Discovering A World Elsewhere

Sigrid-MacRae-Passport-Photo-A-World-ElsewhereThis is the passport picture of the author – me – as I arrived in the U. S. aboard the SS Marine Flasher, an old troop ship ferrying displaced persons from Germany to New York after WWII. Born to an American mother and Baltic-German father killed on Hitler’s Russian front before I was born, I was six the day we landed. According to American law, an older sister and I took my mother’s citizenship, while four older siblings were considered “enemy Aliens,” unwelcome in the States.

George Hoyningen-Huene portrait of Heinrich and Aimée, Paris, 1929.

George Hoyningen-Huene portrait of Heinrich and Aimée, Paris, 1929.

Growing up in rural Maine, reminded in many different ways of my background, I often felt like an outsider. Many years later the discovery of my young parents’ surprising letters became the impetus for a book about the how and the why of my family’s unusual story: A World Elsewhere. One of the questions I hoped to answer: Who were these people, so handsome and assured in this familiar portrait, just setting out in life?

They were the young parents I got to know only years later, from their early letters. My mother’s letter to an American friend after a whirlwind trip to Paris glows with confidence and high spirits.

“I’ve just been to Paris and seen underwear! I want to start on your trousseau. Still, I want to be practical as well as beautiful; send me your measurements! Yes, Paris, four mad and glorious days with Heinrich,” whose cousin George, a photographer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar made this portrait, and took the  young pair round to the entire cohort of artists, designers and theater people in fashionable Paris.

Revolution had brought the cream of Moscow and St. Petersburg salons to Paris, which was having a Russian moment. Some aristocratic émigrés had stashed a few remaining jewels, but most were falling back on whatever talent, style or exoticism they could muster to help make ends meet. The sumptuous underwear for Mary’s trousseau would be stitched together by Russian princesses and countesses down on their luck. “As for the hundred,” Aimée told Mary, “it is yours to buy yourself a temple, the Peacock Throne, or anything else you might like for a wedding present.”

The year was 1929; my parents’ young dreams were still intact.

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