Family Memorabilia, History’s Artifact

Album Alt OttenhofThis little album is a piece of history, not just family memorabilia. In 2009, a cousin in Germany received an e-mail from Mr. Imants Lancmanis, Director of the Rundale Palace Museum, a gorgeous, 18th century buttercream palace in Latvia, designed by Rastrelli, architect to tsars,  creator of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. By happenstance Lancmanis had unearthed a family photo album in the museum at Valmiera, (German: Wolmar), not far from Alt Ottenhof, a family estate. The album was being included in an exhibition on the local Baltic aristocracy.

The photos date from the early 1930s, when my father’s younger brother Georg was farming the last 50 hectares remaining to the family after the rest of Ottenhof had been expropriated. The family had convened at Ottenhof for the christening of my brother Michael, born May, 4, 1931.  One photo taken at this time, shows my young father looking intently at his son, who seems to be returning his serious scrutiny. Album Alt Ottenhof 2

In September, 1939, Germany’s Blitzkrieg seized western regions of Poland, and soon after, Stalin seized the east. Then Hitler traded Latvia and Estonia to Stalin in return for Polish provinces now under Russian control. Hitler immediately launched a campaign of massive Hitler immediately launched a campaign of massive dislocation, expelling Poles and Jews from Polish provinces to repopulate them with Germans and “ethnic” Germans uprooted from the Baltics and elsewhere in Europe. Georg and his family were to leave within a week’s time, with the clothes on their backs and one suitcase, to establish a Germanized Utopia in the east.

Straying through the empty house after Georg’s family was gone, did someone pick up the album – just one thing too much to carry? Along a circuitous route, it found its way to an exhibit on the long-gone Baltic aristocracy, one more artifact in the story of war, empty houses, and dislocation.


A deeper look into MacRae’s inspiration to write A World Elsewhere

The box was beautiful. My mother had bought it in Morocco many years ago, and as a child, I admired it in secret, stroking the tiny pieces of mother-of pearl inlay on the surface, dreaming child-dreams, Its ivory keyhole held a key with a striped ribbon attached. Turning the key always produced a soft pling-plong, but never opened the box. Tired of many Maine winters, my eighty-five-year-old mother was moving to Arizona and parceling out her possessions and the memories they held to her children. She now held the box out to me, saying simply: “Your father’s letters.”
I had always suspected that the box held them. Exotic and mysterious, it was the perfect Sigrid-MacRae-A-World-Elsewhere-Letterreceptacle for the treasured relics of a husband long dead and a father I had never known. It contained a chapter of my mother’s life that she had closed long since, one I was reluctant to reopen. The moment was freighted with feeling; her expression suggested things that I was afraid I could respond to only with tears. Neither of us felt comfortable in such emotional territory and we cut it short. I stowed the box tenderly in the car along with the other pieces of her life she had designated for me: a miscellany of books, pictures, rugs, silver. As the car pulled away, she stood, small and contained, the enormous firs by the garage dwarfing her as she waved good-bye. Behind her, morning sunlight skittered across the bay.

At home the box sat—still beautiful, but still steadfastly, stubbornly locked –keeping its secrets. I felt that breaking this family reliquary open by force was wrong. Besides, I was reluctant to discover what the box held. Inside was the person who had changed the shape of my mother’s life, whom my older brothers and sisters loved and remembered, a real person to everyone in the family except me, the youngest. For years his mythical presence had loomed large, but as an absence—an immense absence

My mother died about ten years after she gave me the box of letters, and not long after, turning the key opened it. Inexplicable, I thought, magical, until my husband confessed that he had tinkered with the lock.

After all these years he revealed himself quickly. The voice of my mother’s young lover, so long silent, emerged from his letters like a genie out of a bottle. From the pages of one letter slipped silken, nearly transparent poppy petals of the palest salmon pink—the tender gesture of a long-ago love.

So this was the person who had lurked inside the box all those years: no bland Hartford swain, no dull future captain of an insurance empire. Small wonder my mother was bouleversée when they met in Paris; more than seven decades later, he was charming me.

I began to read. As I came to grips with his loose, generous hand, the father I had never known came spectacularly, breathtakingly alive. Finding sleep after such an introduction was nearly impossible. In the dark I grappled with this vivid interloper I had known only as a kind of household god. His letters destroyed that status completely, shifting the emotional landscape I had established over a lifetime as the child of a single parent. This was the other side of the parental equation. It changed everything, demanding a revision of my views of my mother and a rearrangement of the family constellation.

