‘Crossing the Borders of Time’: a Tale of Reclaimed Love Lost Amid WWII

May 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Leslie Maitland speaks with Margaret Warner about her new book, "Crossing the Borders of Time," which chronicles the story of a 15-year-old Jewish girl raised in Germany as the Nazis came to power and her star-crossed romance with an older French Catholic man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, on this Mother’s Day weekend, a true story of escape from the Nazi war machine, and love found, lost, and finally reclaimed.

Margaret Warner has our book conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: At the center of this story is Janine, a 15-year-old Jewish girl raised in Germany as the Nazis come to power and her star-crossed romance with Roland, a French Catholic four years her senior.

In 1938, Sigmar and Alice Gunzburger and their three children, Norbert, Janine and Trudi, set out on what would be a five-year odyssey to find sanctuary.

From Freiburg on the edge of the Black Forest, the Gunzburgers fled to the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. As the German occupation advanced, the family moved from one northeastern town to another, then to Lyon, and the port city of Marseille, where they boarded one of the last boats carrying European Jews to safety.

After stops in Casablanca and Cuba, in 1943, they finally arrived in the United States.

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Janine and Roland met in Alsace, and again in Lyon, where their love grew. But they were separated when the Gunzburgers sailed away from France. Despite vowing to find each other after the war, they lost all contact.

In 1946, on a blind date in New York City, Janine met the man she would marry, American Leonard Maitland. Two children and 43 years of marriage later, Leonard is dying.

And Janine and Leonard’s daughter, Leslie, had begun her own odyssey to trace her mother’s story. Through her research and travels, she learns that Roland is alive and living in Canada. In 1991, nearly 50 years after they last saw each other, Janine and Roland reconnect.

Now Leslie Maitland, a former New York Times reporter, has chronicled their story and their times in the new book, “Crossing the Border of Time.”

Leslie Maitland, thank you for having us.

This book of yours reads partly as a romance, and partly as a detective story. What made you want to unearth all of this, and also to reconnect your mother with this long lost love of hers?

LESLIE MAITLAND, Author: Well, Margaret, I had grown up all my life fascinated and spellbound by my mother’s stories of war, escape and lost love. I can hardly think of a time in my life that I did not know about the handsome Frenchman she had left behind.

And so there came a time when my father was ill, and I started thinking about Roland. It came at a time when I was already researching her past in the hopes of doing some extended writing about that period. And it dawned on me that there was one big aspect of her past that might be accessible.

MARGARET WARNER: This book is packed with history. Why?

LESLIE MAITLAND: I felt it was really, really important to take this one family and the gradual changes in Germany that led them to have to flee from a home that was comfortable and prosperous to cross the Rhine to a place where they knew no one and she had to assume a new identity, and this one love story, and to set it against the context of the times.

And I really felt a mission in a way to bring that time period alive and to let people understand what it was like for people living through all of that and the ramifications that it had on individual lives.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us the story of how what had really been a schoolgirl crush did blossom into a mature relationship when they happened to remeet in Lyon.

LESLIE MAITLAND: You know, I think that, for her, living surrounded by chaos, madness and war and danger, I think that this love became a kind of cocoon in which she — or blinders in which she could hide from everything that was going on around her. Love became the most important thing.

MARGARET WARNER: The war comes to an end within — the war in Europe, I think, within a year of — they arrive in the states. And yet she and Roland never reconnect. Why?

LESLIE MAITLAND: When they finally got to New York, unbeknownst to my mother, her father, Sigmar, the very authoritarian German father, was finding Roland’s letter when they came in the mail and was hiding them, destroying them, and not telling them — not telling his daughter about them.

And when she received no letters from him, she assumed that he had forgotten her.

MARGARET WARNER: And why was this, because he was Catholic?

LESLIE MAITLAND: I think partly it was because he was Catholic, and I think that my grandfather, in the wake of the Nazi years, felt a kind of — I guess an intensification of his Jewish identity.

And the family, having been dispersed during the war years, finally for everybody to be together, for her to go back to Europe was very threatening to him.

MARGARET WARNER: Instead, she marries a very handsome, but difficult man, your father. What was that like?

LESLIE MAITLAND: He was a dashingly handsome, as you say, intelligent man whom she — she was entranced by him in her own way.

But I think that the fact that she always had this idealized longing for the love that she had left behind in Europe had a terrible effect on both of them, in a way, because my father knew that there was this other man in the background, a man who could do no wrong because he was no longer a part of daily life.

I thin, as time went on, he sought to make her jealous in ways that might catch her attention.

MARGARET WARNER: But, as he lies dying, you decide to return to Europe and ferret out Roland. Why did you choose that moment to do that?

LESLIE MAITLAND: The town where she came from had invited former Jewish residents back for meetings of reconciliation.

And so there was this set moment where people were coming to meet and discuss the Nazi years in the town with teachers and students and officials and to try to come to grips with the past. In fact, one night sleeping in my grandfather’s former home in the house where my mother had been born, the past seemed very present. And I decided, well, the past is not a thing forever gone. The past is just waiting to be found. Faces lined by years are waiting to be recognized.

And so. . .

MARGARET WARNER: So it was irresistible, then, to try to also track him down?


MARGARET WARNER: So they finally, due to your efforts, reconnect.

LESLIE MAITLAND: I went to France. And I just started searching. And, eventually, I found his sister.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s living in Canada. They then have a whole ‘nother chapter to their lives. Just describe that.

LESLIE MAITLAND: Well, he called her, thanks my visit to his sister, about three months after my father died. And they began a conversation that became a ritual. And for a year, they spoke on the telephone.

She felt that, in deference to my father’s memory, she should wait a year. Very suddenly, at the end of a year, she announced to me that she was flying to Montreal.

MARGARET WARNER: So they managed to see each other quite a bit.

LESLIE MAITLAND: Every six weeks, he would come and spend about two weeks with my mother. And that went on for about 15 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet they never married. Why?

LESLIE MAITLAND: When they reconnected, Roland was married. He had married, as he put it, kind of despairing of ever falling deeply in love again.

And yet both he and my mother felt that it would be unfair to his wife at a point when they were in their 70s for him to leave his wife. At the very same time, they both felt that they deserved this one chance of happiness that had been wrested from them so unfairly by war and family and circumstance.

MARGARET WARNER: How does it feel to be a daughter who really made it possible for her mother to find happiness?

LESLIE MAITLAND: On the first day that I ever met Roland, we met at a restaurant near Carnegie Hall in New York, and I saw them sitting at the bar. I felt as if I were watching my daughter on her first date.

I felt, you know, something — just joy that I had managed to bring about this kind of creation. It felt like a creation to see them, this tableau of such perfect happiness. After hearing about this mythologized love all my life, to see — and kissing her hand and her laughing, it was a unique moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Leslie Maitland, thank you so much, and congratulations on your book.

LESLIE MAITLAND: Thank you so very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can start reading “Crossing the Borders of Time” now. We have posted the first chapter on the Art Beat page of our website.