Crossing the borders of time

Researching her mother’s story of wartime flight and lost love, a journalist finds the truth richer and stranger than any fiction.

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A few months ago, after years of research devoted to my recently published family memoir, Crossing the Borders of Time, I was startled to find yet one more intriguing artifact of the past buried inside my mother’s desk drawer. And for all the barely decipherable, fragile personal letters and foreign documents that I’d labored to locate, to read, and to translate, this tardy discovery struck me as no less mysterious for having been penned in a careful hand and written in English. By me! Or by a now-hazy me of the past: a third-year student in the New Collegiate Division who (with finals impending) had directed a good deal of time in 1970 toward creating a meaningful Mother’s Day card.

I found it protected in a manila envelope in a file drawer to which Mom had dispatched me for something else. On its cover, my still-vibrant watercolor of a pot of blooming violets earned a fresh measure of satisfaction. But encountering the sentiments inside as if for the first time, I felt unnerved by a youthful avowal that managed to seem sophomoric in its self-inflation while also dangerously self-effacing.

“On the day that you became a mother,” I’d written to Mom in part, “I entered life to mirror your life through my eyes.” 

What had I meant by those dutiful words? Card in hand, I sat at her desk, flooded by memories of psychology classes I’d taken that spring. I saw myself in a seminar on Carl Jung led by an earnest adherent in jangly earrings who dispensed crayons and had us draw pictures of our own psyches. (She held up hers for example: a pink rose she’d labeled “La Fleur.”) Then too I recalled slouching in my seat at the back of a lecture hall where I dreaded attracting the sort of intrusive personal question that Bruno Bettelheim notoriously relished lobbing at students. In another class, there were assignments to describe and analyze our most intimate dreams.


Maitland’s mother, Janine, entrusted Roland Arcieri with her childhood autograph book when she escaped Europe with her family in 1942.

Fascinated with mythology, I had majored in the history and philosophy of religion and, seizing on courses that promised to focus on symbols, wound up grappling with identity issues. At that age and in that time of social upheaval, I shared my classmates’ yearnings to animate life with mission and purpose and to chart quest myths of my own. Yet now, decades later, that long-forgotten Mother’s Day card stunned me with the realization that I seemed to have known, even back then, exactly what goal I would set for myself.

 

Crossing the Borders of Time (Other Press, 2012) tells the tale of my mother, Janine, who was forced to leave behind the handsome Catholic Frenchman she had promised to marry when—18 and Jewish—she escaped the Nazis in 1942 on the last refugee ship to leave France before Hitler completely choked off its ports. As the couple tearfully parted on a pier in Marseille, Roland had slipped in her pocket a 12-page letter with visions of a lifetime together: “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it. ... I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife. Never forget, never doubt.” In truth, she’d given him her most cherished possession, her childhood autograph book, filled with her friends’ whimsical drawings and poems. But their conjoined future was not to be, and as my mother held me spellbound with her saga of danger and romance in distant places, her story became my story. It seemed all the more defining because I knew that a different ending, a happier one in which she and Roland remained united, would have meant my not existing.

As a child, I saw misty evidence of my mother’s past everywhere. We lived in an area at the northern tip of Manhattan that had become home to so many German Jewish refugees that it was playfully dubbed the Fourth Reich, and I hungered to know the unspoken reasons for their resettlement in America. Aging émigrés—my grandparents and their contemporaries—tried to find new futures in a land devoid of memories, even as they filled the streets with foreign words that carried history in their undertones. Indeed, it was German that I heard all day growing up in the same apartment building as my Nana and Bapa and the families of my mother’s sister and brother. Still, my mother and my aunt brazenly maintained the pretense that by dint of timing and the varying results of French and German battles for sovereignty over Alsace, they themselves—unlike their parents, who proudly traced their roots in German soil back through several centuries—had actually been born in France. Hostile to the “Fatherland” that had betrayed them, but unwilling to be viewed as refugees, the two young women cloaked themselves in French personas in order to seem glamorous.

For years I believed that I could see my mother’s birthplace across the ocean of the Hudson River. How disappointing it would prove to learn that what impressed me as the Eiffel Tower was merely a radio transmitter atop the Palisades of New Jersey! More shocking still would be the eventual discovery that Mom was not really born in contested Alsace, but across the Rhine in nearby Freiburg—a charming medieval university town at the heart of the Black Forest in Germany’s balmy southwest corner. Thus hoodwinked, I realized when I began my book that extensive research would be required to ferret out the truth of things.

