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.