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Virginia and the Woolf

A drive across Hitler’s Germany and Austria in May 1935 made Leonard Woolf’s Jewishness real

Jonathan Wilson
May 14, 2020
MS Thr 561. Houghton Library, Harvard University
MS Thr 561. Houghton Library, Harvard University
MS Thr 561. Houghton Library, Harvard University
MS Thr 561. Houghton Library, Harvard University


Leonard Woolf’s portrayal of his and Virginia’s three-day drive across Bavaria to Austria in the spring of 1935 holds almost an antic quality, as if the Nazis, sinister and menacing though they undoubtedly were, had, and he uses this very word, a “silliness” about them. Albeit a “crude and savage silliness” with deep roots in the German tradition and one that manifested in the gigantic notices in the villages they passed through informing them that Jews were not wanted there.

The Woolfs brought along for the ride a pet marmoset, Mitz, a gift from Victor Rothschild after the monkey had taken a liking to Leonard during a visit to Victor’s Cambridge home. Mitz proved to be if not a lifesaver then at least a problem solver on the Woolfs’ exacting journey. Virginia had lightheartedly remarked in advance that the they would have to take care to hide Leonard’s nose while in Germany, but as it turned out Mitz proved a perfect camouflage for Leonard’s Jewishness, “It was obvious to the most anti-Semitic stormtrooper,” he wrote in Downhill All The Way, “that no one who had on his shoulder such a ‘dear little thing’ could be a Jew.”

Mitz was not their only safeguard against trouble. The Woolfs also held in their possession an official letter from Prince Bismarck, counsellor at the German Embassy in London, which called upon “all German officials to show the distinguished Englishman, Leonard Woolf, and his distinguished wife, Virginia Woolf, every courtesy and render them any assistance which they might require.” Bismarck’s description accurately comported with Leonard’s sense of himself, an Englishman traveling abroad surely immune to the ugly persecution heaped upon German Jews even in these early years of the Reich. For, despite the fact that the Foreign Office had informally told one of its Jewish employees, Cecil Kish from the India Office, that it was “inadvisable for Jews to travel to Germany” Leonard found the notion absurd. Surely the British government would insist that the Nazis and Hitler treat an English Jew as they would any other British subject. And how else, if not through travel to Germany, could he “begin to understand what Hitler and the Nazis were doing there.”

Leonard’s blithe dismissal of the danger was reinforced after a visit to his acquaintance Ralph Wigram who lived in the nearby village of Southease. Wigram, a government official in the Foreign Office, had been in Berlin, seen Hitler in action and viewed him from the British Embassy window in Berlin addressing a large crowd. As Wigram reported, the Fuehrer was impressive, frightening, a mad dog who wanted Germany’s colonies back, wanted to expand, and announced that if he had been in control during the last war the result would have been different. Wigram had the feeling when watching Hitler that anything might happen at any moment. He confirmed the Foreign Office’s official position to Leonard, but “privately and as a friend” told him that he thought it was nonsense. Leonard should not hesitate to go to Germany. He did however issue a single warning. The Woolfs should take care not to get mixed up in any Nazi procession or public ceremony. As a parting gift Wigram provided Leonard with a letter of introduction to Prince Bismarck, from whom the Woolfs procured their fail-safe rite of passage.

From here we can watch the story unwind through Virginia’s letters and diary entries and Leonard’s autobiographical recollections.

Before they leave Rodmell Leonard takes the Woolfs’ car, a Lanchester 18 with a Tickford hood that winds back to convert it from a closed-in saloon to an open top, to be tested. On his drive into the village he notices that the first spring flowers are up, daffodils, pink and blue crocuses, snowdrops, trees are dotted with green, chestnuts beginning to flower.

On May Day the Woolfs cross by steamer from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, Mitz the marmoset asleep among the luggage and coats on the back seat. Leonard and Virginia spend a week enjoying the soft civilized comforts of Holland, its food, cleanliness, the kindliness of its citizens all of whom, it seems, are enchanted by Mitz. Small groups gather round the car and “go into ecstasies” about the “the dear little creature.” The Woolfs feel like film stars, the children come running, old ladies are sent for to see “The apzie the kleine apzi.” The bourgeois life, Leonard says, has a great deal to be said for it, complacent, dull and ultimately suffocating though it may be.

As for Virginia, she is fascinated by the cyclists moving in flocks “like starlings,” among them the elegant girls, dove gray and slender, and the older women, feet to the pedals while remaining spruce, shoes elegant, hair beautifully done. They drive down the 16th- and 17th-century streets with their curved apricot colored awnings and richly carved big windowed houses leaning over fragrant lilac trees. There is no sign of crisis or war. A canal almost still outside their inn, a broad river beyond.