 

Such work had become my stock in trade. It was after 17 years as a reporter for the New York Times that I determined to ground my mother’s memories in history. And for this pursuit, as for my career in investigative journalism, I note with gratitude that my Chicago education prepared me well, teaching me to ask questions, seek primary sources, and evaluate every answer skeptically. Additional good fortune was that my son, Zachary Werner, AB’08, a Fundamentals: Issues and Texts major, developed extraordinary abilities with the written word and so became my thoughtful, trusted editor.


In the autograph book Janine took with her to America, Roland had written twice and included photos. His second entry, dated March 12, 1942—the day before they parted—reads, “I ask you here to preserve your love intact until the happy day when you can become my companion for life.”

I’d made my initial foray writing about the family in the pages of the Times when we visited Germany in 1989. My mother’s first trip back, it was sparked by a reunion that Freiburg hosted for Jewish former citizens. Together with my father and brother, we explored the route of her escape from there through France. Another ten years passed, however, before I would embark on the comprehensive study that a nonfiction book demanded to verify the accuracy of everything she’d told me. Increasingly, I’d felt this self-appointed task to be a moral responsibility. Real people suffered; real people died. I owed it to the victims to tell their stories.

My journey back in time would take me on five reporting trips to Europe, another to Cuba, and one to Canada. I would interview witnesses, plumb archives here and abroad, and, at the Library of Congress, pore over war-era French newspapers in which even the advertisements proved enlightening, revealing the insidious encroachment of anti-Semitism into French society.

Maybe most important, I would be blessed to find a voluminous collection of letters, photographs, and official documents that my once-prosperous grandfather, Sigmar Günzburger, had carried with him from 1938, when the family fled Freiburg, to 1943, when they landed in New York. Stateless, a citizen of “no country,” as his transit papers put it, he treasured as his sole remaining valuable a suitcase filled with memorabilia that validated his original identity. His cache of papers would prove essential. They enabled me to fix a time line as I tracked the family’s scrambling five-year exodus through France and Cuba and to research with particularity the threats they faced in every place they tried to stop in hope of safety.

The decision to recount the story with journalistic objectivity and candor raised issues of privacy as well as sensitive family concerns. Chief among them was dealing with my parents’ marriage, and I must acknowledge my mother’s generosity and bravery in allowing me to write so openly about its troubles. She is a private person, and there are revelations in the book that I recognize make her uncomfortable. In my father’s lifetime, I could not have written it. From the outset of Janine’s marriage in 1947 to Leonard Maitland—a brilliant, if difficult, dashingly charismatic American engineer—everyone who came to know my mother would also learn about Roland.  It was not a secret, least of all to Dad, that the interventions of her protective, disapproving family and the dislocations of war had robbed her of the man she’d dreamed of marrying and could not forget. In consequence of Janine’s forced separation from him, Roland would remain forever young, unblemished, and idealized in her mind.

Curiously, it was a book I read in college, Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World, that first explained to me how great romantic love—the sort of love that gives rise to myths and literature like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet—is by its nature star-crossed, stymied in its drive for permanence. Such passion is not easily sustained at the same emotional peak and fervor through a lifetime of contented marriage, child rearing, and mundane household chores and worries. Couples who ride off into the sunset eventually have to pitch a tent, and that’s when squabbles start. Any real man who became my mother’s husband—Roland included—would have found it challenging to compete with the idol of her fantasies.


Maitland and her son, Zachery Werner, AB’08, when he was a student in the College and she was on campus for a meeting of the Alumni Board of Governors, on which she served from 2004 to 2010.

What, then, was the impact on my father of living every day with the shadow of a missing rival who could do no wrong? It grieved me to accept how very late I was to ask that question. Only when I studied my parents’ relationship with journalistic impartiality did I begin to empathize with a father whose pattern of blatant infidelities had been so painful to me as a girl. My attempts to come to grips with the motivations of the Len who was my character permitted me to come to terms with the man who’d been my father.

Similarly with my mother, I attempted to inhabit her experience—consigned to the iron discipline of a sadistic governess in a formal German household between the wars. I felt her craving for tenderness, as well as her terror and confusion as the Nazi net grew tighter and she had to flee the only home she’d known. Then, suddenly, arriving in a new country, a soulful teenage girl, she fell passionately in love for the first time. By placing Roland at the center of her universe, she turned romance into her blindfold. For years to follow, the goal of Janine’s war was to conquer Roland’s heart, and that diverted her attention from all the fearsome perils of living on the run.

Writing Crossing the Borders of Time encouraged me to reevaluate my own life story with the same sort of clinical detachment. My closeness to my mother and preoccupation with her story were, I finally suspected, only part of why I always felt impelled to take her side. I had a quite specific reason to feel responsible for her.


Janine and Roland were separated in 1939 but found each other again in Lyon in 1941.

