Crossing the Borders of Time

Crossing the borders 2

Crossing the Borders of Time by Leslie Maitland (Other Press, 2013) is a memoir with so much terror, romance and suspense that you might be tempted to think it’s the makes of fiction. But it’s not.

It’s the true story of one Jewish woman’s escape from Nazi Germany and Occupied France from 1938-1942. At the same time, it’s the present-day story of the woman’s daughter, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, who was on a mission to trace her mother’s lost history, which included a long lost French sweetheart.

As Good Housekeeping said, it’s like a cross between Schindler’s List and Casablanca. I would probably also add The Man Without A Country, given the family’s desperate search for a safe place to call home.

The story begins in 1920s Germany, where Matiland’s grandparents, Sigmar and Alice Günzberger, were prominent German citizens who had both served their country in World War I. After they married, the Günzbergers thought they would join relatives in nearby Mulhouse, not far from the Rhine in the Alsace region of France. However, anti-German sentiment was running high in post-war Alsace, which Germany had just ceded back to France in the Treaty of Versailles. “Feeling even less welcome as Germans in France than as Jews in Germany,” the Günzbergers changed their minds and returned to Freiburg in 1920.

The Günzburgers had three children, including Maitland’s mother Hanna, and together they lived relative wealth and comfort in Freiburg, a religiously tolerant college town in the southwest corner of Germany. The rise of Nazism is a well-known story, but Hannah’s memory, as told to her daughter, is so detailed and personal that if feels as if you’re hearing about it for the first time.

The Günsberger children had an innocent life in Freiburg, but by 1933 they could no longer swim in the neighborhood pool or attend regular schools. At first they didn’t understand the implication of all of the anti-Jewish laws; the children were actually thrilled when their overly strict German governess left, unwilling to be associated with a Jewish family. When Hannah’s own friends and classmates joined the Hitler Youth Movement, Hannah begged her mother to buy a white blouse and kick-pleated skirt that would match the uniform for the Nazi’s League of German Girls. By 1937, with the economic laws restricting their safety and livelihood, the Günzbergers began to plan their escape from Germany.

They pressed ahead with the bribes and paperwork necessary to obtain French visas, as well as the “flight taxes,” bank fees and harsh fines required to sell their business and property in Germany. When the Günzbergers arrived in Mulhouse they were surrounded by relatives and a strong Jewish community, but their life savings was gone. It was in Mulhouse that Hannah (now a pretty teen-age Janine) met a handsome Frenchman named Roland whom she would never forget.

The new romance wouldn’t last long. The Günzburgers weren’t safe in Alsace, which Hitler threatened to recapture for the glory of the new Germany. Maitland describes her grandfather’s dilemma in Alsace:

To the French, he was German – mistrusted as an enemy, with no way to hide his name or accent. To the Germans, he was a Jew – a stateless pariah and fair game in any territory he might be found. While prudence left him no other choice, moving from Alsace meant leaving the one part of France where he felt somewhat at home, where a Germanic name and dual national heritage were well understood and Jews well established.

The Günzbergers sought refuge in Gray, a quiet country village in the middle of Burgundy, but their German background presented new problems. They had become stateless, homeless people whom no one trusted.

They were only safe for a short while, and were forced to flee when the German army advanced through France in 1940. Their narrow, harrowing escapes (in the back of French ambulances, or in the trucks of German soldiers, happy to trade favors with pretty French girls) seem like scenes from a movie. The Günzbergers fled to Lyon in the Unoccupied Zone, where Janine and her French sweetheart Roland were reunited and where Janine would have been happy to stay.

When it became clear that the Vichy government would also enforce anti-Jewish laws, Janine’s father knew he had to find a way out of France. He succeeded in getting the necessary permits for the last refugee ship to Cuba in 1942. Janine would reluctantly board the ship with her family, and eventually settle in New York, leaving Roland far behind. Janine and Roland would be separated for nearly fifty years.

There is much more to the story, as the author traces her mother’s life and unhappy marriage in New York and New Jersey. Through it all, Janine secretly pines for the French sweetheart of her past. Finally, her grown daughter takes on the challenge of searching for long lost Roland. The story of her search and the truth of her mother’s past makes for a fabulous read.