One letter stood out. Postmarked London, February 11, 1928, it was addressed to my mother in Paris. Their young romance is blossoming quickly. If she will meet him,

“. . . your great wish will be fulfilled: You shall put on your best clothes . . . and we shall go and do something grand and brilliant. Do you insist on my wearing full dress? Won’t this be an historic night: Miss Mayflower flirting with the “Hun.”

Apart from shattering his remoteness completely, the letter put its finger squarely on my puzzling provenance. Clearly the man who had left me his name and his profile was no cliché Hun at all, no bellicose militarist with monocle and bristling mustache, not even absolutely German—as his Russian diary attested. Young, lively, fully aware of the label history had affixed to him, and with an acute sense of humor, he was demolishing all my preconceived notions. The Miss Mayflower he was referring to in impeccable English, though of Mayflower stock, was obviously not my worn, hard-pressed, ever-practical mother, but a carefree spirit, wanting, as she had written him, “to put on my best clothes and go on a bat with you,” adding, “It must be most romantic to have a young and ravishing female creature, head-over-heels in love and following you all over Europe.”

Hessian Girl Postcard

In the winter of 1927-28, my father was working feverishly to finish a PhD. in history at the Hessian-Girl-Sigrid-MacRaeuniversity at Marburg. Hoping to ease their “long, painful separations and rare, hectic meetings” that my mother found so difficult, he crafted a long letter urging her to leave Paris and come to Marburg, enumerating pages and pages of activities, German lessons, excursions to the surrounding countryside, and finally enclosed this postcard of a local Hessian peasant girl in traditional costume as a lure. “Here is a Hessian beauty waiting for you, all dressed up to meet the great lady from overseas,” he wrote. “Her smile is like a spring bud: not quite open yet. Will you make her smile bloom?”

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.

The Family Tree Conundrum

Like many who barely knew their grandmothers – add grandfathers if you like  – I didn’t knowheathen-tree-sigrid-macrae-v3crop mine either. Those on one side were dead long before I was even thought of, the others I was either too young to recall, or were themselves already in the grip of forgetting. But unlike those with no idea who those grandparents really were, or from what town or village in parts unknown they came, I may have too much information: countless photos, memoirs, family trees, recollections, letters. It may not be completely personal baggage but it is baggage nonetheless: a backpack laden with built-in expectations that sometimes feels like a heavy burden and raises a nagging question: Who am I? Does all this make me somehow more of a person than my ignorant counterpart, or does it just tether me to the family tree?

Maybe in this instance, ignorance really is bliss, offering endless freedom for self-invention and the makings of a quintessential American entity: the self-made man. Liberated from ties and expectations, free to ride into the sunset whenever it suits him, he is the unencumbered Marlboro Man of American myth, with an unbounded frontier somewhere offstage, where he can push ahead, can juggle, falter, fail, or where he can change course or persona, can succeed and maybe fulfill the dream. This notion meshes perfectly with the cowboy of yesteryear, whereas I seem to be hemmed in by old world ideas of maintaining a heritage and keeping the faith –whatever that is nowadays. It’s a conundrum…

Interview with MacRae on “A World Elsewhere”

Q&A with
Sigrid MacRae, author of
An American Woman in Wartime Germany

Q. A WORLD ELSEWHERE is the extraordinary story of your parents: Aimée Ellis, an American blue blood, and Baron Heinrich Alexis Nikolai von Hoyningen-Huene, a Baltic German exile of the Russian revolution. Heinrich was killed on the Russian front during World War II, leaving your mother with five young children and pregnant with you. Having known this story of your parents for your entire life, what inspired you to share this story now?

SM: A cascade of coincidences really. For years, various objects acted as small, silent reminders of my family’s background. I had read family memoirs of my paternal grandfather, an uncle, an aunt and a great-great-grandmamma. I’d read my father’s letters from Hitler’s campaign in France and his brief diary from the Russian front. But when a beautiful Moroccan box with my father’s letters finally opened, it rattled all my ideas about who he was. And when a rusty old file cabinet yielded a cache of my mother’s early letters to an American friend, tracking her evolution from giddy fiancé to expatriate wife to war widow and refugee, I knew I had the makings of a book. I put everything aside to work on Alliance of Enemies, about the collaboration between German opposition of Hitler and the American OSS, a valuable experience. When I went back to the family material, suddenly everything ganged up on me. The letters had such immediacy, painting indelible portraits of two young people—my parents-to-be—and the war that upended their lives.

