A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany by Sigrid MacRae
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The book is a narrative of the author's parents that she pieced together through letters her mother gave her. Sigrid discovered a very different snapshot of the parents she knew and put their choices and circumstances into a different perspective. It was also a different perspective for this reader. Sigrid paints a picture of her mother's lonely, motherless childhood, feeling exiled and apart. Although affluent, she lacked connection with family beyond an uncle that gave her much love and laughter. It is not difficult to understand how Aimée makes her decision to join the big, wonderful family of Heinrich, a displaced Russian living in Germany, and add to their family and love.
Heinrich's family history is much more difficult to grasp as my Russian history comprehension is spotty, at best. Yet understanding this history is key to understanding Heinrich's decisions. The short version is that the family were tsarists at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. To survive they had to leave their beloved family home and settle in a new country, leaving nearly everything behind. They were displaced and hungry yet grateful to be together. Papa, highly educated and experienced, took a menial job in a toothpaste factory. Heinrich was sent to Sorbonne as a hope for the future where he met and married Aimée, eventually earning a Ph.D. Fluent in four languages, greatly educated and highly driven, he was unable to find work. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was in full force. Politically, the Versailles Treaty had left Germany impotent and the people helpless and hopeless, the perfect breeding ground for a man like Hitler.
Heinrich was driven to reclaim his ancestral home in Russia which led him the Russian front. The man was a cock-eyed optimist and go getter with the solid belief that it would work out. What he discovered in Russia was also eye opening. Conscripted Russians were little more than men and boys with no idea why they were fighting. Russia was far from unified and they only soldiered up to not be shot as traitors. On the German side, it became clear that Nazi was a political party but that the Germans on the Eastern front were not Hitler advocates. Their objective was not to take over the world or Aryanize Russia. They believed in Germany and her future but already knew Hitler was a crackpot. Yet reclaiming ancestral land was a noble objective. Driving closer to Moscow was taking it too far but they were already in too deep. The rest is history, as they say.
The second half of the book had me completely hooked. I much preferred the narrative of Aimée and her plight to save her six children and herself. Finding herself on the potentially Russian side of Germany, she had many obstacles to overcome. Her American citizenship gave her no reprieve. Worse, to many she was a traitor. This was interesting since Aimée's life consisted of little more than caring for her family, her farm, and wearing herself out at home. Politics were peripheral to survival. Yet this woman, who began as a somewhat spoiled girl , who found solace in extended family, joy in creating her own family, showed grit that in the worst of circumstances with an eye single to protecting her children.
A very good book. Second half much more engaging but first half is necessary for author to understand her father and her parents' early relationship. Beautifully written.