In this novel-like memoir of her mother’s life as a Holocaust escapee, Leslie Maitland, a former New York Times writer, has put her remarkable skills as an investigative reporter and narrator to the task of brilliantly retelling her family’s story across several continents and decades.
This story is dramatic, complex, with many intertwined characters – all following the thread of history during the Nazi era that began in 1933 when the German people elected Adolf Hitler chancellor of the government in Berlin. Maitland has researched this story exhaustively and told it with great sensitivity, in a beautifully evocative style that captures the nuances of a refugee family’s ordeal under the terrifying, overbearing regime of the Nazi machine.
Maitland’s mother, Janine Gunzburger, fled as a teenager with her family from their home in Freiburg in the Black Forest of Germany as Hitler’s Wehrmacht drove west into France at the outset of World War II. First they stopped in German-occupied France, then moved into so-called Free France, the southern part of the country where a government of collaborators did the Germans’ bidding. That eventually included rounding up French Jews and others who had fled the German advance and sending them to concentration camps.
Soon, Janine fled France by ship in 1942 for Morocco, then to Jamaica, Mexico and Cuba before settling in the New York area. Throughout this story—the unifying dramatic theme, as it were—Maitland is trying to find out what happened to a Roman Catholic Frenchman to which her mother had been engaged before she boarded the Lipari for Casablanca. Maitland calls him Roland Arcieri, though that was not his real name.
As these things happen, Maitland’s mother marries another man, but she never really forgets her first love, about which she knows nothing for decades. And, as might be expected, Maitland’s parents do not share the kind of deep, abiding affection she imagines her mother and Roland would have shared, had they been able to reunite and marry as they intended.
The author tells this story much like a romantic mystery, and it works very well. At times, Janine is the secretary to a German officer who never suspects she is Jewish. Another time, a German soldier offers to marry her and take her back to Freiburg, where he believes he can protect her. One comes to understand in considerable detail how complicated living as Jews --- or resisters—under the noses of the Germans could be.
“The rules under which they endured…multiplied daily in inverse ratio to the dwindling food in their larders,” Maitland writes of the hardships that bore down on her mother and family when they lived in the first city in France that sheltered them. “Verboten: forbidden: the right to assemble in public in groups of more than three people. Verboten: displaying the humbled French flag or French decorations. Verboten: photographing the exterior of any buildings or listening to foreign radio stations, especially London’s. Verboten: singing the “Marseillaise” and engaging in any political action. Verboten: to travel without official approval.”
One can imagine the walls closing in on everyone in France under German occupation and then, later, as the Nazi began taking away the Jews for extermination, the enormity of their deeds towards civilians they considered their enemy.
Maitland’s gift is telling this absolutely fascinating story of her mother—and then of Roland—in a way that immerses the reader completely in the lives of the men and women who were so deeply affected by the war, the Holocaust, their continuing efforts to live no matter what happened to them.
She also has richly illustrated each chapter with black-and-white pictures of families, documents, buildings, synagogues, cemeteries and other objects that add another rich dimension to this unforgettable love story that transcends the destruction of World War II.
We all know, more or less, the history of Europe in the last century. Now, thanks to Maitland, we also can know intimately of the lives of men, women and children whose fate it was to be born in that century and to confront it.