Once, when I was a college girl, an elegant older woman looked at me as if she had seen a ghost and said: “You are Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene’s daughter.

Having grown up in post-war America, where Germans were unregenerate Nazis all, my father, had always been something of the elephant in the room for me. A family icon. but also my personal cross to bear because he was what made me a “Nazi,” and responsible for the gratuitous grief that came my way on that account. I had been trying to keep that half of my parental equation at bay for years. It was just one side of me after all, and the other side—New England Mayflower stock—was far more acceptable. But after all those years she had recognized me anyway, not for being a Mayflower descendant, thank you, but she had pegged me as the daughter of a father born in Russia into a brutal century, exiled to Germany by the Bolshevik revolution, then dead before I was born. So much for being Miss Mayflower.

Sooner or later I had to deal with my puzzling provenance and it was well past time. I read lots of history, and gradually it began to come together. Being a grown-up helped, as did having spent a professional life as an editor. But stitching the personal onto such an immense canvas was a test.

Q. Your mother, an American who escaped her unhappy childhood by running to Europe and marrying your father, was widowed at 37 and left with six children to raise on her own. While she was brought up as a debutante, she learned to work hard on the land, first in Europe and then once she moved your family to Maine. Did you and your siblings, all successful in your own right, learn the value of a strong work ethic from your mother? Where do you think she found that strength and determination?

SM: Adversity is a demanding teacher, but my mother did not quail—at least not publicly. She absorbed its lessons with an unbeatable combination of maternal instinct and fierce resolve. As a young woman she wrote to a friend: “life picked me out to spoil,” but then wondered whether life wasn’t going to come along with the bill one day. When life presented her with its bill, she had plenty of opportunity to develop the required muscle.

People are more fluid than we imagine. They, and we too, make assumptions about who and what they are; but they change especially in dire circumstances. Sometimes when I was feeling particularly beset or troubled as an adult, imagining what my mother was dealing with at the same age always made me feel like a marshmallow. When I asked her how she did it, she looked surprised. What was she supposed to do? Sit on her battered suitcase and cry, with all six of us standing around her? As to where she actually got what she used to call “plain gumption,” I still have no ready answer.

As for learning from her, we knew we were all in this together. Babysitting, construction jobs, waiting tables, whatever—nothing elevated or grand that looks good on college applications—we just worked to help pull the weight. There was also plenty of implied expectation that we make something of ourselves, accomplish something.

Q. The family letters you quote from in the book are incredibly vivid and moving. Talk about how you discovered these letters. Were there certain letters that you found especially revealing, painful or disturbing?

SM: My mother gave me a beautiful box that held my father’s early love letters to her. His letters from France mentioning German aircraft flying in gleaming formation but hardly any French planes at all sounded alarmingly like propaganda to me. Then I read Antoine de St. Exupéry, flying reconnaissance for France, and to my relief, his account jibed perfectly. In the air above my father’s head, St. Exupéry saw so little French aircraft that he worried it would fall to the friendly fire accustomed to seeing only German planes. He deplored France’s chaotic conduct of the war, he saw the same ribbons of rag-tag refugees my father saw. In another letter my father wrote of watching the sun-browned bodies of young German soldiers splashing in the water of a fountain in a French village. This really unnerved me, smacking as it did of the adoration Aryan flesh. Yet according to his letters, the local population seemed to agree with him. And of course, there was the fact that mail from the front was always censored; anything critical of the campaign would have been deleted in any case.

Sometimes the letters were disturbing on a different, much larger scale: the devastation of my father’s exiled parents; the hopes and dreams of my young parents falling prey to dreadful realities and then so suddenly extinguished. It could be argued that the extinction of my mother’s dreams gave her what we think of nowadays as a second career—a different take and a new lease on life.

