By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
A former New York Times reporter who broke the “Abscam” story on bribery in Congress, Leslie Maitland’s latest investigative project was more personal.
Maitland’s book, Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, struck a chord with readers through the telling of a story that mixes the plotlines of Schindler’s List and Casablanca.
Janine Gunzburger, Maitland’s mother, was a 15-year-old Jewish girl in Germany when the Nazis came to power. Growing up in New York, Maitland frequently heard her mother’s World War II stories of escapes, strange places, mystery, love, and fear, and dreamed of compiling those stories into a book.
In one poignant anecdote from Crossing the Borders of Time, Gunzburger—as her family prepares to embark across the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba in its effort to escape—gazes into the eyes of her star-crossed lover Roland, a French Catholic four years her senior, for what could have been the last time. But it wasn’t, as Maitland, through her research, managed to reunite Janine and Roland after 50 years apart.
After the book’s release in April 2012, Maitland received numerous letters and e-mails from fans around the world.
“People contacted me who remembered my family in Germany,” Maitland told JNS.org about the reaction to her book. “An 80-year-old man sent me a picture of himself as a 5-year-old boy in one of my grandfather’s trucks. In the book, a German soldier in a little French town called Gray wanted to marry my mother to save her. A relative of that soldier contacted me over the Internet saying she was related to that particular soldier. It’s been amazing.”
While on her book tour, Maitland recently gave a reading at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. Lisa Shorney, who is on the staff at Anderson’s and worked the night of Maitland’s presentation, said, “Clearly this book was a labor of love.”
“Leslie Maitland retraced the steps of her grandparents,” Shorney told JNS.org. “It took her 10-12 years and is incredibly and meticulously documented. Her son, who has a background in historical documentation at the University of Chicago, helped as well. The book is a great example of narrative non-fiction. Someone who would not necessarily pick up a non-fiction title would enjoy Maitland’s storytelling and pick up a lot of history in the process. I also particularly like the fact that her grandfather, who did not care about material possessions, took great comfort in carrying around a suitcase full of documents of his life, proving who he was. This was extremely important to him.”
Maitland knew just what to do with those documents, having specialized in legal affairs during her reporting career. She had joined the New York Times after graduating from the University of Chicago and then Harvard Divinity School. Maitland would begin extensive researching for Crossing the Borders of Time after leaving the newspaper, including five reporting trips to Europe and one to Cuba, but the book actually began as a story for the New York Times back in 1989.
“In 1989, the city where my mother was born, Freiberg, Germany, invited Jewish former citizens to come and visit the town,” Maitland told JNS.org. “There was a wonderful mayor there who had embarked on a reconciliation program. My family decided to go back to Germany to trace my mother’s path of escape through France. I wrote the piece called ‘A Bittersweet Pilgrimage’ for the Times. I received so much reader mail I decided to go back the next year.”
After writing another piece for the New York Times, she decided to embark on the book project. Now, with book in hand, Maitland reads it at public presentations across the U.S. and Canada.
“I’m getting letters from people of all different backgrounds. Of course, a lot are Jews. I’ve been speaking in Jewish community centers and synagogues but also in book stores where there are some non-Jewish audiences,” she said. “Their reactions are the same: amazement.” Lynn Gittleson, book festival director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, told JNS.org that Maitland’s presentation there last November “was very inspiring.”
Maitland said she realized through her research that the “star-crossed love [of Janine and Roland], however interesting, was certainly not the greatest tragedy of World War II or the Holocaust.”
“I wanted to tell their story against the broad historical context of the period,” she said. “The more I read and did research, the more I realized that I myself did not know about the details. For example, how the French collaborated with the Nazis. Then my mission started to grow and I realized that what I wanted the story to do was to shed light on the entire period and all the different types of people who got caught up in it, and the rippling effects throughout the broad society.”
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