Interview with Leslie Maitland

  • Interviewed by Annette Gendler
  • March 14, 2013

Leslie Maitland’s Crossing the Borders of Time is a story that is too good to be true: a saga of escape and survival and of star-crossed lovers, separated by the Holocaust and family intervention.


Leslie Maitland will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 22, 2013. GBF13.

Fascinated since childhood by her mother’s enduring love for the Catholic Frenchman she’d hoped to marry but lost in 1938, Leslie went in search of him five decades later.

Leslie Maitland is a former award-winning reporter and national correspondent for The New York Times. 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. Since leaving The Times, she began extensive research for this nonfiction book.

Q&A with Leslie Maitland

Crossing the Borders of Time is an extraordinary story because it is true. However, writers of family memoirs often struggle with writing about people near and dear to them, and worry how those people will feel when private details are revealed. Did you struggle at all with this? Did you consider taking the easier route of fictionalizing it?

 

You are certainly correct that writing about one’s family gives rise to serious complications. There are obvious risks that feelings will be hurt or that the very people one loves most will feel their privacy has been invaded. To be sure, Crossing the Borders of Time is not a book I could have written in my father’s lifetime, and not only because his death profoundly affected the course of the story. As you know, the reader learns about it in the opening sentence: “During the fall that my father was dying, I went back to Europe and found myself seeking my mother’s lost love.” But even had my father’s death not been central to the story’s outcome, the intimate details of his life, especially, would have been difficult to reveal were he still living. And I can’t imagine writing about my mother’s enduring love for another man if my father were still alive. That’s the reason that my initial concept of the book frankly did not include a search to find my mother’s long-lost love.

Nonetheless, as you suggest, I did struggle with questions of privacy from beginning to end, all the way to the Author’s Note. But I never once considered fictionalizing my mother’s life. For starters, as a journalist, I felt a responsibility to the facts and the history that gave rise to my family’s particular experience. Real people suffered, and real people died; I owed it to them to tell their story. It would have seemed a negation of the value of their lives to substitute fictional characters for the true victims.

Across the board, my determination was unswerving to recreate as precisely as possible what occurred in the lives of individuals as well as on the world stage, in terms of the historical context that governed everything. And in this, I felt ultimately rewarded, because research affirmed the adage that the truth can be more remarkable than fiction. I uncovered details that I never would have dared invent, believing them improbable. I was helped and blessed, of course, by the fact that my grandparents and my mother had, through many decades, scrupulously saved such a vast collection of letters, documents, and pictures that it would have seemed a sacrilege not to use them faithfully. Lastly, though, I have to note that I did change about five names in the story in order to protect the privacy or feelings of those involved, including their descendants.

 

Betrayal plays a large role in your book. You had me wondering whether great love, especially across ethnic boundaries, is not possible without betrayal. What do you think?

 

I don’t feel comfortable in drawing that general conclusion. The story does include numerous instances of conflicted loyalties and betrayals, both within the circle of the family and, writ large, in the policies of the countries that I describe. For instance, shocking three-quarters of the 75,000 Jews deported from France to Nazi death camps in the Holocaust were arrested not by Germans, but by French policemen. On the more personal level, the betrayals I reveal were also influenced by the larger context of the times – the fears that it aroused and the compromises it engendered.

What does the story tell us about great romantic love?

I think my mother’s story illuminates the concept that great romantic love – the sort of love that gives rise to myths and literature, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet and many others – is by its very nature star-crossed love, thwarted in its longing for permanence. In reality, the intense passion that fuels the most romantic stories is difficult to sustain at the same emotional peak and fervor through a lifetime of contented marriage, childrearing, and mundane household chores and worries. By contrast, as a result of their unwilling separation, Roland remained forever young, unblemished, and idealized in my mother’s mind. It would have been hard for any real man who became her husband – including Roland, I suspect – to compete with that idol of her fantasies. Couples who ride off into the sunset eventually have to pitch a tent, and that’s when squabbles start. Yet the absent lover remains forever a perfect object of desire. Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World explores this subject very well.

 When I started to read your book, I was curious how you would manage to write about your mother’s first love even though you are not that man’s daughter. How did you reconcile for yourself that you were looking for your mother’s first love at the very time that your father was dying? How did you approach your writing to do him justice?

 

My challenge in writing Crossing the Borders of Time was to narrate the story with the objective honesty of a journalist, even as I also attempted to inhabit the “characters” with sufficient subjective empathy to share their feelings and experiences and then describe them. In the chapters where I attempted to portray a young Roland, I sought to encounter him as my mother had.  I put myself into the spirit of a soulful teenage girl who falls instantly in love for the first time with a beautiful and sensitive young man and places him at the center of her universe. But you’ve really hit on something here because, in answering your question, I realize that when I first began to write the book, I didn’t start at the beginning, but at the point where I introduce the youthful Leonard, who would become my father. His chapter, “The Lion and Miss America,” was actually the first one that I wrote, although I knew its place in the finished book would not come until the middle. I guess I felt I had to do him justice first – an extraordinary man in so many ways – before I could permit myself to write a word about Roland. Dad was also a character who leaped onto the page: handsome, dynamic, brilliant, mercurial, opinionated, charming. I could go on and on. And one way I did him justice was to allow him to speak for himself, through excerpts from his jaunty letters and through pictures that showed him as the lady-killer that he was.

As to searching for Roland while Dad was dying, that happened so spontaneously that I can’t say I cogitated about it one way or another until it was too late to change my mind. Then I did feel somewhat guilty – not so much because my father had been diagnosed with a fatal illness, but because I was doing it behind his back. Later, when I had time to reflect upon it, I realized that my father would have probably applauded what I tried to do for Mom. He firmly and vocally believed in seizing happiness in life as the purpose of existence and in striving to attain whatever will accomplish that. While I did not always agree with his point of view, especially when he championed the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I must say he was not a hypocrite.

