This book develops its true story on several levels, which are outlined in the title, war, exile and love. It is the result of a faithful journalist daughter (NY Times) who had heard stories about her mother’s lost love at the beginning of WW II when she was a teen, her mother’s exile when her Jewish family fled France just before the Germans began rounding up French Jews despite the Vichy government’s conciliatory relationship with Germany, her family’s difficult exile first in Cuba while awaiting entry to the U.S. as refugees, and finally, the life she developed with her family in New York City, culminating in her relationship with her American Jewish husband whom she married several years after arriving in the U.S., believing her first true love, a non-Jew left in France, had forsaken her and their vows never to forget one another and to always wait for one another. Leslie Maitland’s mother, Janine, developed an enmeshed relationship with her daughter when unhappy with her husband’s infidelities and obsession with Ayn Rand, so that it seemed like her mother’s story was her own story and she knew minute details as a result, not only of her mother’s relationship with her lost love, Roland, but of the history of the personal effects of WWII on people and the internment in Cuba when they escaped the clutches of the Nazi regime. The author is an investigative reporter and her experience in that genre allowed her to pursue the information she needed to explain to the readers exactly what was happening and when in an historic perspective, as well as personal.
Regarding World War II itself, I don’t think most Americans are familiar with the way Hitler’s Germany conquered and usurped the French government during the war, with the French not fighting back and eventually capitulating to all the demands the Germans made on the French Vichy government. It was a subtle and then not-so-subtle change in laws and protocols that went from confiscating Jewish housing for German officers to eventually the rounding up of Jews to be sent to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Jews in France for a while were able to tolerate the disruptions in their lives, albeit uncertain and frightened of what was to come, because they were not being directly persecuted in terms of being shipped off or placed in ghettos. Most found themselves without jobs and dismissed from schools and having businesses and personal property sold to non-Jews at the Nazi directives, and there were numerous Catch-22s that made life in general frustrating, frightening and difficult. Maitland goes into great detail about her family’s (her grandparents, her parents, her brother and her extended family) trials as they sold their business and their apartment to non-Jews and moved to another town they felt might be safer in France. There came a time, however, when her grandfather became convinced that Jews would soon not be safe anywhere in France and through great effort and much cost (most of which he had to borrow), he arranged papers that would allow the immediate family to travel first to Marseille to board one of the last ships to bring out refugees, first traveling to Casablanca, then boarding another ship to travel to Cuba to await entry into the U.S. Within days of their departure, the Nazis decreed all Jews in France be rounded up to be shipped to concentration camps; her mother’s closest family members who had chosen to remain, believing Maitland’s grandfather was being alarmist, were among those rounded up and did not survive the Holocaust.
I had been unaware of the role Cuba played in helping refugees from Europe escape the Nazis, but it was a mixed blessing for Janine and her family. Because of the U.S.’s decision to limit refugee arrivals, and because of Cuban and U.S. bureaucracies, Janine and her family remained in a refugee camp outside of Havana for almost six months before finally gaining entry into the U.S.
Prior to their escape and exile, Maitland’s mother, Janine, had met and fallen in love with Roland, over a period of several years and encounters. He was not Jewish and as a result, Janine knew her parents would not allow the relationship to go as far as marriage, yet just before she and her family escaped, she and Roland had given each other keepsakes and he gave her a letter swearing his devotion to her and that no matter what or how much time passed, they would be reunited and marry. However, over time, her desire to reunite with Roland was obstructed by the war, and then secretively by her parents and her brother, and she began developing a new American life, including marrying an American Jewish husband. It was a difficult marriage due to his obsession with Ayn Rand and his infidelities and he, in addition, was jealous of the fact that she never truly ceased yearning for Roland, although she tried to not let it be known to him. Later, she attributed her husband’s roaming as part of both his inner insecurities and demons and an attempt to validate his masculinity and being desired with the shadow of Roland lurking in the marriage, including his pictures and letters she’d kept over the years.
Maitland had always been enthralled by the stories of her mother’s forbidden romance and the family’s escape from the Nazis. Throughout her life, she had even wondered what had become of Roland. About 50 years after her mother and Roland’s last encounter as she boarded the ship to freedom, Maitland traveled to France and learned about him and what and why he had lost touch with her mother and then, in the end, reuniting them, although this wasn’t as simple an ending as it sounds.
I have always been fascinated by how people cope with great tragedies in their lives and horrors that might be inflicted on them as a result of war or great natural calamities, and this book, in its detailed description of life in France during Nazi occupation fulfilled that interest, as did the six month internment in Cuba. The love story for me, was actually the lesser story, but the author ably wove world history and personal history into the book in a way that made a lot of sense and explained a lot through the personal story of why and how many Jewish Holocaust survivors managed their lives in their new environments. I recommend the book if the reader is interested in these situations as well, not just for the “love story.”