In the spring of 1935, Virginia and Leonard Woolf decided to take a road trip to France and Italy, passing right through Nazi Germany.
Since Leonard was Jewish, they were warned by the Foreign Office not to go through Germany but the couple decided to make the journey anyway, against their better judgment.
In case any trouble arose, Leonard secured a letter of passage from Prince Bismarck who worked at the German Embassy in London.
Luckily, the couple also brought along their pet marmoset, Mitzi, who perched himself on Leonard’s shoulder as they drove, charming the Germans and diverting attention away from them.
It’s not certain whether Virginia and Leonard truly were not intimidated by the Nazis or if they were just trying to put on a brave face but when it took them longer than usual to get through customs at the German border, Virginia noted it in her diary on May 9, 1935:
“Sitting in the sun outside the German customs. A car with the swastika on the back window has just passed through the barrier into Germany. L. is in the customs…Ought I to go in & see what is happening? The Dutch Customs took 10 seconds. This has taken 10 minutes already. The windows are barred. Here they come out & the grim man laughed at Mitz…We become obsequious – delighted that is when the officers smile at Mitzi – the first stoop in our back….”
Relieved that they had made it over the border, the couple continued on their journey yet quickly realized what they had gotten themselves into:
“By the Rhine, sitting at the window…We were chased across the river by Hitler (or Goering) had to pass through ranks of children with red flags. They cheered Mitzi. I raised my hand. People gathering in the sunshine- rather forced like school sports. Banners stretched across the street ‘The Jew is our enemy’ ‘There is no place for Jews in – .’ So we whizzed along until we got out of range of the docile hysterical crowd. Our obsequiousness gradually turning to anger. Nerves rather frayed…”
It is not exactly clear what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote “I raised my hand.” Did she give the Nazi salute? Did she wave? She doesn’t explain but the repeated mention of the couple’s “obsequiousness” and the state of their strained nerves suggests she gave the Nazi salute to blend in and prevent any suspicion.
Although Leonard doesn’t mention Virginia’s gesture in his autobiography, he did describe being surrounded by the saluting Nazis, who were waiting for Hermann Goring:
When they saw Mitz, the crowd shrieked with delight. Mile after mile I drove between the two lines of corybantic Germans, and the whole way they shouted ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’ to Mitz and gave her (and secondarily Virginia and me) the Hitler salute with outstretched arm.”
Leonard, realizing that it was the presence of Mitzi who probably saved them from the Nazis, wrote sarcastically in his autobiography:
“no one who had on his shoulder such a ‘dear little thing’ could be a jew.”
The couple managed to make it through Germany without any problems but it was the last time they would attempt such a dangerous journey.
Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany. Edited by Oliver Lubrich, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, Sonia Wichmann, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: a Biography. Hartcourt Books, 1972.
Virginia Woolf. Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publisher, 2005.
Knorr, Katherine. “Travels with Virginia Woolf.” New York Times, March. 1994, www.nytimes.com/1994/03/18/style/18iht-book1_3.html