Leslie Maitland Interview by Grover Gardner
Grover Gardner: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Leslie Maitland. Leslie is an award-winning reporter and former national correspondent for the New York Times, who broke stories on the FBI’s undercover Abscam inquiry into corruption in Congress. She also wrote for the New York Times Washington Bureau where she covered the Justice Department. She frequently discusses literature on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, and she is the author and narrator of her book Crossing the Borders of Time, which Blackstone released simultaneously with the hardcover on April 17. Welcome Leslie. Thanks for joining us today.
LM: I’m absolutely delighted to.
GG: This is an amazing story you have written, and for our listeners I want to summarize it briefly. Your mother was an eighteen-year-old Jewish girl in France. She managed to escape the Nazi forces there, eventually made her way to America and started a new life. And yet, for the rest of her life, she cherished the memory of a Catholic Frenchman who she had promised to marry. But she was literally torn from his arms in Marseille as she boarded the boat to escape from the Nazis. It’s an incredible story. It’s a romance. It’s history. It’s politics. It’s a mystery—of what happened to this man and the relationship he had with your mother. When did you first learn about this from your mother?
LM: Actually, I think I almost grew up hearing about this man, all my life. He was always a presence in my mother’s heart, and she spoke of him often. Not only to me, to my brother, to all her friends, almost everyone who knew her. But even, unfortunately, to my father, with repercussions I think that played out thereafter. He was a ghost, in a way, that haunted her life, which she could not put aside.
GG: When did you first decide to start looking into this?
LM: It happened somewhat impetuously. I had gone to Germany and France and had done a piece for The New York Times about traveling along the root of my mother’s escape through Europe. And when I was working on that piece, it began to dawn on me that the past was not really gone. It was just waiting to be discovered—it was like a foreign land and you could actually go there. Because when I went to Germany I searched out and found people who had played an important role, and the history of what happened to the family during the war. The people who took over my grandfather’s business, the people who took over their house, childhood friends of my mother. So many different people that eventually it just dawned on me, like a little lightbulb going off over my head, “how come we never went to look for Roland?” Now I understood that my mother was married and she had obligations—a husband, and children, and parents. And for her to abscond from her life and go search for her lost love must have been difficult. But it surprised me that I had never thought of—in my investigative work—that it never occurred to me to try to track him down. But I suddenly decided to do it in 1990.
GG: When did you decide to actually write a book about this?
LM: Well, you see, I had decided to write a book about my mother’s experiences in the war and the family’s escape before it dawned on me that I could go and look for Roland. So I was there, in Europe, researching that book in which romance would have been very much on the back burner, in part in deference to my father, who was at that point alive and well. But I felt the period itself was so interesting, and what they had gone through was so interesting. Some of it, in fact, had never been written about before. Particularly her experiences in Cuba—the existence of a Cuban detention camp—and all that had never really been covered anywhere before. So I was working on that aspect of it when I suddenly realized that I could go look for Roland, that missing hole in the book—not in the book, in the story, at that point.
GG: Was it difficult to find him? I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because it is a bit of a mystery, as well as a romance.
LM: No. Let me just tell you a little bit of what happened. My entire family had been invited back to the town in Germany, in the Black Forest near the Swiss and French borders, where my mother had been born. And the mayor was very intent on reestablishing connections with the former Jewish community, which of course had either been eradicated or had fled. So he had reached out to whatever remnants of survivors they could track down, and had invited people to come back for meetings of reconciliation with teachers and students and all kinds of people from the town. We were invited, and just before we were about to leave—my parents, my brother, and me—my father fell ill with what soon was diagnosed as a terminal illness. My parents said, “Look, we can’t go, but you should go—it’s just going to be a week so you go and continue your reporting,” which I had planned to do there at that time. “You go and we’ll stay home.” And when I went to Germany by myself, I guess I was in a very saddened emotional state—my father was very ill, I was alone in this town. And very strange things started to happen. I went to the cemetery where my great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents were buried, and I found that neo-Nazi vandals had destroyed all two hundred tombstones, and had gougedthe remnants with swastikas and things. I visited the house where my mother was born and found the new owner still had a Nazi banner on her wall in the very bedroom where my mother had been born. I went to visit the owner of the company who had taken over my grandfather’s business, in the hope of interviewing him, and he threw me out on the street. And gradually a constant accretion of miserable events, at the same time that I knew my father was so ill, just weighed on me so that I felt I had to leave town. I needed to get away for the weekend. Since my flight back to the states was three days off, I thought, “I’ll just cross the border and go to France,” where I had relatives. And it was when I was crossing the Rhine that I realized I was retracing my mother’s steps. She had fled from Germany to France over the Rhine and over that very same spot. Now I was doing so. When she fled, she found Roland, the man she came to love. And so why don’t I do the same thing? So when I landed at my cousin’s house that night, I happened to see a telephone book on the shelf. And at first, just idly, I started looking through it to see if I could find anyone with the same last name as Roland. And when I did, I thought, “Well, it’s time to do what reporters do.”
LM: I’ll just have to start calling these people and see if any of them knows of him. And that’s what happened.