They drive through Amsterdam, Dordrecht, Zutphen, and Haarlem, sliding from one town to the next, top down, blazing sun burning their faces, they make the usual tourist stops to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and of course the tulips, entire banks of red tulips. Virginia’s skin is so tanned she thinks it’s inappropriate for her to dine with an English clergyman they meet along the way. They drive past marshes, and slow-moving barges on the waterways, flat hyacinth fields, and, yes, windmills.

On May 9 they arrive from Roermond at the German frontier near Julic. Mitz is sitting on Leonard’s shoulder, the marmoset is magic; they hope even Hitler will soften to them.

Virginia stays in the car while Leonard walks toward the customs office in the wake of a peasant who has dismounted from his loaded farm cart. She is reading, she waits. A car with a swastika on its back window is waved through the barrier and into Germany.

The customs officer occupies a desk in front of a large portrait of Hitler. The peasant fails to remove his cap and in a second the officer has worked himself up into a violent tirade. “This office” he says, “is like a church.” Instinctively, Leonard reaches into his pocket to check that Bismarck’s letter is still there.

The officer follows Leonard out of the room. His theatrical grimness evaporates when he sees Mitz, he laughs, points, says something in German that they can’t quiet hear. At the barrier a small thin boy opens his bag and removes an apple. He takes a bite, swallows, says “Heil Hitler,” and raises the gate. They drive through, slightly chastened, slightly ashamed of themselves, they have become “obsequious,” overly delighted when the customs officer smiled at Mitz. Virginia says it’s “the first stoop” in their back.

They drive on to Cologne, a distance of some 60 miles, the city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral with its twin Gothic spires rising up to touch the clouds holds no interest for them and they pass up a stop in favor of continuing directly to Bonn, only 18 miles distant, where they plan to stay the night.

On the autobahn Leonard begins to feel increasingly uneasy. It appears they are the only car on the road and there are soldiers with rifles stationed all along the route at short intervals. They reach the center of Bonn, turn a corner and find themselves confronted by an agitated gesticulating German policeman. The road is closed to traffic, they must turn around. “Herr President” is coming.

Leonard parks the car. They raise the hood, leave Mitz on the back seat, pay a visit to Beethoven’s house, make that most English of decisions: a cup of tea in order to consider the situation. Can they find a road open that will lead them out of the city and on towards Mainz? Herr President, and surely this must be Hitler (much later they discover it was Goering) appears to be arriving on the right bank of the Rhine where they are currently located, if they can cross a bridge to the left bank, they will avoid him and escape the city. Leonard stops a passerby and asks for directions. The man is eager to help, friendly, he gets in the car, directs Leonard until they are across the river. The temperature has risen, the day is warm, balmy, they lower the hood.

But they have made a mistake, both sides of the main road are lined with uniformed Nazis, stormtroopers backed by rows and rows of schoolchildren singing and waving red and black swastika flags. There are banners with slogans stretched across the street: The Jew is Our Enemy. There is no place for the Jew in Germany.

The crowd is pressed so tight that only a narrow strip is available to traffic. The Woolfs can only proceed very slowly as if they are somehow the outriders for the procession to come. Wigram’s words come back to haunt them, “Do not get mixed up in any Nazi procession or public ceremony.” Yet here they are, closely penned in by what appears to be an unending procession of enthusiastic Nazis.

It is Mitz who saves the day. She stays perched on Leonard’s shoulder while the crowd shrieks with delight. Mile after mile the Woolfs drive between two lines of frenzied, hysterical Germans, who all along the route shout “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” and give the Hitler salute with outstretched arms primarily, it seems, to Mitz, and only secondarily to Leonard and Virginia. In response Virginia raises her hand.

This is perhaps the tipping point of the journey and merits some consideration. Is it possible that Virginia has returned the Nazi salute? It would not be surprising if she had. Numerous cases of assaults by locals on foreigners who had declined to salute Nazis on the streets of Berlin had been reported to the U.S. Embassy and elsewhere, with the result that the U.S. government had extracted a promise from Hitler that the beatings would end. Virginia, caught in precisely the situation they had been warned not to occupy, may well have felt a need to placate the crowd. In other words, she raised her hand to hide Leonard’s nose. A less benign version might imagine her reaction at the rally as a response to the energy in the air, not approval but involuntary excitement.

The Woolfs drive on feeling horribly compliant and deferential, but gradually as they pull out of range of the crowd their sense of submission turns to anger.

