- - Monday, September 29, 2014



By Sigrid MacRae

Viking, $27.99, 310 pages, illustrated

This is one of those books that operates on two distinct levels. On the one hand, it is the story of Aimee Ellis, a young American woman who falls in love with and marries Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene, a Baltic aristocrat, goes to live in pre-Hitler Germany and stays there for the next two tumultuous decades. It is also a window onto — and a reminder of — the tremendous displacements of populations as a result of the 20th-century’s cycle of wars, revolution and all manner of upheavals.

So it is both a highly personal account, with a particular protagonist — this book’s author, her daughter, would say heroine perhaps, but I would not — front and center, and a valuable historical testament.

In many ways, Aimee seems the prototypical American innocent abroad so familiar in literature from Henry James on. A thrilling holiday in Europe becomes a romantic dream when she meets a handsome, exotic man who turns out to be her destiny in all sorts of ways. If they had chosen to live in her home country, theirs might have been an ordinary tale of a devoted couple with six children.

Having lost both parents at an early age and not having been especially happy growing up in Hartford, she was looking for something, somewhere else: “Never, she had told the woman on shipboard asking when she planned to return to America.” By the 1940s, she would be desperate to do so, but in the interim the private demons that made her want to turn her back on America were to be dwarfed by the more public ones that would devastate her and her family.

She is yet another of those whom Leon Trotsky might have been thinking of when he remarked that although people weren’t interested in history, history was interested in them. Europe was not just full of the castles James deplored that America lacked, but also replete with sinister latter-day monsters way beyond the ken of an innocent Connecticut girl.

Despite her husband’s quintessentially German name, he too was an exile, one of a large number of Baltic Germans, resident in the Russian Empire since the days of Peter the Great, sent packing after the Russian Revolution. As Ms. MacRae writes, “They were both refugees, she from America, he from a lost world that now existed only in memory.They shared an outsider status, though she had volunteered for this part of it. Her life was now more of an expatriate than that of an exile; she was only as cut off as she wanted to be.”

After Heinrich meets an ironic death fighting with the Wehrmacht in his native country, Aimee finds her position much altered: now exile rather than expatriate, and enemy alien to boot. Fate was cruel to her, not just in the loss of her husband, but in trapping her in Europe. Although offered the opportunity to repatriate after Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, she would have only been able to take her two oldest children back home. The vagaries of law back then denied her four youngest children, one of them a recently born infant, American citizenship, unlike their older siblings. How could she have abandoned them?

For the next few years, hers is a true tale of woe and extreme hardship in wartime Germany, followed by still more trouble in the form of a flight westwards away from Soviet troops and their hideous occupation. Although she and her family do eventually, after much trial and tribulation in the Western zones of occupation, reach the United States some time after the end of the war, this relatively happy ending is overshadowed by the terrible years before. Readers would have to have the proverbial hearts of stone not to sympathize viscerally and be moved by Aimee and her story.

And yet and yet. This is vitiated by the dog that does not bark in this book; namely, the Holocaust, which must needs make itself felt in such a tale in such a time. Although Ms. MacRae has been careful to show her mother’s lack of anti-Semitism, what was actually happening to Jews all around her is only tangentially referred to early in the war and not after the extermination began or its terrible dimensions become known. The little we get from Aimee leaves a distinctly uncomfortable feeling:

“When she first heard talk about German atrocities, she remembered seeing an exhibit of the work of a Dutch cartoonist [whose lurid drawings] had become a British wartime propaganda staple. This seemed like more of the same. Mention of “KZ” — concentration camp — conjured up images of camps such as Dachau, where dissidents, clergy, communists and a number of higher-ups had been putting in time since 1933. When they began to round up Jews, she asked why, where were they being taken? A thumb jerked eastward. ‘Somewhere back there.’ The questions remained, but questions were dangerous. Better to be blind, deaf and dumb.”

One cannot expect people to act like heroes when the cost can be unspeakable. However, this book milks the readers’ sympathy for Aimee and her children, and when there is such willful indifference to infinitely greater suffering and injustice raging all around, empathy is hard to feel for those who have so little for others.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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