GG: You wanted to narrate this book yourself, and I agreed. Not only because of your familiarity with the places and the people, but also because of the personal nature of the story. I thought that it was wonderful that you were willing to do it. What was it like, sitting down in a studio and retelling the whole story yourself?
LM: I have to thank you because it was a really wonderful experience. Firstly, it gave me a kind of intimacy with the material in a different way than I’d ever had before. And even though when you read and you edit and you rewrite, you fiddle with words here and there, you are hearing it in your mind. The opportunity to read it all aloud, and hear it in that way was special, and different from any way that I had encountered it before. Now in some ways, it gave me a different perspective on it. For example, I would, I think, have put in more periods and had shorter sentences…
LM …if I realized I was going to read it. The other challenge was that I had quite a number of German words, French words, Spanish words, and so each day before I went into the studio, I found myself reaching out to native German speakers—calling Germany each morning to ascertain the exact proper pronunciation to the best of my ability of the German word. So that was a challenge. And differentiating between voices a little bit to the best of my ability. That was another challenge. So it was all very, very interesting, and ironically, you know, I even came across a thing or two that I thought, “Hmm, I hadn’t noticed that before. I think I have to fix this or that in the next edition.”
GG: I was going to ask, did you learn anything new as you were talking to people, as you were researching the book for yourself, for the recording? Did you come across anyone you hadn’t spoken to before?
LM: No, not really, because the people I was mostly reaching out to were people whom I’d interviewed before. For example, the press secretary to the mayor in this town of Freiburg, Germany had over the years become a good friend, so it was he who I called every morning to verify my German pronunciations. Or I would call French cousins. Luckily, I had an editor in New York who was a fluent Spanish speaker. I had spent so long researching the book that I don’t think I was going to come up with any new details or information at that point.
GG: It doesn’t sound like the reunion in Germany was very promising. Did it ever actually come off? It doesn’t sound like the atmosphere was very welcoming.
LM: Actually, it was terrific. It was wonderful, and the town went on to do it about seven or eight times. Each time, you know, as they collected more names of former Jewish residents in the town that they had to track down in different parts of the world, they would hold another one. And it was great. And it was wonderful to see how the town itself was so bent on teaching the students, the younger people, about what had happened during the Nazi years. I met a teacher who said that every year she would give part of her salary to impoverished survivors of the Holocaust. I met a woman who had been honored in Israel among the righteous gentiles because she’d worked to help Jews and was herself sent tothe women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück, for her work in that way. So the town was really working very hard. But as the mayor explained to me, for some of the older people, seeing their former neighbors come back was awkward, and they felt humiliated or, he even said, guilty—that they had stood by passively and watched as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and shipped away.
LM: And in this town, I have to say, it was interesting. It all happened on one day. On October 22, 1940 was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which is a harvest festival. And the Nazis had taken note of the harvest celebration of that Jewish holiday, and had decided to round up every single Jew that they could find still in the town on that day. And so on that day they were all arrested and deported.
GG: Wow. One day.
LM: On one day. As a matter of fact, my grandfather had taken in a widow whose husband had been ejected from the university as a professor by Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, because he had become the rector of the university when Hitler took power. And her home had been taken away from her, and my grandfather took her into his house. She supported herself by giving piano lessons. On that morning in October of 1940, when the Gestapo came to tell her to prepare her little bag because they’d be back in two hours to arrest her, she slit her wrists and died, rather than be deported with the others.
GG: The story seems to have bottomless fascination and details. How did your mother feel about this project?
LM: I think she felt terrific about it, and she accompanied me on a lot of the research. She went with me to Germany, France, and she even went with me to Cuba. We got permission from the US government to go to Cuba, where we tracked down the site of this detention camp that had never been written about before, and that was interesting. I would say the hard part—the really hard part for her, which remains difficult—is my making public the intimate nature of her marriage—the details of her marriage, and the kind of difficulties that arose both because of her enduring love for someone she had lost years before, and because of, really, my father’s obsession with the philosophy of Ayn Rand that really drove kind of a wedge between them.
GG: Thank you so much for talking about the book with us today. Thank you for taking on the task of telling the story yourself. I know it was a very complicated job, with all the languages and things. But I know—I’ve heard it and it’s a beautiful recording and a beautiful personal story. Really, just wonderfully done. We’re very much looking forward to everybody getting a chance to hear this.
LM: Grover, thank you so much. It was really a very special opportunity to be able to do it, and I was delighted to.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in May 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Crossing the Borders of Time
Leslie Maitland is an award-winning former New York Times investigative reporter whose mother and grandparents fled Germany in 1938 for France, where, as Jews, they spent four years as refugees—the last two under risk of Nazi deportation. In 1942 they made it onto the last boat to escape France before the Germans sealed the harbors. Then, barred from entering the United States, they lived in Cuba for almost two years before immigrating to New York.
This sweeping account of one family’s escape from the turmoil of war-torn Europe hangs upon the intimate and deeply personal story of the passionate romance between Maitland’s mother and a Catholic Frenchman. Separated by war and her family’s disapproval, the young lovers—Janine and Roland—lose each other for fifty years. It is a testimony to both Maitland’s investigative skills and her devotion to her mother that she successfully traced the lost Roland and was able to reunite him with Janine. Unlike so many stories of love during wartime, theirs has a happy ending.