As soon as they are clear of the cheering throng Leonard turns off the main road, they need to collect themselves. In Unckel on the banks of the Rhine—“one of the few really ugly rivers in the world”—they stop in the courtyard of an old country house. There are rabbits and doves in outhouses, a becalming peaceable kingdom. They climb shallow steps to a black grated doorway. Inside the innkeeper is playing cards with his wife. They take a room, delighted to find a resting place. They are the only guests in the hotel.

The Woolfs dine alone, served by a single waiter in an incongruously immense dining room. When they have finished the proprietor appears. Leonard asks him about the gathering in Bonn. Was it precursor to a rally? Herr Schultz claims to know nothing about it, then goes quiet. Leonard tries to pick up the conversation with some small talk, and lo and behold, a fire is kindled: In an astonishing coincidence it turns out that only two years ago Herr Schultz was offered the managership of a London hotel in, of all places, Tavistock Square, home to the Woolfs and their publishing house! Herr Schultz was desperate to accept the position, but his wife could not speak a word of English and the idea of life in a foreign city terrified her. Reluctantly he turned the job down. Within weeks Hitler came to power and life in Unckel turned hellish. “If one says one word of criticism,” Herr Schultz tells Leonard, “One is in danger of being beaten up.” His business is ruined, students who used to arrive in droves, coming up the river from Bonn, are kept busy marching, drilling and preparing for processions. Schultz is imprisoned here. Leonard sees that he has tears in his eyes. “They will never let me out,” he says. “It’s impossible to get out of this country.” The bill, when it comes the following morning, seems excessive, Virginia is irritated but, Leonard argues, what is a man with no guests to do?

Something has stirred in her since she raised her hand to the ecstatic, saluting crowd in Bonn. Nothing feels any good. The countryside as they travel down close to the Rhine is ugly and pretentious, “operatic scenery.” The hills are high but insignificant, she is unimpressed by the black and green fir trees, the “correct” towers and ruins, the river crowded with coal barges, the traffic on the cobbled roads, nothing that she sees can alter her mood. They drive through Mainz and Darmstadt to Heidelberg and only here, in the old university town, do her spirits begin to lift.

Here blue rhododendrons are still in bloom, and blue too the dresses worn by a group of girls that she sees headed to a musical evening, sheathed Beethoven quartets held under their arms. She and Leonard walk by the placid river. The Hitler feeling has not yet relaxed, but it is better, at least for tonight.

In the morning they drive through Stuttgart and Ulm on into Bavaria and toward Augsburg. Outside every village now are large signs, all with the same message: Jews are not wanted. Die Juden sind hier unwunscht. In Augsburg they are stuck in traffic and once again Mitz, who unlike Jews is very much in demand, facilitates their forward progress as a smiling policeman redirects the cars in front of them.

One last roll of the dice: At the Austrian border there is the usual Mitz commotion, and this time the customs officer sends one of his men to fetch his wife and children. Soon the car is surrounded by a pressing group of women, children, and uniformed men. The open zoo of the car attracts the familiar oohs and aahs. For some reason, and although it is clearly unnecessary to do so, Leonard decides to produce his letter of passage from Prince Bismarck. The effect is immediate and pronounced. The chief officer stands to attention, bows, salutes, clicks his heels together, lines up his men and as the Woolfs drive forward and into Austria the Nazis salute the Jew.

It is May 12, 1935. In Innsbruck snow falls.


On Friday, Oct. 18, 1940, in the morning after the 40th night of the Blitz, Leonard and Virginia Woolf drove from their cottage in Sussex to London to inspect air raid damage to their and the Bloomsbury Press’ former home at 52 Tavistock Square. A year earlier they had removed both themselves and the press to nearby Mecklenburgh Square but unable to sublet the Tavistock Square property, it remained in their possession. The Luftwaffe’s bombs had reduced the premises to dusty rubble. The Woolfs hoped to salvage something of value from their collapsed and burned-out house but on arrival found only a single wicker chair atop a pile of bricks and a broken mantlepiece leaning against the bare wall of their neighbor’s house.

