Leslie Maitland’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, endured innumerable losses as her family fled from Germany to France, Cuba, and finally the United States.
But no loss was greater than being ripped apart from Roland, the love of her life. Her mother would speak of last seeing him in 1942 as the boat carrying the 18-year-old and her family to Cuba left Marseille.
“I was mesmerized by her stories of war and lost love,” said Maitland during a Feb. 10 program at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
So enthralled was the former New York Times investigative reporter that in 1989, she traveled to her mother’s hometown of Freiburg on the first leg of what turned out to be her 10-year quest to retrace every meticulous detail of her mother’s exile.
During her explorations, said Maitland, “I felt like I had fallen through a chink in time. I had morphed into my mother.”
She wrote about the trip in a New York Times article; her entire journey is detailed in her book, Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed (2013).
“I heard about Roland all my life,” said Maitland. “My younger brother said he never knew a day without Roland. My friends all knew about Roland. Even with my father she talked about Roland.”
On that 1989 trip, Maitland was accompanied by her parents, husband, two children, and a Times photographer. They and other former Jewish residents had been invited by Freiburg’s mayor, who was eager to show off its rebuilt synagogue and the change of attitude. The reaction to the article, the guilt of the Germans, and her own background inspired her to dig further.
Maitland’s search, she told her audience, uncovered many “side stories” of those who helped her grandparents escape and her family’s close calls and experiences.
After Kristallnacht, her grandfather, a wealthy businessman, tried to get into the United States, where he had two brothers, but couldn’t get a visa. Instead, the family went to France, allowed to take the equivalent of $2.50 each.
They ended up in Mulhouse, where her mother, the former Janine Gunzburger, met and fell “madly in love” with Roland Arcieri Roland, a French-Catholic law student.
Before parting, the young lovers exchanged gifts. She gave him the only possession she had left — a poetry book with handwritten messages. He handed her a bouquet of yellow mimosas signifying remembrance — the yellow also was a symbol of solidarity with Jews — and slipped a note in her pocket, reading, “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone. I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife. Never forget, never doubt.”
As the ship left port, Roland followed in a rowboat until it passed out of sight and Janine “dropped the flowers into the water one by one.”
The romance would later have an impact on Janine’s marriage to the author’s late father, Leonard Maitland, an American Jew Janine married five years after her arrival in the United States. Maitland’s father had affairs throughout the marriage, she said, including one that was “particularly flagrant” when Leslie was 13 that caused the couple to briefly separate.
“He was troubled by the fact that Roland existed between them as the man who could do no wrong,” said Maitland, who added that during her research she developed “a great sense of compassion” for her late father as she read the love letters he had written to her mother before their marriage, and realized he knew “he was marrying a broken-hearted woman.”
On a visit to Mulhouse in search of Roland, Maitland scanned the local phonebook and found a woman with his last name. The woman asked Maitland to come to her apartment the next morning.
Over tea she handed Maitland what she realized was the poetry book her mother had given Roland. Roland had left it with the woman — his sister — before leaving for America in 1947 to find Janine. His sister said he told her, “If some day someone comes for this book, you should give it to them and put them in contact with me.”
“Shivers went through me,” recalled Maitland, who declined to divulge what happened next “because I want you to read the book,” but she hinted at a reunion.
“My mother is 90 and just as obsessed with Roland as the day she left France,” she said.