Unveiling The Human Journey

Our volunteers Apr 5, 2024

By Sasha Kirkham

No Life Without You emerges as an extraordinary account of real-life experiences through letters, offering not only a love story but a profound exploration of resilience and human connection. Especially poignant in the tumultuous times we are living in, No Life Without You is a story of history, hardships, and hope. Frank Felsenstein, Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor in Humanities in the Department of English at Ball State University, founding director of the Honors Program at Yeshiva College in New York, Reader in Eighteenth-Century Studies at Leeds University, and the editor of the book, embarks on an enthralling exploration of his parents’ lives. Mope and Vera, Felsenstein’s parents, were German Jews who fled Nazi Germany for the United Kingdom during the Second World War, and their astonishing love story is encapsulated in over a thousand letters.

We should feel forever grateful to our family and to ourselves for the preservation of letters, journals, diaries, and artefacts. They serve as channels to crucial facets of our identity and origins: Frank Felsenstein’s work certainly stand as a testament to the profound impact that these touchstones can have. The trajectory of Mope and Vera’s lives, refreshed within the pages of this book, can now be sustained through history. Readers are afforded the opportunity to glean insights from their story, while the editor and his family, present and future, can find solace in its reverberation.

The Importance of Then and Now

Felsenstein has created a mosaic woven with thirty-two chapters, dividing it into two realms – the evocative ‘Then’ and the resonant ‘Now’. The former delves into Mope and Vera’s lives before their paths intertwined, and the editor uses journals, letters, and family memoirs to bring their voices to life. The ‘Then’ chronicles unfold a prelude to Mope and Vera’s stories before their lives merged. Delving deep to capture their voices truly, the letters exchanged between Vera and her mother during the year after she fled Nazi Germany offer a glimpse into Frankfurt at the time and unveil the shades of Vera’s childhood. Mope’s story is shared through a typewritten curriculum vitae and the vivid recollections he presented: a chapter dedicated to his engagement with Zionism echoes his ideological musings in the Leipziger Jüdische Zeituing in 1922.

The ’Now’ section, starting in 1936 and ending in 1939, captures the imminence of Mope and Vera’s position. The letters, written in the throes of uncertainty, reflect the instability of their lives amid the looming shadows of war. At the start of each chapter, Felsenstein provides the reader with contextual overviews of the historical backdrop in which his parents were living and writing.

The editor’s decision to separate the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ offers the reader a kaleidoscopic lens through which to view history. Every chapter stands as a testament to the enduring resonance of human stories across ages. The book’s structure, complemented by Felsenstein’s skilful editing, ensures that Vera and Mope’s authentic voices shine through while vividly telling their story. The editor’s interventions are expertly blended into the narrative, enhancing rather than overshadowing the authenticity of the tale. Their love story serves as a beacon of hope amid the uncertainties in which they lived.

Historical Parallels

This collection of letters delves into the personal exchanges between Mope and Vera, taking place in Nazi Germany, where the utter erosion of civil liberties for Jewish people cast a long-lasting shadow over their lives, and the fascist dictatorship inevitably continued to resound after they left Germany. The book serves as a lens into the wider political turmoil of the time. No Life Without You operates as an astute historical commentary, shining light on pivotal moments of the 20th century. However, its true merit lies in preserving a human connection amidst history, making the past come to life.

No Life Without You also investigates Britain’s historical standpoint on refugees, contrasting moral obligations with modern challenges. An introduction by Rachel Pistol, a digital historian & author of modern British and American history, sets the letters against a historical backdrop that has echoes in the present day, while evolving public opinion, government policies, and their impact on refugees in Britain unfold through the lens of Vera and Mope’s journey. This allows readers to witness the complexities of these moral dilemmas and the impact of politics on individual lives. The book is a lesson from history, insisting readers pay attention to early signs of discrimination and hatred. Felsenstein offers the dehumanisation that paved the way for atrocities during the Holocaust as a warning, acting as a call for compassion. It emphasises society’s fragility, highlighting our collective responsibility to protect the rights of every individual, irrespective of their background.

Both the contextual introduction by Rachel Pistol and the rest of the book delve into the refugee experience, encapsulating the nuances of the emotional journey undertaken when escaping one’s homeland to seek solace in unfamiliar territories. It captures the near-inexplicable feeling of the stripping away of identity, the loss of autonomy, and the resounding impact of displacement.

Then, Now, and Forever

As this narrative draws to a close, Felsenstein reflects on the profound legacy laced through the letters between his parents. This story is both his birthright and a fundamental part of who he is, urging the reader to question their own identities, and to think about who we must thank for them. Felsenstein posits that, in more ways than one, there would be no life without his parents. Vera and Mope’s story resonates through time, allowing us to acknowledge history while simultaneously embracing the spirit that transcends it. We are not who we are without the people who preceded us, and this book is a testament to that. The amalgamation of love and history not only imparts insights into the challenges faced by the people during this era, but it stands as a symbol of resilience, love, and the lasting promise of hope.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats below.

No Life Without You: Refugee Love Letters from the 1930s
The letters and journals of Ernst Moritz and Vera Hirsch Felsenstein, two German Jewish refugees caught in the tumultuous years leading to the Second World War, form the core of this book. Abridged in English from the original German, the correspondence and diaries have been expertly compiled and an…

Sasha Kirkham is an English Language and Russian graduate from The University of Manchester, now pursuing a Masters in Publishing at City, University of London. With experience in copywriting, proofreading, and translation in St Petersburg, Sasha's passions lie in literature, Russian history, publishing, editing, writing, and supporting NGOs.

Open Book Publishers

We believe that knowledge should be available to everyone: our books are free to read and download online, and we are working to create a world in which all research is freely available to all readers