- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Maybe I’m being chauvinistic, but as a reporter since 1966, I’ve long believed that news people make the best writers. Think Ernest Hemingway, honing his writing and reporting skills at the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star. And think Leslie Maitland, a prize-winning former investigative reporter for theNew York Times whose “Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed” (Other Press, 512 pages, in-text photographs, bibliography, but no index, $27.95) is a panoramic work of nonfiction that I believe Hemingway would have been proud to put his name on. “Crossing the Borders of Time” has the power of “War and Peace,” the movie “Casablanca” and the romanticism of “Doctor Zhivago” — reading like a novel but with the resonance of reality.
Maitland used all the skills she acquired as reporter to tell the story of how her German Jewish mother, born Johanna Gunzburger in Freiburg, Germany, in 1923 managed to flee the Nazi killing machine in 1938, with her father, mother, sister and brother, landing first in Mulhouse, France, moving as the Germans defeated the French in June 1940, finally leaving on the last ship out of Marseille, France in 1942 before the harbors were sealed.
Barred from entering the U.S. due to an indifferent FDR administration and an anti-Semitic State Department under Cordell Hull, the Gunzburger family — father Samuel Sigmar Gunzburger, a German Army WWI veteran, his wife Alice, their daughters Gertrude (Trudi) and Johanna (later Janine) and their son Norbert — spent more than a year in a Cuban detention camp before finally securing papers allowing them to move to Miami and later New York City.
As a child, Leslie learned of her mother’s first love, called Roland Arcieri in the book, a French Catholic who tried to contact Janine when she was pregnant with the future investigative reporter. Janine — she adopted the French name because of her love of France — and her family had settled in Washington Heights, at the extreme northern tip of Manhattan. Now heavily Hispanic, Washington Heights was the home of so many German Jewish refugees during and immediately after World War II that it was ironically dubbed “The Fourth Reich.”
Janine Gunzburger was so lacking in the stereotypical Jewish features that Nazi propagandists popularized that Mona, the blunt-spoken sister of her future husband, Leonard Maitland, remarked to the doctor for whom Janine was working “Too bad she’s a shiksa [Gentile]. If she were only Jewish, I’d fix her up with my brother.” Mona went on to describe Leonard — born Friedman — as a cross between “Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant.” In the complicated world of Judaism, Janine’s parents at first objected to her future husband’s Eastern European Jewish origins; German Jews considered themselves to be at the top of the pecking order.
A moving part of Leslie Maitland’s memoir is her portrayal of her father, Leonard. He had served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, in wartime a branch of the military that sustained more casualties than any other service branch. In spite of this, Merchant Marine veterans were denied benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights, including health benefits for people exposed to deadly asbestos on the ships. Trained as an engineer, Leonard Maitland was a Type-A hard-charging businessman who had a heart attack in his forties and died before his time of cancer — he was born in 1918 and died in 1990.
Maitland encouraged his daughter in her pursuit of higher education and was so proud of her career at theNew York Times that he carried clips of her stories in his wallet and showed them to everybody. The realistic portrait of Leonard Maitland includes his daughter’s account of his love of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy — which she calls a “cult” — and his womanizing. It’s apparent that Len Maitland, who modeled himself on Howard Roark in Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, resented the role Roland Arcieri played in his wife’s life and even initiated a “tearing up party” (Page 315) where Janine was coerced into tearing up photographs of Roland and love letters from him. The author says her mother had made the “selfish mistake” of telling her new suitor Leonard about “his past rival, a confession with permanent impact on the course of their marriage.” The author is nothing if not brutally honest about the details of the lives of her mother and father — a mark of a good reporter!
I noticed that Maitland has included in the bibliography Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s best-selling “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (Knopf, 1996), about ordinary Germans who went along with the murderous anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. I read and reviewed the book when it was published and I thought it explained many details glossed over in the post-World War II rehabilitation of Germans and Germany, as well as the countries, like Vichy France, that collaborated with the Nazis. Maitland also includes accounts of “ordinary” Germans and French who defied the Germans and their collaborators in Vichy France to save Jews from the death factories.