 

Large parts of your book are written from your mother’s point of view. Did you ever question your authority to do that? Did you ever fear you were betraying your mother in telling the story of her long lost love? Especially when you describe her in intimate sexual situations?

 

Mom and I have always been so close that I never questioned my authority to speak from her point of view. She freely shared it with me, both informally throughout our lives and quite formally, in sitting down for in-depth interviews. I never felt that I was betraying her in telling her story, because she fully endorsed the project and assisted me in countless ways. She traveled with me to Germany, France, and Cuba on reporting trips, and she spent innumerable hours translating complicated documents and letters, many of them written in Sütterlin, a virtually indecipherable form of Germanic script that was outlawed by the Nazis in 1941.

No doubt, she was brave and generous in allowing me to write so openly about the troubles in her marriage, and because she is in fact a private person, somewhat shy, I’m sure the sexual scenes made her uncomfortable.  At her request, there were a few things I cut out to satisfy her modesty. But everything that relates to her personal life is based entirely on what she shared with me.

 

While your book is, on the one hand, a story about escaping the Holocaust, the thrust of the story is about what happens afterwards, about the wounds that affect the present. How are lives rebuilt in a new world? And how does the past affect the next generation? I’m wondering whether this story of a love reclaimed that was torn apart by World War II is a way of triumphing over the past?

 

For millions, of course, the dead and those who mourned them, there could be no victory. Yet I agree that for the lucky who survived, building a new life in the wake of tragedy represented a kind of triumph over the past. In that sense, for example, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel for many Jews embodied a profoundly meaningful response to the horrors of Nazi Germany. But even in triumph, the wounds of the past leave scars. The generation that escaped the Holocaust – losing everything, struggling to re-establish their identities – built new lives upon foundations of painful memories. Some, like my grandparents, kept silent about what they had endured. Others, like my mother, shared their stories and their feelings. For those who came after, myself included, as I say in the book, “Unsuspecting, we fall into the plot of time and try to piece the past together. We puzzle over mysterious scars, we catch the scent of doubt in the air, and we stumble over relics of dreams that litter the intimate family landscape.” In my case, I became so transfixed by my mother’s past that I determined to travel there to excavate that landscape.

 

 Your book is such an engrossing love story that your readers might gloss over all the historical facts you put together in order to find out what happened to Roland and Janine, and I have to confess I had to read the end first before I could settle into the rest of the story. Why was it so important for you to research and then tell the wider history of your mother’s family?

 

From the outset, research revealed that my own historical knowledge of the period was sketchy and ill informed, particularly in regard to the war years in France and the role of the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain.  If I, as the daughter of a refugee, had so very much to learn, then surely others would benefit from a broader understanding of the period. That was the beginning. But more importantly, I came to see that everything that happened in my mother’s life was only comprehensible in the given context. Even her love for Roland reflected that. Starved for intimacy in the strict traditional upbringing of her German childhood, she found the first real closeness she’d experienced in her relationship with him. And her subsequent obsession with Roland enabled her to close her eyes to the dangers that encircled her. Beyond that, as I researched the lives of others whose paths had intersected hers, those side stories became illuminating. What happened to the Catholic priest who tried to help the family escape? Why did our French cousins believe that they were safe and refuse to flee, only to end their lives at Auschwitz? The larger history grew increasingly significant to me. Indeed, my vision of the book began to grow, and it became my mission to use my mother’s story as a kind of golden thread to take the reader through that fateful period. Lastly, in view of all the death and suffering of those years, I could not pretend that the separation of two young lovers, however sad, was the greatest misery on record. By fully tracing my mother’s journey through World War II, I hoped to preserve and honor the stories and the sacrifices of countless others.

 

You made several trips back to Freiburg, the town in the Black Forest region of Germany where your mother’s family was from. I’ve done the same in traveling back to the town in the Czech Republic where my father’s family was from. Like you, I went back to verify historical events, but I’ve always felt a strange sense of belonging that, after a few days of being there, turns into a sense of estrangement. After all, it is not my town, so why should I be compelled to be there? I was wondering whether you have felt the same, whether some of your family’s Germanisms came full circle for you when you went there, and whether you asked yourself, at some point, about the power a place has over us, even a place that we never lived in.

 

How right you are! Especially on the visits that I made alone to Freiburg, I was susceptible to feeling that I had somehow morphed into my mother’s younger self, or that I had fallen through a chink in time back to the years she had described so vividly. I felt very much at home, and having grown up hearing the Badisch dialect of southwest Germany spoken all around me, even strangers’ voices, sounding so familiar, filled me with nostalgia. Little by little, I made lasting friends in Freiburg, including the grandson of the man who took advantage of Hitler’s Aryanization plan in 1938 to acquire my grandparents’ home in order to enlarge his neighboring hotel.

Still, at points, I confess I felt resentful when I passed the home or business that had rightfully belonged to my grandfather. It was overwhelming to visit the lonely graves of my great-grandparents and to realize that, having died before the Nazi era, they would not have imagined why so few members of their family would ever come to pay them homage. In the end, my search to find Roland came about as a direct result of my intense experiences in Freiburg. I was staying in my mother’s former home, had been forcibly ejected from my grandfather’s former business, and had witnessed the desecration by neo-Nazis of the small graveyard where my great-great-grandparents lay buried. In that week by myself in Germany, the nearness of the past became absolutely real, but terrifying. And so, following my mother’s path of escape across the Rhine, I fled to France and found myself in search of my mother’s long-lost love. I suddenly understood that faces lined by years were waiting to be recognized. The rest is history.

Interviewer Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago

 


 

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