Book: A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany by Sigrid MacRae (First published in 2014. NEW in paperback, August 2015.)
The year is not over, but I am already betting this will be near the top of my Best Ten Books at A Traveler’s Library for 2015. Pardon me if I gush, but Sigrid MacRae won me over beginning with her prologue, which describes the challenges of writing family history. As you may have noticed, I do a bit of that myself, and putting together oral history, documentation and letters into a real story can be quite a challenge. MacRae has written a family history that reads like a novel. Well done!
After explaining her sources, the questions she had about her young parents, and how different the woman in the love letters is from the mother she knew, she says this:
“What had brought such an unlikely pair together? And where did their eventual alliance leave me? Accidents of history had joined them, and the entangled mysteries of love, sex, and money. How they had shaped me was yet to be determined, but where should the story of two lives whose strands ran separately far longer than they had been knitted together begin?…Tangents , vagaries, shifts, and turns are uncomfortable in the tyranny of chronology, yet history is tyranny too, and the convulsive history of the century that shaped my parents’ lives refused to obey any other imperative.”
These thoughts are familiar to anyone who is dealing with his or her own family history. But I had more questions about her family. Was love so blind that her mother did not understand what a dangerous place Germany was becoming in the 1930’s? How does one continue to love a father who is a Nazi? What prepared her privileged, upper class mother for the incredible struggles she would have trying to leave Germany after the war–particularly with six children? Why did she not leave earlier?
I won’t try to outline how MacRae answers my questions, but she does answer them as well as her own, at least to her own satisfaction. Some may think she is a little too easy on her father, but I admire the non-judgmental way she presents history. Since “history is written by the victors”, we rarely get to read about the life of the dispossessed aristocracy of Germany who had settled in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Those people suffered the same destruction of their lives as the Russian nobility. (Read about the Russian emigres in this book review.)
MacRae’s father, Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene, came from that line of German aristocracy. Some reader’s reviews at Amazon complain about too much time in the book being spent on the von Hoyningen-Huene family–I think of it as the begats–but I was fascinated by the enormous family with its conservative traditions and enthusiasm for learning and culture. They certainly shaped the handsome Heinrich into an intelligent man with a restless, searching mind and a sometimes overly optimistic view of the world. After all, their family had survived upheavals of history before, so surely they could survive the Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazism.
We also rarely hear about the people inside Germany–even in government positions and in military offices–who hated Hitler and all he stood for. Heinrich fell into that category and allied himself with others of like mind. This follows a theme in an earlier book that MacRae co-wrote. That one, about the Germans who resisted–and worked with Americans to defeat– Hitler is called, Alliance of Enemies: The Untold Story of the Secret American and German Collaboration to End World War II.
Aimée seemingly has more concerns about the Nazis than her optimistic husband, and mentions their treatment of Jews, but MacRae drops the subject of the persecution of Jews after the original mention. Of course, she would have no way of knowing what her father thought, how much he knew, whether he was guilty of at least complicity by silence. He was, after all, an intelligence officer–and that means propaganda. Perhaps she is wise to stick to describing the places she knew her father was, the battles she knew he took part in, than speculating about his part in the more publicized result of Hitler’s regime.
Her mother’s life, which started out so ideally–American with wealth travels as she wishes, meets a handsome–well, not a prince, but close– and falls madly in love. They marry and repair to an idyllic farm in the German countryside where they have five children. Then Hitler, World War, Heinrich a soldier, and economic disaster. On a leave, a sixth child, the author of the book, is conceived.
The rest of the story I leave to you to read. The writing is intelligent and lovely. As you read passages from the letters of Heinrich and to a lesser extent from Aimée, MacRae’s father and mother, you can see where the writing genes came from. Heinrich is poetic (in several languages) and as a student of history, his letters are packed with references to important people and events of the past. Aimée writes with a lively, enthusiasm that makes you love her from the start.
Maps and family pictures complete the book’s ability to bring to life this unlikely family in a very unusual time and place. And I found those maps to be calling me to visit some places in Germany that I did not previously know about.
Note: The publisher provided me with the paperback of this book for review. That is standard practice, and has no influence on what I recommend to you.
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