childhood. The loss is all the starker given the harshness of their surroundings as they saw the war turning against them.
The programme will hinge on the un-opened letter, sent by Rudolf to his brother Leo in November 1943. He had no way of knowing that Leo was already dead, killed in combat at Melitopol in what is now Ukraine. The letter was sent back to the family home. Rudolf's mother kept it but couldn't face reading it. It was only this year that Chris decided it was time to see what her father, then seventeen years of age, had written to his elder brother.
"Time is running away from us like sand through an hourglass. So fine, that you don't even notice it slipping away, and yet it is always disappearing. Our parents are getting older and are getting grey hair and need our help more and more. In time they will put their destinies, with everything that they have and are, into our own hands. For us to protect. And we will look after them with great joy and pride, because we will want to do for them what they did for us. This is tied to the sorrowful realisation that the beautiful world we inhabited as children is no more.
But one thing we have from this time; the glorious memories of our enchanted youth. No one will be able to rob us of this, even if times become worse than they are now.
Please excuse these ramblings - they are errant thoughts escaped! I was just letting my pen dance across the page, as it wished.
See you soon at Christmas.
Rudolf left for America shortly after the war and trained as a Doctor. However he was over here towards the end of last year visiting his daughter and we were able to record him reading his letter for the first time since he wrote it more than sixty years ago. It's a poignant radio moment.
In the programme we learn more of the characters of the brothers. Andreas was an artist and the leader figure. He, too, died on the Russian front. Leo was ill-equipped for soldiery. Rudolf knew that well enough and his letters were attempts to raise the spirits of his older brother.