Crossing the Borders of Time

Crossing the Borders of Time - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 5

A former investigative reporter for the New York Times goes back in time to track down her mother’s lost love.

Reporter Leslie Maitland goes back 50 years to fill in the blanks of her mother’s remarkable life story. Janine Gunzburger, the author’s mother, was a teen in 1942 when she boarded the last refugee boat to escape France before the Nazis choked off its ports. While Janine eventually makes it to New York, she spends her days pining for Roland, the beloved fiancée, a Catholic French man, she left behind. Maitland, who grew up hearing repeatedly about her mother’s old flame, sets out to find whether Roland is still alive. This dramatic nonfiction account spans over six decades and creates a gripping portrait of Jewish life in Germany before and under Nazi rule, in occupied France, and in a little-known Cuban detention camp.

Do you think Janine’s intense love for Roland was in part a way to stay focused on something positive amidst so much tragedy and chaos?

The formal nature of Janine’s relationship with her parents when she, her brother, and sister were children—reared by strict governesses who fostered sibling rivalry—left her craving the sort of intimate closeness she would discover with Roland. But she had barely won him in the fall of 1939 when the declaration of war sent everyone in Alsace fleeing from that region that bordered the Rhine. Not yet 16 years old when her family was forced to run for the second time, she clung to the memory of the tenderness she had shared with Roland and yearned to reclaim the sweet joy of their summer days. From then on, her desire to reunite with him became the only thing that mattered to her. And yes, as France fell to the Nazis and danger mounted every day, she hid from her fears by living in dreams.

In Lyon, where Janine and Roland rediscovered each other after a year and a half of forced separation, she embraced the moment and rejoiced in his love. She couldn’t bear to think of leaving him again and closed her eyes to the inevitable, even as her father desperately pursued escape from Europe. A young woman in love for the first time, she kept her thoughts, her heart, and her desires focused only on her beloved and pretended that persecution and war had nothing to do with them and would have no lasting impact on their future together.

Why do you think Janine’s father kept Roland’s letters away from her after they moved to the United States? Was it because he wasn’t Jewish, or was there even more to it?

Sigmar (my grandfather) had lived in Germany as a highly assimilated German Jew. But his experiences in the Nazi Reich and Vichy France, his detention in a Cuban camp, and his difficulties gaining entry into the United States all required him to acknowledge that Jews could not depend on living in the world, and being accepted by the world, in the same way as other people. He developed a new and wary sense of Jewish isolation. He certainly did not feel antagonistic to Catholicism. Indeed, he had loved to visit the Cathedral in Freiburg and was close friends with Joseph Fimbel, a Marist lay priest. All the same, his Judaism was important to him, and he expected his children to marry within the faith.

Beyond that, once the war was over, with his son Norbert safe and the immediate family intact, he was all the more zealous to keep everyone together. His sister Marie in Lyon had lost her daughter and three grandchildren to the Nazi ovens, and Sigmar wanted to keep his own daughter close at hand. He feared that if Roland summoned her back to France, she would rush to his side, and Sigmar had little confidence in the sort of welcome she would find in post-war Europe. While I don’t condone my grandfather’s secret intervention in her romantic life, I imagine that in his own paternalistic way, he was doing what he thought best for her. I think that even Janine recognized her father’s motives, which mitigated her resentment of him.

How did your mother’s love story with Roland impact the way you felt about romantic love growing up and now?

My mother often told me, in my teenage years, that she would have gladly faced any danger if only she could have stayed in France with Roland when her family fled in 1942. If need be, she would have lived forever in an attic with him, accepting any privation without complaint, she declared. Nothing mattered to her but being with him. Now, looking back, I can see that when I began dating, I was under the influence of that romantic ideal, which established unreal expectations. As a result, I did not date much in high school, always waiting to be consumed by the sort of fiery passion my mother described.

Parental pressure led me to marry at the age of 25, before I was ready, and I divorced after only two years. In my second marriage, now in its 29th year, I have come to a more mature understanding of love—a place that Janine and Roland may never have reached because they were robbed of the chance to live with each other on a permanent basis.

How did you go about tracking down all the old family photos and German documents throughout the book? What was that process like, and how long did it take you?

Most of the family photographs and German documents in the book come from my mother’s and grandparents’ albums and boxes and files. My grandparents escaped to the United States with a valise full of things that would prove who they had been, even after they lost all that they had, including their nation and German identities. I literally have my grandparents’ kindergarten photographs and their report cards from grammar school. Some records, particularly those relating to the loss of my grandparents’ home and business, came from government archives in Freiburg. I unearthed other documents relating to the family’s escape from France to Cuba from the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York. And like my grandparents, my mother held on to everything, even the essays she wrote in school in Cuba, as well as my father’s letters to her in the early years of their courtship and marriage. So I was extremely fortunate to have forebears who made things easy for me! Now I worry about what I should do with this trove of family papers and pictures.