She’d been pregnant with me, after years bereft of contact from her lost Roland, when she came upon a telegram from the Red Cross Tracing Service that would have changed her life, had she only known about it earlier. Her father had hidden it in his desk drawer, and she discovered it by accident when he sent her there for something else. It revealed the truth that Roland had tried to reach her years before, and desperately she longed to rush to him. But how could she sail back to France anchored by an unborn child? She was fixed to the spot by the growing weight of me within her womb. The moment when she might have set a different course was as lost in clouded history as an intercepted telegram hidden in a file drawer. It would take decades before I could attempt to recompense her sacrifice and go in search of him myself.

 

Compared to the horrors inflicted on millions under the Nazis, the thwarted love of two young people must be kept in perspective. As Rick insisted to Ilsa in the 1942 film Casablanca, speaking of their own anguished love triangle: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Losing Roland in that same year felt like a death to Janine, but her eleventh-hour escape from France placed her among the most fortunate few in that period of madness and evil. And so my aim in the writing was to weave the golden thread of their romance through a broad and vivid historical canvas. I determined to use the gripping personal story to transmit to a new generation a full account of those harrowing times. In consequence, the book’s scope enlarged to include other people whose lives and various, illustrative fates intersected with my mother’s.

It has often been said that journalism is the first draft of history. But arriving on the scene more than a half century after the events I was investigating, I found my reporter’s objectivity challenged by hindsight and personal involvement. In Lyon, for example, I talked my way inside the apartment building where four French cousins had been arrested in 1943 by the pro-Nazi French Milice and then deported to death at Auschwitz. (Historical research yielded the shocking statistic that of more than 75,000 Jews deported from France to concentration camps, three-fourths were arrested not by the Germans but by the French police.) A resident whose mother had known my cousins introduced me to an upstairs neighbor, hale and trim at almost 90, who had lived there through the war. Teary-eyed, he was forthcoming with grim details about how the family had been dragged off without their coats in the chill of an October night. But obviously reluctant to offend me, he needed prodding to share his theory as to why other Jewish tenants had been warned before the roundup and evaded capture, while my wealthy cousin Mimi had been denounced and targeted for execution. Her three blameless children would die with her, and her surviving husband—having spurned my grandfather’s pleas for them all to join in the escape to Cuba—would lose his sanity in mourning them.


Len and Janine Maitland in Glen Head, Long Island, in 1949, two years after their marriage.

“Madame was always le feu dans le bâtiment,” the fire in the building, Mimi’s onetime neighbor said at last, alluding to her reputation for being imperious and selfish. The tantalizing mealtime scents of black-market privilege that had wafted from her apartment aroused resentment at a point when almost everyone else was starving. She’d made enemies. There were rumors she’d declined to contribute to a fund to help impoverished Jews escape the Nazis. Yet would I seem to be suggesting that this cousin I’d never met deserved her awful end if I recounted his explanations? In this instance, as in each of the many complicated moral conundrums the book presented, I worried how others in the family would respond but felt obligated to report what I had learned.

Another case involved the loyalties of a French official who had helped my mother’s family at a point when they were trapped in a deadly situation. After France and England declared war on Germany in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the family had fled to a little town called Gray in a dairy region near Dijon. With the fall of France in 1940, the Germans seized the area, billeted a thousand Wehrmacht soldiers in the town (including one in my grandparents’ apartment), and replaced its Jewish mayor with an Alsatian lay priest, Joseph Fimbel, whom they relied upon to do their bidding. 

More than 60 years later, Gray’s citizens continued to argue conflicting opinions of him. Had Fimbel collaborated, or had he subtly used his municipal authority to outwit his masters? That the Nazis ultimately deported him to Buchenwald for undermining their directives had not persuaded doubters who blocked attempts to name a street in his memory. Yet knowing that the mayor, a friend to my grandfather, had helped the Günzburgers and many others to cross the guarded Demarcation Line from Occupied France to the ostensibly safer zone controlled by Vichy—that I might owe my life to him—how could I portray him as anything but a man who had risked his life to do his best in a hellish situation?

Reporting in Freiburg, I would forge a most unexpected friendship with Michael Stock, the grandson of the hotelier who had taken over my grandparents’ stately home when Jewish property was being “Aryanized” in 1938. It was difficult to squelch my outrage, however, when Michael’s mother, Rosemarie Stock, proudly invited me into her bedroom, in that same house where my mother had been born, to admire her Hitler Youth track meet certificate, framed and hanging on the wall. She surprised me by offering to pose, smiling, for a picture sitting next to it, even though she’d been my mother’s childhood playmate and the award was prominently decorated with a swastika. Nor was that the only instance of her testing the sangfroid of my journalistic objectivity.

