Dear Peter, Dear Ulla
Dear Peter, Dear Ulla
Smoke and dust. The post office in flames. Chunks of brick wall on the ground.
She must hide. Here across the street, some weeds and the walnut tree.
Big cars made of armour. SS soldiers with helmets and guns everywhere. (Ulla crouches, tries to be invisible.) Collapsed brick walls. Smell of gasoline and fire. Ulla is counting ants. She must leave. She can’t leave. What if Mutti wakes up?
A man walks out through the flames waving a white towel. The soldiers shout at him and shoot and he falls to the ground.
Ulla is throwing up apple cake into the weeds.
Another man runs from the burning building but the men shoot flames at him from the tanks and he falls.
Erwina, where are you?
Father clears his throat. “It was announced on the radio today that both England and France have declared war on Germany.” He pushes one of Mama’s sewing pins into England, another into France. “And yesterday, September 2,” – more pins into Germany and the Free City of Danzig—“Danzig was officially made a part of Germany.”
“Whose side are we on?” asks Margaret in her calm, even voice. Bombs could be exploding in the back field and Margaret’s voice would sound the same.
“Canada is part of the Commonwealth,” says Vripsi, “so we should be on the side of England and France, but then what about Germany? Aren’t we German too?”
For once, Mama stops fussing with the breakfast and sits down at the table before everyone else. “That,” she says, pushing up her glasses and resting her chin in her hands,” is a very good question. That will take some thinking, and some prayer.”
Ulla and Peter are cousins living far apart: Peter on a Mennonite farm in Saskatchewan and Ulla in the Free City of Danzig. On their twelfth birthday in September 1939, Danzig is annexed by Nazi Germany which precipitates the beginning of World War Two. The cousins’ correspondence over the years has been a precious thing to both children, but now their letters take on more dramatic and urgent overtones, each wrestling with their own stance on the inhumanity of war. For Ulla, principles dictate that she assist Erwina, her Polish-Jewish friend, at the risk of her own and her parents’ safety. Peter must come to terms with the dichotomy of being of German origin but living in an Allied country. He must also negate the vengeful actions of Bruno, another local Mennonite boy and a bully, who uses war to create divisiveness between Mennonites and English lads. Though written as fiction, Dear Peter, Dear Ulla is based on actual occurrences involving characters known to the author.
Peter and Ulla have never met but share their experiences in a rich correspondence that evokes both time and place. Chapters comprised of both correspondence and third party narration alternate between the two protagonists. Letters convincingly reveal the innate personalities of each child. Peter is quiet and serious, conscientious regarding his after-school farm duties while longing for more time for his beloved music and correspondence. Ulla reveals her daily life and emotions more openly, with her letters being rich in language and replete with creative artwork. Many supporting characters, such as principled family members who see the Nazi regime for what it is or Ulla’s dubious friend Maria, are also portrayed realistically.
Addenda reveal how fiction and truth intersect in the book, provide awareness of Mennonite history and have authentic German recipes of food important to the story. Dear Peter, Dear Ulla is a rich historical book, with many layers of interest. By portraying two distinct ways of life, one in a free country and the other under a Nazi regime, the book gives children a taste of the reality of the era and the cruel choices necessary. A thought-provoking read for ages 10-14, Dear Peter, Dear Ulla provides a very human story of a critical time in history and in the lives of two adolescent children and their families. In addition, the book would provide added background reading for those studying World War II history.
Aileen Wortley is a retired Children’s Librarian from Toronto, Ontario.