You do an excellent job of describing the gradual changes that happened in Germany, which led Jews to flee. (Many think that it was a radical overnight change, and people knew to flee right away.) Was this something important for you to describe for readers and, if so, why?

I viewed it as my mission in this book to tell my mother’s story within the context of the times. For one thing, that’s the only way to understand her feelings and actions and to understand the pressures she faced. But more broadly, I wanted her story to help illuminate that terrible period in order to further knowledge about it for a new generation. So it was not only the gradual changes in Germany that I sought to describe, but also the historical realities of each situation the family confronted.

In Germany, Jews like my grandparents—who had loyally served their country in World War I and considered themselves good German citizens—had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that their lives were at risk in the land they called home. The gradual tightening of the net around them made it hard for many to act in time to save their own lives. But the same held true for French Jews like cousin Emilie Goldschmidt, who refused to flee and was deported to Auschwitz along with her children. And we must not forget that even the United States failed to save Jewish lives when it curbed immigration, refusing to dole out ninety percent of the visas already approved under existing quotas. Could the American Jewish community have done more to raise the alarm and press the Roosevelt administration to act in time to save lives?

Your book is, in part, a mystery, as you search for your mother’s long-lost love Roland. What was the most challenging part—emotionally or practically—about the search?

Emotionally, at the time I went looking for Roland, I couldn’t help feeling some guilt toward my father. As he was facing a fatal illness, I was, at least in part, worrying about Mom’s future without him. Practically speaking, my visit to Roland’s sister proved an exceptionally difficult venture because I could barely explain to myself or to her why I had come there. I was also terrified of breaking Mom’s heart by raising her hopes of an impossible dream.

To the extent that the long process of writing the book gave me the time to reflect on the past, I also worried that I had not paid sufficient attention to how my mother’s lifelong passion for Roland affected my father. I had always taken her side, but I came to feel that in underestimating how the ghost of another man had preyed on my father, I may have judged Dad too harshly. This was a painful thing I had to confront as a direct result of writing the book, and I deeply regretted that it was too late to discuss it with him. I don’t know whether he would have wanted to talk openly about it, but I would have liked to open the door to hearing his feelings.

How did it feel when Roland and your mother reunited after all those years, and you knew you were responsible for that? What types of feelings did you experience?

I felt incredible joy to have been able to bring her the best present of her life! There was enormous satisfaction in being able to recompense her for the selfless generosity she had shown to everyone else around her for as far back as I could remember. It seemed nothing short of miraculous to see Mom and Roland together at last and to see her enjoy the happiness she so greatly deserved. That I played a role in that was beyond wonderful for me.

Do you think the desire to understand the truth of your mother’s story was responsible in some way for your going into investigative reporting?

Frankly, I’d have to say it’s the reverse. Knowing how to go about digging for facts made it possible for me to pursue the truth of my mother’s story. But as ever, my father’s maxim was a constant guide. “Never make assumptions. Check out everything.” The truth turned out to be more amazing than anything I might have imagined.

Any question you would love to be asked? Ask… and answer! What has surprised you most since publication of the book?

Funny you should ask. I have been thoroughly amazed by the way readers have reached out to me through email, letters, and Facebook to express their feelings about the story. I have felt profoundly grateful for the many beautiful and deeply thoughtful messages I have received from strangers who read and loved the book. And I have been delighted and surprised to be contacted by many of my own long-lost friends and voices from the past: the daughter of my sixth grade English teacher, women I haven’t seen since we were 12 at summer camp, former colleagues at the New York Times. I guess that goes to prove, as I suggested in the book, that the past is not a thing forever lost, but a place that’s waiting to be found.

About the Author

Leslie MaitlandLeslie Maitland
Leslie Maitland, author of Crossing the Borders of Time (Other Press, 2012), is a former award-winning reporter and national correspondent for the New York Times who specialized in legal affairs and investigative reporting. After breaking stories on the FBI’s undercover “Abscam” inquiry into corruption in Congress, she moved to the New York Times Washington bureau to cover the Justice Department. Among other projects since leaving the Times, she began extensive research for this nonfiction book, including five reporting trips to Europe, one to Cuba, and another to Canada. A graduate of the University of Chicago and the Harvard Divinity School, she appears regularly on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR to discuss literature.

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