Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sigrid MacRae talks about A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany, how the writing changed her, and so much more

 Many thanks to Viking for giving me this incisive, fascinating interview with Sigrid MacRae about her absorbing new memoir, A World Elsewhere.

Q&A with
Sigrid MacRae, author of
An American Woman in Wartime Germany

A WORLD ELSEWHERE is the extraordinary story of your parents: Aimee Ellis, an American blue blood, and Baron Heinrich Alexis Nikolai von Hoyningen-Huene, a Baltic German exile of the Russian revolution. Heinrich was killed on the Russian front during World War II, leaving your mother with five young children and pregnant with you. Having known this story of your parents for your entire life, what inspired you to share this story now?

SM:  A cascade of coincidences really. For years, various objects acted as small, silent reminders of my family’s background. I had read family memoirs of my paternal grandfather, an uncle, and great-great-great grandmamma. I’d read my father’s letters from Hitler’s campaign in France and his brief diary from the Russian front. But when a beautiful Moroccan box with my father’s letters finally opened, it rattled all my ideas about who he was. And when a rusty old file cabinet yielded a cache of my mother’s early letters to an American friend, tracking her evolution from giddy fiancé to expatriate wife to war widow and refugee, I knew I had the makings of a book. I put everything aside to work on Alliance of Enemies, about the collaboration between German opposition of Hitler and the American OSS, a valuable experience. When I went back to the family material, suddenly everything ganged up on me. The letters had such immediacy, painting indelible portraits of two young people—my parents-to-be—and the war that upended their lives.

Once, when I was a college girl, an elegant older woman looked at me as if she had seen a ghost and said: “You are Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene’s daughter.”
Having grown up in post-war America, where Germans were unregenerate Nazis all, my father, had always been something of the elephant in the room for me. A family icon. but also my personal cross to bear because he was what made me a “Nazi,” and was responsible for the gratuitous grief that came my way on that account. I had been trying to keep that half of my parental equation at bay for years. It was just one side of me after all, and the other side—New England Mayflower stock—was far more acceptable. But after all those years she had recognized me anyway, not for being a Mayflower descendant, thank you, but she had pegged me as the daughter of a father born in Russia into a brutal century, exiled to Germany by the Bolshevik revolution, then dead before I was born. So much for being Miss Mayflower.
Sooner or later I had to deal with my puzzling provenance and it was well past time. I read lots of history, and gradually it began to come together. Being a grown-up helped, as did having spent a professional life as an editor. But stitching the personal onto such an immense canvas was a test.

Your mother, an American who escaped her unhappy childhood by running to Europe and marrying your father, was widowed at 37 and left with six children to raise on her own. While she was brought up as a debutante, she learned to work hard on the land, first in Europe and then once she moved your family to Maine. Did you and your siblings, all successful in your own right, learn the value of a strong work ethic from your mother? Where do you think she found that strength and determination?

SM: Adversity is a demanding teacher, but my mother did not quail—at least not publicly. She absorbed its lessons with an unbeatable combination of maternal instinct and fierce resolve. As a young woman she wrote to a friend:  “life picked me out to spoil,” but then wondered whether life wasn’t going to come along with the bill one day. When life presented her with its bill, she had plenty of opportunity to develop the required muscle.

People are more fluid than we imagine. They, and we too, make assumptions about who and what they are; but they change especially in dire circumstances. Sometimes when I was feeling particularly beset or troubled as an adult, imagining what my mother was dealing with at the same age always made me feel like a marshmallow. When I asked her how she did it, she looked surprised. What was she supposed to do? Sit on her battered suitcase and cry, with all six of us standing around her? As to where she actually got what she used to call “plain gumption,” I still have no ready answer.

As for learning from her, we knew we were all in this together. Babysitting, construction jobs, waiting tables, whatever—nothing elevated or grand that looks good on college applications—we just worked to help pull the weight. There was also plenty of implied expectation that we make something of ourselves, accomplish something.

The family letters you quote from in the book are incredibly vivid and moving.  Talk about how you discovered these letters.  Were there certain letters that you found especially revealing, painful or disturbing?

SM: My father’s letters from France mentioning German aircraft flying in gleaming formation but hardly any French planes at all sounded alarmingly like propaganda to me. Then I read Antoine de St. Exupéry, who was flying reconnaissance for France, and to my relief, his account jibed perfectly. In the air above my father’s head, St. Exupéry also saw so little French aircraft that he said they would fall to the friendly fire that saw only German planes. He deplored France’s chaotic conduct of the war, and he saw the same ribbons of rag-tag refugees my father saw.  In another letter my father wrote of watching the sun-browned bodies of young German soldiers splashing in the water of a fountain in a French village. This really unnerved me, smacking as it did of the adoration Aryan flesh. Yet according to his letters, the local population seemed to agree with him. Then there was the fact that all mail from the front was always censored. Anything critical of the campaign would have been deleted in any case.