Q. Was there anything in the letters or your research that surprised you?

SM: The letters were always utterly surprising; my father-to-be, so young, so vibrant, so confident, amazingly well informed and educated. I cannot tell you how much of his startling presence and character ended up on the cutting room floor when I put the book together. He was also so self-aware, so conscious of the label history had affixed to him. “Miss Mayflower flirting with the Hun” he wrote, knowing the box into which the world had put him, but engaging this erroneous depiction with such disarming verve and humor. I’d often heard about his charm, but the letters offered immediate, delightful specifics. His touching, faithful recording of the messages of illiterate Russian POWs to their families was devastating, as was his apparently growing awareness of what awaited him, a fate that he had perhaps actually sought… And my mother’s young letters seemed to me to have been written by a person I had never met. Reading the manuscript, my oldest sister thought that the carefree young woman in some of the early letters seemed to be an unrecognizable “flibbertigibbet.”

Q. A WORLD ELSEWHERE is an incredible combination of history and the personal courtship and love story of your parents. It provides a moving personal story within the profound historical framework of World War I, the Depression, World War II, and beyond. Obviously your prime sources were family stories, but there is a huge amount of major history here as well. How and where did you do the research? Was there any travel involved?

SM: Family documents were so important, but it is the fusion of the familiar with a vast historical canvas that tells the sad story here. These people were trapped between the parentheses of brutal century; bringing in enough historical background (I thought of it as “canned Hitler”), without interrupting the personal story was a constant challenge.

Most of my travel was restricted to the New York Public Library. God bless its nearly bottomless supply of books and information! And I was lucky enough to have a place to hang my hat (and keep a shelf of books) at the Library’s Wertheim Study, so many wonderful titles that never leave the library were consistently available to me. An individual title may not have been critical, but in the aggregate they were invaluable.

Apart from some internet travel back to the Baltics, to the family farm in Germany, even to the Vuoksa River in Finland—some of it extraordinarily evocative—my travel was limited to my mind’s eye. The major exception was a trip to St. Petersburg, part of my ongoing search for “home,” with my Grandfather’s memoir acting as guide. It was fascinating, but yielded only the realization that home was not there anymore.

Q. You were very young when your mother moved the family to her native America. Your older siblings had a very different childhood from yours. Do you feel you were raised in a different world from your brothers and sisters?

SM: Yes and no. My oldest brother is more than 13 years older, and to a considerable extent, my older siblings’ formative years were spent in a very different world. They had real memories of the places and people I remember only as tiny snapshots – if at all – with no running narrative. My real memories began en route to America. But my mother took great pains to keep my father, family contacts, language and cultural patterns alive. One result of this was my feeling of being “in this world, but not of it,” a feeling that was a double-edged sword for years. Sometimes it still is, but I now appreciate the other edge of the sword. Now it has actually become an advantage, something I never understood as a child.

Q. Your childhood without a father must have been difficult. Heinrich’s family was very close; did your mother speak of him and his family that remained in Europe? Did your father’s side of the family visit after your mother moved you to America?

SM: Being without a father did not feel like a hardship; I was little, I lived in whatever the reality was. I probably never fully realized my fatherless state until I heard cousins consistently talk about their mother and their father. So at 2 1/2, I told my mother: “You are my Mami and my Papi.” My older siblings had lost their father; for them, being fatherless was a very different thing. But they were hardly alone; Germany at that time was awash in fatherless children.

My mother kept my father and the rest of his family very much alive for a long time, writing consistently to everyone, sending packages. She was often in Europe, and took me back for a year when I was 12. She brought aunts and friends to the U.S. Later generations of second cousins and grandchildren came too. Being in New York with an extra bed gives me major points with family visitors.

Q. How did writing A WORLD ELSEWHERE change you?

SM: I learned that there is not one history, but thousands, a history textbooks will never tell. I learned that life is much more complicated than we ever imagine, especially when large-scale history intervenes. I hope I’ve learned the lesson that walking in another’s shoes is supposed to teach us: compassion, and the importance of trying to understand, when thoughtless, knee-jerk judgment is a much easier response.

Oddly enough, I’ve also overcome my vague, if pervasive rootlessness, and discovered that these days, home is not at all what it was for previous family generations, but essentially home-made. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I hope I may also have paid a debt of gratitude to my mother, my father, grandparents—to all thse who went before, through loss, exile and misery, and endured.

Q. What do you hope readers will take away from A WORLD ELSEWHERE?

SM: An awareness that things are not always what they seem, that there is room on the historical spectrum for more than just black and white. That breaking the appalling cycle of exile, war, displacement and misery that afflicts the world as much now as it did then, demands a break from the simplistic, complacent moralism that lurks everywhere.