Countess Elizabeth von der Schulenburg

a rather racy nun

It's unlikely that anybody who met the bold, seductive and staunchly unconventional Tisa Schulenburg during the years between the wars, when she was living in Berlin, would have guessed that this remarkable young woman would go on to join an Ursuline convent in a former mining town, and to sculpt one of the most first and most unforgettable images of the Holocaust.

Tisa, the daughter of anglophile parents whose Mecklenburgh home, Tressow, was fuilled with mementoes of their time in London, was the sister of Fritz Dietlof, one of the the brave group of Resistance figures who were murdered on Hitler's orders for their participation in the plot of 20 July, 1944. Her memoirs describe a blissful childhood at Tressow, where the local people venerated Tisa's mother for the support she gave them, during the harsh years of 1914-1918, when Count Schulenburg was away in the army, and the German people at home were starving. Germany, more than England, venerates its soldiers and their uniforms;  Tisa's mother stepped beyond the line of expected behaviour when she cut up old Schulenburg uniforms and flags, stitching them into clothes and coverlets for the homeless and destitute.

Tisa, in her memoirs, describes how she and her classmates at a strict German boarding school responded with glee to the news of a new republic, decking their hair with scarlet ribbons and refusing to curtsey to their teachers. At home, Tisa frightened her mother's old-fashioned lady's maid by singing: 'Smear the guillotine with the aristocracy's fat'; ever more determined to become an artist, she begged permission to join the burgeoning Bauhaus. The Bauhaus, with its dangerously left-wing ideas and permissive attitudes, was too much for Tisa's father; instead, having settled in Berlin, Tisa married Fritz Hess, a charming, open-minded and extremely rich Jewish art-collector. Provided with her own private gym and a houseful of treasures, Tisa still saw herself as a communist and preached her views to anybody ready to listen.  Irony was never her strongest suit.

Reality struck home in 1933. Hitler became Chancellor and, during a year of rapidly escalating hostility towards the Jewish people and to anybody who failed to surrender their personal views to State art, State views, and a State church that enacted Hitler's policies, Tisa's husband was forced to leave Germany to save his life. Tisa's own parents and all but one of her brothers had embraced the new Germany. Tisa followed her husband into an exile that nevertheless, to a woman brought up to adore England, seemed familiar and kindly.

Tisa's life in England was not filled with the hardships suffered by so many of her compatriots. A Suffolk house in Walberswick (a favourite settling point for the incoming artistic community); a home in North London; a large group of welcoming friends; a chance to develop her career as a woodsculptor (Germany is famous for its skill in wood-carving) alongside Henry Moore: this was not deprivation.  Nevertheless, Tisa felt a wish to do something for the country that had offered so much to her. Spurning a social life in London, she found work in the oppressed northern mining communities where poverty, in the mid-Thirties, was extreme. (This was the time of ship-building and miners' strikes, when the Jarrow marchers lobbied Parliament and received, as their reward, one pound each, to take them home again to unemployment.)

Tisa was a theoretical socialist.  'I had never really met a worker,' she admitted. In 1936, she experienced her first encounters with real hardship, in the mining villages around Durham. Greeted with bafflement when she presented her thirty-strong class of working men with sheaves of prints of hard-pressed families (gleaned from the old magazines from which van Gogh drew inspiration during his stay in England), Tisa determined to do better. In 1937, she returned north. This time, she started to share her skills in woodcarving. (I can't help remembering Lady Ottoline Morrell who, as a young girl at Welbeck, set up groups of wood carving studies for the miners and modestly paid estate workers employed by her half brother, the Duke of Portland.) 

Ottoline, back in the 1890's, had offered the consolations of prayer;  Tisa came to Spennymoor armed with views on the rights of the common man.The Durham miners responded with astonishment, amusement, and gratitude. In my new book (Noble Endeavours), I describe how they 'regarded her as some sort of strange but exotic pet who appeared in pearls and furs to lecture them about the inalienable rights of the individual.'  Nevertheless, the workmen applied themselves with skill and enthusiasm; years later, Tisa's own work was given one of its first showings in County Durham where, by 1939, she had decided that her vocational future lay.

The painful story of how Tisa was trapped in Germany during the war, after paying an ill-timed visit to her dying parents, is told in my book. Tisa was in Berlin, together with her devastated sister-in-law, on the day that her brother was brutally murdered for his part in the July Plot of 1844; a year earlier, the two women had met the charismatic and courageous Claus von Stauffenburg with whose name the plot is most closely associated.  In an evening that sounds to have belonged in Scarlett o'Hara's Tara, Tisa and Charlotte had draped themself in hastily assembled rags of brocade and fetched out the last measure of gin to make a cocktail for their dashing guest.  It was Stauffenburg's combination of erudition and gaiety that most impressed Tisa: he had talked about Goethe and Shakespeare, but there also 'roars of laughter. I have never known anyone with such a capacity for laughter.  It was a glorious evening.'

Divorced from her second husband, a tolerant and well-liiked Prussian landowner, Tisa moved to the harsh landscape of the Ruhr in 1948. Here, living in an Ursuline convent at bomb-shattered Dorsten, she dedicated herself to her faith (as a Catholic convert) and her art, producing the series of remarkable works which earned her an enduring name.

'I chose the Ruhr,' Tisa explained to her old friend Christabel Bielenburg, 'wanting toi live where others had to live. No more roar of the sea, nor the smell of bracken and gorse.  I have delighted in that to the full.'

[I am indebted for much of Tisa's remarkable story to the unpublished version of her memoir, edited by Christabel Bielenburg and loaned to me by Tisa's niece, Angela Schulenburg. It would be wonderful to see this enthralling work in print in England.)

   Added: Wednesday 01 January 2014