My father, Lewis Wilsick (in four years he would change his name to Wilson) had spent some of those terrifying October nights on fire watch from the roof of Woburn House, which overlooked Tavistock Square. At the time he was employed as chief male clerk at the headquarters of the United Synagogues of Great Britain dealing with issues that included the evacuation of masses of Jewish children from the city to the countryside, the provision of kosher food for observant Jews spending nights in air-raid shelters, and collation of material gathered to counter anti-Semitic complaint, rumor, and propaganda. (“The Jews are overrunning the Air-Raid shelters! The Jews are evading army service!”) His shift on the roof came around roughly once every 10 days. He was equipped in the standard way with a pail of water, bucket of sand, stirrup pump (these were the days of incendiary bombs) and a tin hat. There was a sandbag shelter in case he needed it as occasionally German aircraft machine-gunned people on the ground, and a telephone by which he could reach whoever’s job it was that night to sound the alarm for staff, many of whom worked late into the night in the offices below, to get to the basement.

This is what I imagine: Throughout the long night of Oct. 17, all that my father can see is fire and smoke with an occasional glimpse of the tall gables of houses lit up by flames standing out through and above the smoke. Morning clarifies a landscape of destruction, buildings badly damaged or utterly destroyed yet Woburn House remains standing.

My father has been relieved of his duties but is still wearing his Fire Guard brassard on the sleeve of his coat when he steps out into the street.

Leonard has parted company with Virginia (who has gone off on the arm of a friend) when he spots my father.

“Did you see this?” he asks.

“I did,” Lewis replies, “from up there,” and he points to the roof of Woburn House.

Leonard gravely nods his head and then as if my father’s bearing witness to the destruction of his former home and offices merits some kind of reward he asks if he can buy him a cup of tea.

It is a bright autumn day of the kind that on many mornings throughout the war points up the sharp incongruity between terrible human struggles and their indifferent natural background. The two men walk toward the nearest Lyon’s Tea house, skirting debris everywhere and twice observing without comment men working with bare hands and a spade in desperate search for whoever is trapped underneath. The smell of phosphorus, a sickly singed garlic, hangs in the air.

At first, my father isn’t sure whether to continue to pretend that he doesn’t know who Leonard is. But how can he resist? He has literary ambitions of his own and by night during the blackout, his wife and his son evacuated to Bedford, he sits in the kitchen of his home and works on a novel. What young writer is unfamiliar with the Hogarth Press, with Virginia’s novels, with Leonard’s pamphlets and political screeds, with the great writers of the time birthed into print by the Woolfs unfailing critical acumen? Yes, of course he must tell him, and yet, for now, he holds back.

They walk fast in the direction of the Corner House, Leonard is approaching 60 but, tall and angular, his long strides outpace my father’s whose every step is hampered by his heart condition and the shortness of breath that comes with it. Everywhere the human machinery of response is out and about making its way through and around demolished buildings in search of wounded and lost lives. Leonard’s hooded eyes appear perfectly evolved for the kind of blinkered approach to the destruction that every survivor found it necessary to adopt in the soft dawns after those blazing nights.

On arrival they locate an empty table near a marble pillar. Leonard stares at the menu, its signature list of parfaits and sundaes foreshortened by rationing, before settling on a simple round of toast and a pot of tea. He has three important questions for Lewis and after he has answered them, he realizes that his gift of breakfast was not a reward but the realization of an opportunity.

“Am I right in thinking that you work there, at Woburn House.”


“Then you are an employee of the United Synagogues …?”

“I am.”

“As what, may I ask?”

My father gives a brief summary of his days. Leonard pours them each a cup of tea, and then he begins.

And what does he want to talk about? Why, Jews of course: Jews, Judaism, the relation of Jews to other people, their differences, their faults, and virtues, evolution and so on.

“Faults?” Lewis interrupts, “Do we have any?”

Leonard laughs and says, “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

Jews, because apparently among his almost exclusively gentile friends the subject is taboo, off limits, unless filtered through a sieve of banter and joshing toward the kind of throwaway anti-Semitic remark that in his circle is imagined both to give delight and hurt not.

“But how could it not?” my father asks, “And why do you put up with it?”

“I have a carapace,” Leonard replies, “and my sensitivities, such as they are, lie hidden beneath its hard shell.”

But, of course it’s not my father who wants to know the answer to these questions, but me. For I am the one who, through a 21st-century culling of memoirs, letters, diaries, and biographies possesses information about Virginia, Leonard, and the Bloomsbury Group that Lewis could not possibly have known, and even if he did, he undoubtedly had more on his mind on the 41st day of the Blitz in the autumn of 1940 than the knee-jerk anti-Semitism of the British upper and upper-middle classes.