Crossing the Borders of Time is a hair-raising tale of escape and survival, where crossing a border means everything. But sometimes, in this complicated world of loss, change and missed opportunities, it is just as amazing that love can make it across the biggest border of all: the border of time.

Highly recommended.

The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers

painted girls

If you like historical art fiction, it doesn’t get much better than The Painted Girls, Cathy Buchanan’s new novel about the young ballerinas Degas used to paint and sculpt. Set in the seedy side streets of Belle Epoque Paris, this book tells the desperate story of three sisters who must find their way to survive in the dark world of the Paris demimonde.

The Painted Girls is based on the true story of the van Goethem sisters who danced at the Paris Opéra in the late 1870s and early 1880s. They lived on the slopes of Montmartre on rue de Douai, and after their father died, they had to scrounge for a living as best they could.

Although they were not classic beauties, the van Goethem sisters were talented enough to earn a place among the other novices, the “Petit-Rats” of the Paris ballet. But they still had to supplement their meager earnings with grueling jobs as laundry women or early morning bread makers. Soon, the younger sister Marie had a better opportunity.

The Paris Opéra

The Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

A regular at the opéra, Edgar Degas noticed skinny young Marie, the middle van Goethem sister, and asked her to model for him. She was honored to accept and relieved to earn extra money for the family. She was thrilled at the prospect of seeing her likeness at the Fifth and Sixth Impressionist Exhibits in 1880 and 1881.


Little Dancer Age 14, Wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON. Bronze copies were made after Degas’ death, including the one at the Musé d’Orsay in Paris.

The modeling scenes are some of my favorites in the book. Degas’ studio on rue Fontaine was just around the corner from Marie’s home in the 9th arrondissement. It is in that studio, overflowing with canvases, paints and pastels, that Degas began the sketches for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, as well as numerous charcoal and pastel sketches of young Marie.

Cathy Buchanan’s website contains images of all of the artwork mentioned in the book. You can click on an image and read a related quote from the book. It’s just wonderful.

But there’s so much more to The Painted Girls than pleasant little scenes in Degas’ art studio. In fact, there is very a dark side to the van Goethem sisters’ lives. The oldest sister Antoinette gets involved with a violent young man of the streets, and Marie is singled out by one of the wealthy older patrons of the Opéra known as abonnées. The reader knows exactly where Marie’s relationship with Monsiuer Lefebvre is heading, that such gifts and favors are never bestowed without a price.

The sisters’ fall from innocence is tragic but not utterly without hope. In one particularly moving scene, young Marie is in despair, and raises a timeless question:

I want to put my face in my hands, to howl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world. For there is a cost. . . . Would they say there is no cost, not so long as a girl takes no more than what a man decides her flesh is worth?

Both sisters make troubling choices, and find themselves even more deeply involved in the demimonde of Paris. When Antoinette’s love interest is arrested and accused of murder, the sisters’ conflicting loyalties nearly tear them apart. Can their family repair the damage and find a way to survive the poor, dangerous streets of Paris, without having to trade what men desire?

It’s an excellent read, although some might find the story drags a little during the criminal trials of Antoinette’s love interest, which could have been condensed down to one trial instead of two. However, that minor flaw still shouldn’t discourage you from seeking out and thoroughly enjoying this otherwise riveting book.

And when you’re done with the book, go back and enjoy more Cathy Buchanan’s website where she has also posted photos from her Paris research trip. I couldn’t create a better literary tour myself!

The Read: The Painted Girls, Highly recommended.

The Paris Tour: Take the Palais Garnier tour, a must-see in Paris. You can make an  Unaccompanied Visit nearly every day, or an English Guided Tour available three days per week. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to catch a ballet performance. Check out their 2012-13 schedule here. Then follow up with a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, where you can see one of the copies of Young Dancer, Age Fourteen, as well as one of my favorites, The Ballet Class. If you have the time to stroll through lower Montmartre, catch the Métro line 2 to the Blanche stop or line 12 to the Pigalle stop and browse through the van Goetham sisters’ old neighborhood.

van Goetham Home: 35 rue de Douai

Degas studio: rue Pierre Fontaine

Degas home: 6 boulevard Clichy

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris


The last home of Edgard Degas from 1912-1917.