She also chronicles the reconciliation visits where German cities, including Freiburg, hosted their exiled former residents. The receptions were almost uniformly friendly, yet one major exception, she writes, was the Glatt family, the Gentiles who acquired Sigmar Gunzburger’s prospering home supply firm in the forced “Aryanization” that led the Gunzburgers to flee Germany. The Glatts stated in their brochures that the multi-office firm was “founded” in 1938 — the year Sigmar was forced out of the firm he had founded with his brother Heinrich in 1919, on his return from the war. Freiburg’s synagogue — consecrated in 1885 — was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and had been replaced with a modern structure, but the “reconciliation” visits were marred by desecrations of the city’s Jewish cemetery.
A particularly moving passage in “Crossing the Borders of Time” occurs on a pier in Marseille in 1942, with desperate refugees pressing to board one of the last ships to escape France before the Nazis choked off its ports, the 18-year-old Janine was pried from the arms of Roland, a man she loved and promised to marry. As the Lipari carried Janine and her family to Casablanca on the first leg of a perilous journey to safety in Cuba, she would read through her tears the farewell letter that Roland had slipped in her pocket: “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone. I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife. Never forget, never doubt.” Fans of the 1942 movie “Casablanca” will relate to the scene, comparing it to the scene where Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, waits in the rain in Paris for Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) as he makes his escape by the last train out of beseiged Paris.
Fifty years after the Marseille events, Leslie’s efforts reunited the widowed Janine and the married — for the second time — Roland, now living in Montreal, Canad. It is a testimony to both Maitland’s investigative skills and her devotion to her mother that she successfully traced the lost Roland and was able to reunite him with Janine. Unlike so many stories of love during wartime, theirs has a happy ending.
To show the power and lyricism of the book, I’m including an excerpt, as posted on the Other Press website:
During the fall that my father was dying, I went back to Europe and found myself seeking my mother’s lost love. I say I went back almost as if the world she had fled and the dream she abandoned had also been mine, because I had grown to share the myth of her life. Perhaps it is common for children whose parents survived the Nazi regime to identify with them, to feel a duty to make their lives better. As my mother’s handmaiden and avid disciple in an oral tradition, I felt possessed by a history never my own. Still, not as yoked as she was to life’s compromises, I would prove more prepared to retrace the past and use it to forge a new future for her.
Time was running out on the present, and while my father grew weak in a lonely cave of silent bravado, it pained me to realize he would not even leave us the words that we needed. No deathbed regrets, explanations, or tears. An emotional bandit, he would soon slip away under shadow of night, wearing his boots and his mask.
Work as a journalist compelled me to leave New York for a week that October, and I was anguished to lose any day at Dad’s side. Yet how fast he would fade I failed to imagine. Nor could I foresee the course of my journey: that an impetuous detour to France from reporting in Germany would send me in search of Roland Arcieri – the man my mother had loved and lost and mourned all her life. Dreading my father’s imminent death and the void he would leave, I took a blind leap of faith into the past, dragging my mother behind me.
This is how one Sunday morning in 1990 I came to be visiting Mulhouse, a provincial French city 15 miles from Germany’s Rhine River border. With cousins in town, I had visited Mulhouse twice years before. But on this crisp autumn day I was drawn toward a new destination: a 14-story, blue and white stucco building whose boxy design represented what passes too often for modern in Europe. While there was nothing about this unexceptional structure on a street densely shaded by chestnut trees to attract an American tourist, I instantly sensed that this was the place I had always needed to find. I stood at the spot – the X on a map to a treasure buried by time – torn by contradictory feelings. I ran a very real risk of discovering something better left hidden, still I could not understand or forgive my failure to look here before.
An ache of remorse for all the lost years mingled with nervous excitement. Just up the stairs, I would finally learn what I had always wanted to know. Who was Roland? Where was Roland? What had happened to him in the near 50 years since the cruelties of war had stolen the girl he wanted to marry? I needed to find my mother’s grand passion. Love for the dark-eyed Frenchman, whose picture she always kept tucked in her wallet, continued to pulse in her memory, the heartbeat that kept her alive.
About the Author
Leslie Maitland is a former reporter for the New York Times who specialized in legal affairs and investigative reporting. She joined the newspaper after graduating from the University of Chicago and the Harvard Divinity School. 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. After leaving the Times, she began, among other projects, extensive research for this nonfiction book, including five reporting trips to Europe and one to Cuba. She has frequently participated in programs discussing literature on the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio. Maitland lives with her husband in Bethesda, Maryland. Publisher’s website: www.otherpress.com