Essay by Leslie Maitland
“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 my mother had fled and the dream she abandoned had also been mine, because I had grown to share the myth of her life.”
With these opening words, I invite readers on a tumultuous journey to times and places whose misty imaginings had been with me always. Gripped by my mother’s accounts of love, persecution, war, and escape, I embraced the mission to pass them on to a new generation. But as a journalist, I felt compelled to ground memory in history. I needed to be able to state with assurance, for myself as well as my readers: this is what happened. And so I set out to explore the terrain of the past and recreate a world that was gone.
Confronting Hitler’s dread transformation of Europe is no simple matter, and nowhere more complex, perhaps, than in France. Pursuit of the facts sent me on five trips there, as well as to Germany, Canada, and Cuba. Over the years I spent delving through archives and into a period that must not be forgotten, my scope enlarged to include those whose lives intersected my mother’s, many of whom did not survive to tell their own stories. As a result, I came to believe that the context in which my mother, Janine, and her true love, Roland, had found, adored, and lost one another was essential to understanding their passion.
Beyond that, compared to the hellish suffering inflicted on millions under the Nazis, the thwarted love of two young people was something I wanted to keep 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 felt like a death to Janine in 1942, but her escape on a ship sailing from France at the eleventh hour placed her among the most fortunate few in that era of terror. And so my aim was to weave the golden thread of their romance through a broad and vivid historical canvas.
Crossing the Borders of Time brought me face to face with “characters” I had long known through my mother’s stories. Several, confused by my physical likeness to a younger Janine they still remembered, unwittingly helped to foster an uneasy sense that I had slipped through time and was somehow reliving my mother’s experience. Others have contacted me since the book’s publication to add their own postscripts. With news articles about the book appearing in Germany, I have received surprising messages filled with reminiscences, regrets, and kind wishes.
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, my grandfather Sigmar, was fleeing the country. “Maybe it is good for you to know that during the horrible years of the persecution of Jews,” he wrote, “some people felt and suffered with you.”
From outside Berlin, a woman emailed to say that the Wehrmacht soldier described in my book as having proposed marriage to Janine in 1940 in order to save her from Hitler had actually 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.” Still more wrote simply to thank me and to recount their own stories of heartbreaking loss and of seeking new lives and fresh purpose in strange places.
It is an irony of time and technological progress that unknown readers have been able to reach me and share such personal contacts. Janine and Roland – separated through no fault of their own – were obliged to make hard compromises. My own life is a consequence of their painful rupture. I am grateful that in pursuing their story I could help to shape the way that it ended.