Letters reveal 'forbidden' love between German secretary and British soldier after the Second World War
From Shakespeare’s romantic sonnets to a caring Post-it note on the fridge, love letters have developed in their various forms over several centuries.
In this day and age, written love letters seem to echo a bygone era that many people can’t remember. Devoted declarations are now noted in text messages and Facebook posts that are lost, and perhaps, are not as personal.
But the art of writing love letters has changed the life of one Portsmouth resident, Susan Wall.
Inspired by the romantic and heartfelt letters written between her British father and German mother post-Second World War, the 63-year-old has now published a book, True Loves Conquers All, documenting their transcendental love.
She says: ‘My parents tell no run-of-the-mill love story. It’s an adventure of two soulmates bound together in what would have been deemed a “forbidden”, even illegal relationship, just a few years earlier.
‘My daughter never met her grandparents so I wrote this just to document their life and give her their history.’
Susan’s father John Crowley died when she was seven. Although she was always aware of her parents’ powerful story, it wasn’t until she inherited more than 60 love letters from her mother Erika in 1989 that Susan fully understood their life together.
The story follows Erika and John’s lives from 1900 until his death in 1964.
‘It recounts my mother’s life way before her relationship with my father and paints a frank social history of Germany as Hitler rose to power – and the bitter feelings my mother had towards Germany in the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities,’ says Susan.
‘Paralleled to this is the chronicling of my father’s three-decade army career, which included moving my mother to the UK for them to settle in the late 1950s.
‘I knew of the documents and love letters all my life – they are very important to me.’
Susan says when she was growing up, she would only read her father’s letters to her mother and not her mother’s replies.
She adds: ‘I don’t know why. But when my mother died, that’s when I went through hers too and started matching up the replies to my father’s letters.’
Born on February 17, 1920, in Berlin, Susan’s mother Erika (née Schild) grew up during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Susan, of Landport who works as a finance manager, explains: ‘The education system under Hitler was exceptional and my mother really excelled.
‘She had an American pen pal who she wrote to since she was 13. By the time she left school she was practically bilingual.’
But once Hitler was in power, life changed in Germany and like thousands of Germans, Erika became ashamed of her country.
‘The Germans were brainwashed and indoctrinated. Goebbels’ propaganda campaign was astonishing,’ says Susan.
‘When my mother came to Britain in 1956, she cut herself off from Germany completely.’
John had served in the British Army for 30 years, reaching the rank of staff sergeant, when he was posted to Germany in 1953. At the time, Erika worked as a secretary in Tax House, Lübbecke, where John was also based.
Susan explains: ‘My mother had been asked to take some papers to another office in the tax house.
‘She was walking quickly and she physically bumped into my father and the papers went everywhere. It was love at first sight.
‘He pursued Erika by way of astonishingly wonderful love letters. Eventually, Erika succumbed.
‘It was not an easy journey for them. It was only a few short years after the Second World War when both their countries were at war.
‘The Nazis had performed countless atrocities that were still fresh in people’s minds. But their absolute love for one another endured through adversity.’
The first letter Susan has is dated March 7, 1955.
She laughs and says: ‘The first eight letters were written on forces’ note paper. My father was a terrible typist.’
John was 47 when he met 34-year-old Erika and he soon became infatuated.
She explains: ‘When they first met, he was still married to a British woman but she had committed adultery. He refused to divorce her.
‘It wasn’t until he met my mother that she said she would not carry on with the relationship unless he filed for divorce.
‘He did, it went to court back in London and he sent her a telegram from court saying it was cleared. I still have that today.
‘They were apart for several months in order for the divorce to be finalised. He would write to her two or three times a day.’
True Love Conquers All is a 40,000-word semi-biographical novel, written from Erika’s viewpoint.
‘The only part which is fictional in the book is at the beginning when it talks about my grandparents. I never knew them,’ adds Susan.
‘I brought all of the letters I inherited into a story.’
Erika and John married on June 2, 1956, in Kent when Erika first moved to Britain. Susan was born shortly after in January 1957.
Susan says: ‘She wouldn’t discuss Germany at all and I never asked any questions.
‘When I was growing up I wanted to learn German. She wouldn’t even help me with it then.
‘There are millions of Germans who felt the same as her.
‘When my father died in 1964, my mum was left in a foreign country with two young daughters. She was a very tough and stoic woman but as soon as she opened her mouth, people knew she was German.
‘She was thrown off buses, kicked out of shops and spat on. But before when she was with my father, that never happened.’
Since 2018, Susan worked to pull True Loves Conquers All together for what was meant to be a memento for her daughter, Kathryn. But it became a lot more than that.
Susan says: ‘It was very emotional. I never intended to publish this. But their story is a bold chapter in the wider history books and deserves to be preserved.’
To purchase a paperback version of True Love Conquers All, search on Amazon.