02/28/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

In the Labyrinth

Dorothea von Moltke is the co-owner of Labyrinth Books, the high-quality bookstore in my home town of Princeton, NJ. She speaks with a slight German accent, even though she was born in America. As we walk among the shelves of her store, she explains its name: " A labyrinth is a place to look and get lost. To gather knowledge, to weigh conflicting ideas against each other and find beliefs. But a labyrinth without minotaur is just a maze. Books should also let you struggle with the unknown , with your own demons, so you find out who you truly are."

"The most important person in my life," she continues , "was my grandmother Freya. She died in 2010, when she was almost 100 years old."

"What was your grandmother like?" I ask.

"She was a mystery," Dorothea says, choosing her words carefully. "She was a totally free spirit who totally ignored every convention. She was a feminist who put her life in the service of her husband and children. She embraced me with love but also left me room to find myself. When I was 12 and my mother became pregnant again to my dismay, I refused to eat. Finally my desperate parents took me to my grandmother. Freya insisted she would not force me to eat, but she food in places where she knew I would find it."

Dorothea was a scion of the famous Prussian aristocratic family, the von Moltkes. Her ancestor Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, also known as "the great silent one," was the most important general in the Prussian army and won the wars against Denmark, Austria and France in the late nineteenth century. In thanks, Bismarck had given him the keys to an estate called Kreisau, in today's Poland. It was here that her grandparents, Count Helmuth James von Moltke and his wife Freya, gathered a group of politicians and intellectuals in 1940, many with aristocratic backgrounds, to plan for a different and better Germany. This renowned Kreisauer Circle, or Kreisauer Kreis, became one of the most important resistance movements against the Nazis. The movement was closely related to the military resistance around Claus von Stauffenberg, who on July 20, 1944 performed the famous bombing of Hitler. When the coup failed -- the bomb under the table where Hitler and his staff met went off but caused only minor injuries to the Führer -- the trail led quickly to Kreisau and Count von Moltke. Helmuth had been imprisoned earlier, but now he was taken to the notorious Tegel Prison in Berlin. Thanks to the priest there, who happened to be a fellow member of the Kreisau group, he and Freya were able to exchange daily letters, thinking each might be the last. Finally that day came in January 1945 when Helmuth was executed. Freya remained active in the Resistance.

Dorothea wanders through the corridors of her own labyrinth and picks up a book off the shelf. "This is the most precious book in my store," she says. "My grandmother decided that this book could only be published after her death. It was too personal. The letters testified to their passionate love."

Before she hands it to me, she holds it against her heart. Farewell Letters from Tegel Prison, September 1944 to January 1945. The likeness between Freya's photograph on the front cover and her granddaughter Dorothea is striking -- the same unruly curly hair, bright eyes, determined look.

That night I read one of their letters: "Closer to the death one cannot be," it says. "but not closer to love. "

I close my eyes and see Freya walking through the labyrinth, not afraid of the minotaur.


-- Illustration by Eliane Gerrits