“Why did your grandmother leave here anyway?” she coolly asked me over coffee and cake one afternoon. “I didn’t understand. Surely, she wasn’t Jewish. She didn’t look Jewish.”

“What does that mean?” I couldn’t help myself from interjecting.

“Well, of course, she didn’t have a Jewish nose or lips,” Frau Stock shrugged as she drew a large hooked nose in the air and mockingly rolled down her lower lip. The moist pink protuberance recalled ugly racist caricatures on Nazi posters.


Janine captivated Leslie’s imagination with dramatic stories drawn from memory.

Just the same, committed to presenting all sides of things, I granted her full voice in the book to bemoan the sorrows of war that had been hers. The suicide of her father, crushed by construction debt as he expanded his hotel into the home next door that had rightfully belonged to Sigmar. The protracted absence of her husband, working for the Führer in a chemical plant near Poland. The bombings, cold, and hunger that underscored the misery of defeat. The constant talk of concentration camps when she preferred to look ahead. “You cannot turn back the hands of time,” she warned.

More than anywhere, reporting in Freiburg mounted to an emotional crescendo for me. It was overwhelming to visit the lonely graves of my great-grandparents and to realize that, having died before the Nazi era, they were spared from knowing why so few of their descendants had ever come to pay them homage in accordance with tradition by placing little rocks upon their tombstone. It was humiliating when the son of the man who’d taken over Sigmar’s business forcibly ejected me from the office building where I’d waited hours for him, hoping for an interview. And it was shocking to travel 20 minutes outside of town to the Jewish graveyard in the village of Ihringen, where Sigmar had been born, to discover all 200 antique tombstones desecrated, with gruesome neo-Nazi slogans daubed across the walls.

At times, my resemblance to my mother and familiarity with details of her Freiburg girlhood led people to mistake me for Janine—or Hanna, as she’d been called in Germany. It was easy to imagine that I had morphed into my mother’s younger self or fallen through a chink in time back to the years she had described. The nearness of the past became not only real but also terrifying. Following the route of her escape across the Rhine, I impetuously ran to France and found myself in unimagined search of my mother’s long-lost love. With sudden clarity I understood that faces now lined by years were waiting to be recognized and that—Frau Stock’s admonition not withstanding—my most important quest was right in front of me.

 

Since publication of the book, readers here and in Germany have added postscripts of their own. A man of 80, for instance, recalled the alarming first sight of his own father weeping in 1938—his grief prompted by learning that his generous Jewish employer, Sigmar Günzburger, was about to flee the country. “Maybe it is good for you to know that during the horrible years of the persecution of Jews,” he wrote from Freiburg, “some people felt and suffered with you.”


Freiburg’s main thoroughfare, the Kaiserstrasse, was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Strasse and draped with Nazi banners and flags during the Third Reich.

From outside Berlin, a woman e-mailed to say that the Wehrmacht soldier depicted in the book as having proposed marriage to Janine in 1940 in order to save her from Hitler had been a member of her family. “Just think,” she mused, “had circumstances been different and had your mother fallen for him, we could be related today.” Others wrote to share their own stories of heartbreaking loss and of struggles to build new lives with fresh meaning.

These touching letters as well as documents and pictures sent by readers from far-flung places have accumulated in my study along with the many files, reporters’ notebooks, tapes, and photographs that remain for me to organize. With the task delayed as I’ve toured around the country to speak about the book, the excavations involved in my archaeology of war and love have resulted in stacks of papers being relegated to the floor. One recent afternoon, while we were talking amid this regrettable topography, my son reached down and randomly plucked up a faded letter. Zach had only read two lines (or so he claimed), when he held it out for my inspection and asked me what it was.

Penned in my own hand, like my Mother’s Day card of 1970, it proved to be the heartfelt draft of a love letter I’d written to my boyfriend while in college. It took longer than it should have for me to draw the connection that the author of that ardent letter was the same age that Janine had been when, sobbing in her straw-covered berth on a freighter bound for Casablanca in 1942, she’d read and read again the letter slipped into her pocket by the young man she adored.

Now I read the letter written many years ago by a student in Chicago and put it in the wicker trash basket beneath my desk. Yet the next day, before leaving on another trip, appreciating the vulnerable confession of the youthful moment in which it was composed or the authenticity of a phrase that struck me as original, I rescued it and hid it in my drawer. There, a few weeks later, it came into my hand again. And then, with all due respect to history, to family lore, to the treasures found in parents’ desks, and to my son and daughter, I tore it into little pieces and said a fond farewell to my own romantic past. It is possible for one’s children to know too much.

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