In my earliest memory of a life-long recurring dream, I am not yet 5, sleeping at my grandmother’s sharply-gabled, faux-Tudor house in Bayside, Queens, in a room that I keep reminding myself doesn’t really exist, under a sharply pointed roof. I hear sirens outside, growing louder, finally screaming just beneath my window, and I am terrified. I wrap myself in a blanket and roll under the bed, listening to the murmur of unfamiliar, angry voices, and then I hear my grandmother bark, in cigarette-induced contralto, an angry recitative, “You don’t belong here.” A gruff male voice, thinly tenor, replies, “You are wrong. We may have missed you the last time, but this time we will get you. You cannot escape again.” Grandma’s screams are garbled, but I clearly hear “Run, children,” in German, and I begin frantically scurrying about the house, urging family members, to come with me. But they won’t move. I am weeping, pleading, and I am suddenly paralyzed. I want to run but cannot. I am immobilized and terrified, and then I wake up.
Those of us who grew up in the wake of the German terror in Europe lived tenuously in our parents’ new world, and we shared with them the displacements that came with them in their flight. Their nightmares and pain became ours, their loss left us feeling cheated.
Unlike many of the survivors who became our parents, Leslie Maitland’s mother Hanna/Janine Günzburger, whose story is the subject of Maitland’s remarkable book Crossing the Borders of Time, was generous with her memories. Maitland grew up ingesting details of her mother’s life in Europe, the joys and the agonies that accompanied a childhood punctuated by frequent flights. As German-speaking residents of Alsace and Lorrain, they fled amid shifting, enmity-defined borders, eventually forced out of Europe altogether, finding their way to the United States by way of a three-year sojourn in Cuba.
Maitland chronicles the exhilarating moments of her mother’s delicious, feisty youth and first love as well as the disappointments, the upheavals, the ultimate devastation of losing everything. And in the wreckage, lay communication with Roland, the love of Janine’s life, the man she pledged to adore and promised to find when all the tumult subsided. He had vanished from her reach, and so began a lifetime of regretful longing for what might have been.
As her father lies dying, Maitland, a brilliant, seasoned, journalist, sets out on a journey to reconnect her mother to the man she loved first and loved best, and the quest to reunite the lovers embodies the universal pursuit of serenity that is the consequence of survival we all shared with and inherited from our parents. Her pilgrimage is illuminating,
It’s easy, especially for the children of these survivors who were born into an America of plenty and of relative tolerance, to overlook the aftermath of the survivor’s experience and forget that the great miracle of their having made it through disaster is only the first small step in a struggle for contentment. Having endured a tragedy and lived to tell the tale may be cause for gratitude, but it is also cause for years of self-reproach and self-doubt, of choices ruled by circumstances forged in the fires of hell. Survivors’ guilt is a deep, multi-layered cloak they all bore without relief, and we rarely have the opportunity to examine its carefully-woven threads.
What makes Maitland’s book so affective is the fact that she tells it with no manipulations. The emotion comes from the action, from the characters — her real-life antecedants — themselves, and it is honestly reported, forthrightly delivered. There is no whine of self-pity for any of her various subjects, only a persistent will to live on and to find happiness, whatever that may have been. In their desire for joy, the people in this book overcome multitudinous obstacles, but they never stop to question whether satisfaction is worth having. They keep on keeping on, and in that they are heroic.
There are few books about the time period called The Holocaust that so effectively describe life in the shadow of Hitler and the Nazis. And part of Maitland’s effectiveness comes from the emotional restraint she exerts over every page. Like Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List, Maitland writes with unwavering objectivity, even when speaking of personal and deeply felt family history.
Which gives the story a power and a glory all its own.