I am the one who knows that Virginia’s obsession with Leonard’s Jewishness generated from the very beginning of their relationship one nasty remark after another: “uninhibited racial slurs,” as the critic John Gross describes, “corrosive contempt,” as Leonard’s biographer Victoria Glendinning has it, both to her relatives, friends and to Leonard himself, frequently about her husband, relentlessly about his mother and siblings and broadly about more or less every Jew with whom she came in contact. She doesn’t like the “Jewish voice” or “the Jewish laugh,” and she specializes in erroneous downgrades. Sir Philip Sassoon, Eton- and Oxford-educated and one-time minister for the air force is “an underbred Whitechapel Jew.” Middle-class Leonard, son of a distinguished barrister (a QC), when she met him was, she liked to say, a “penniless Jew,” and Virginia’s nephew Quentin Bell reports that at mealtime she would tell the servants to “give the Jew his food.” Virginia’s anti-Semitic streak is hardly absent from her fiction. The Years, published two years after her trip through Nazi Germany, includes an ugly cameo for Abrahamson, a Jew “in the tallow trade” whose noisy ablutions and insufficient hygiene disgusts and physically revolts the young woman who occupies the room next door in their cheap lodgings with whom she has to share a bathroom. In the first version of her 1938 story “The Duchess and the Jeweler” the central character is Isadore Oliver a hook-nosed “little Jew boy” from an East End alley who grows up to become, through corrupt business practices, the richest jeweler in England. After pressure from her agent in New York Virginia reluctantly agreed to change Oliver’s ethnicity before the story was published in Harper’s Bazaar.

Why did Leonard put up with it? It appears that admittance to the refined air of Bloomsbury required that Leonard efface or hide or ignore any resentment he might feel, not only toward Virginia but also to John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, T.S. Eliot (a Bloomsbury affiliate), one of his closest friends Harold Nicolson who famously remarked “although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews” and several others.

But here we come to the paradox at the heart of the matter: For while certain members of the otherwise cultured, enlightened, and sophisticated Bloomsbury Group held anti-Semitic attitudes they were almost universally leavened by a vocal opposition to Nazi persecution and Fascism. Nicolson’s bon mot (if that’s how it was intended) might have been engraved as a motto on Bloomsbury’s coat of arms. There were exceptions of course, E.M. Forster among them, but for the most part Bloomsbury failed to rise above the endemic anti-Semitism of the class to which its members largely belonged and certainly in the case of Virginia sank below.

Dislike of Jews, disapproval of anti-Semitism, this twisted vein of English thinking will persist at all levels of society into the 21st century and bring us to Jeremy Corbyn, failed leader of Britain’s Labour Party—the party of which Leonard Woolf was a stalwart supporter, pamphleteer and, at the end of his long life, eminence grise and for which my father proudly voted—who recently asserted that despite their lengthy tenure in the country (several centuries) British Jews “do not understand English irony,” in other words, they aren’t English at all.

So how should my father’s imaginary breakfast with Leonard end? They talk, I think, for more than an hour by the end of which time they have not only touched on their singular subject of mutual interest, but my father, at Leonard’s urging, has also revealed a little about his life. He grew up on Christian Street (they laugh because they understand irony) in Whitechapel, one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. His first job at age 13 was as a presser in a sweat shop, graduating a year or two later to lift boy at the United Synagogue organization where he has been employed ever since.

Lewis says nothing about his literary aspirations and because he already knows too much (or thinks he does) about Mr. Woolf and doesn’t want to appear intrusive he keeps his own questions to matters of opinion, Leonard’s thoughts and ideas, and not the novels of his famous wife or the triangular intricacies and intimacies of the Bloomsbury Group. As they refill their cups of tea Leonard tells Lewis the story of his trip through Germany.

“I’m assuming you don’t still hold to the opinion that the Nazis are silly,” Lewis says.

Every so often Leonard gazes out of the window and Lewis imagines his thoughts must be returning to the ruined home on the square, its dilapidation complete. The Woolfs had neither lived nor worked there for some years, preferring to stay in Monk’s House, their Sussex home at Rodmell, nevertheless the loss must be acute.

“I never even asked your name,” Leonard says, after one of his lengthier silent interludes.

“I’m Lewis,” my father says, “Lewis Wilsick.”

The October sun slips behind a bank of clouds. Leonard stirs his tea. He grows irritated with the waitress who has passed by their table three or four times without replenishing the toast rack.

“The Nippy’s not being too nippy,” he says, and the next time she passes he extends an arm to arrest her progress.

“Listen,” he says pointing at Lewis, “he’s been up all-night fire-watching for us. Give the man his food!”

Jonathan Wilson is the author of eight books including the novel A Palestine Affair and a biography, Marc Chagall. He recently completed a novel, Hotel Cinema, about the unsolved murder of Chaim Arlosoroff.

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