Sometimes the letters were disturbing on a different, much larger scale: the devastation of my father’s exiled parents; the hopes and dreams of my young parents falling prey to dreadful realities and then so suddenly extinguished. It could be argued that the extinction of my mother’s dreams gave her what we think of nowadays as a second career—a different take and a new lease on life. 

 Was there anything in the letters or your research that surprised you?

SM: The letters were always utterly surprising; my father-to-be, so young, so vibrant, so confident, amazingly well informed and educated. I cannot tell you how much of his startling presence and character ended up on the cutting room floor when I put the book together. He was also so self-aware, so conscious of the label history had affixed to him. “Miss Mayflower flirting with the Hun” he wrote, knowing the box in which the world had put him, but he engaged this erroneous depiction with such disarming verve and humor. I’d often heard about his charm, but the letters offered immediate, delightful specifics. His touching, faithful recording of the messages of illiterate Russian POWs to their families was devastating, as was his apparently growing awareness of what awaited him, a fate that he had perhaps actually sought… And my mother’s young letters seemed to me to have been written by a person I had never met. Reading the manuscript, my oldest sister thought that the carefree young woman in some of the early letters seemed to be an unrecognizable “flibbertigibbet.”

A WORLD ELSEWHERE is an incredible combination of history and the personal courtship and love story of your parents. It provides a moving personal story within the profound historical framework of World War I, the Depression, World War II, and beyond. Obviously your prime sources were family stories, but there is a huge amount of major history here as well. How and where did you do the research? Was there any travel involved?

SM: Family documents were so important, but it is the fusion of the familiar with a vast historical canvas that tells the sad story here. These people were trapped between the parentheses of brutal century; bringing in enough historical background (I thought of it as “canned Hitler”), without interrupting the personal story was a constant challenge.

Most of my travel was restricted to the New York Public Library. God bless its nearly bottomless supply of books and information! And I was lucky enough to have a place to hang my hat (and keep a shelf of books) at the Library’s Wertheim Study. So many wonderful titles that never leave the library were consistently available to me. Individual titles may not have been critical, but in the aggregate they were invaluable.

Apart from some internet travel back to the Baltics, to the family farm in Germany, even to the Vuoksa River in Finland—some of it extraordinarily evocative—my travel was limited to my mind’s eye. The major exception was a trip to St. Petersburg, part of my ongoing search for “home,” with my Grandfather’s memoir acting as guide. It was fascinating, but yielded only the realization that home was not there anymore.

You were very young when your mother moved the family to her native America. Your older siblings had a very different childhood from yours. Do you feel you were raised in a different world from your brothers and sisters?

SM: Yes and no. My oldest brother is more than 13 years older, and to a considerable extent, my older siblings’ formative years were spent in a very different world. They had real memories of the places and people I remember only as tiny snapshots, with no running narrative. My real memories began en route to America.  But my mother took great pains to keep my father, family contacts, language and cultural patterns alive. One result of this was my feeling of being “in this world, but not of it,” a feeling that was a double-edged sword. Sometimes it still is, but I now appreciate the other edge of the sword. Now it has actually become an advantage, something I never understood as a child

Your childhood without a father must have been difficult. Heinrich’s family was very close; did your mother speak of him and his family that remained in Europe? Did your father’s side of the family visit after your mother moved you to America?

SM:  Being without a father did not feel like a hardship; I was little, I lived in whatever the reality was. I probably never fully realized my fatherless state until I heard cousins consistently talk about their mother and their father. So at 2 1/2, I told my mother: “You are my Mami and my Papi.” My older siblings had lost their father; for them, being fatherless was a very different thing. But they were hardly alone; Germany was awash in fatherless children at that time.

My mother kept my father and the rest of his family very much alive for a long time, writing consistently to everyone, sending packages. She was often in Europe, and took me back for a year when I was 12. She brought aunts and friends to the U.S. Later generations of second cousins and grandchildren came too. Being in New York with an extra bed gives me major points with family visitors.

 How did writing A WORLD ELSEWHERE change you?

SM: I learned that there is not one history, but thousands, a story textbooks will never tell. I learned that life is much more complicated than we ever imagine, especially when large-scale history intervenes. I hope I’ve learned the lesson that walking in another’s shoes is supposed to teach us: compassion, and the importance of trying to understand when thoughtless, knee-jerk judgment is a much easier response.

Oddly enough, I’ve also overcome my vague, if pervasive rootlessness, and discovered that these days, home is not at all what it was for previous family generations, but essentially home-made. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I hope I may also have paid a debt of gratitude to my mother, my father, grandparents—to all who went before, through loss, exile and misery, and endured.  

 What do you hope readers will take away from A WORLD ELSEWHERE?

SM:  An awareness that things are not always what they seem, that there is room on the historical spectrum for more than just black and white. That breaking the appalling cycle of exile, war, displacement and misery that afflicts the world, now as much as then, demands a break from the simplistic, complacent moralism that lurks everywhere.

1 comment:

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

how about Tumbleweed?