Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Q&A with author Sigrid MacRae

Sigrid MacRae, photo by Sigrid Estrada

Sigrid MacRae is the author of the new memoir A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany. It tells the story of her American mother and Baltic German father, who met in Paris in 1927. She also has co-written the book Alliance of Enemies. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your parents and your family history?

A: It’s a long story. It started after my mother died. There was a box she had given me [containing old letters], and I discovered the father that I’d never known as a young person. I only had known him as an immense absence.

Then, six months after my mother died, a friend died, and I was helping to clean out Mary’s apartment. It was a typical old-lady apartment, full of stuff, and in a rusty old file cabinet next to her oxygen tank I found a huge cache of letters my mother had written Mary from 1928 to 1947. There was a gap for the war years; my mother was in Germany and Mary was in New York.

[The letters] revealed a side of my mother that I’d never known. Here was a carefree young thing. They showed the detailed metamorphosis of my mother from a young thing to an exile feeling estranged in a country that was increasingly difficult. My father was killed, and she was left with five and a third children, me being the third.

Finding her letters was a bookend to my father’s young letters. Without her letters, I couldn’t have done this book. There was a lot on my father, but he exited the scene so totally.

I was fascinated by what happened to these people. Life [happened]. But they were so different from what I had thought, or had witnessed in the case of my mother. I got to spend a couple of years at the New York Public Library.

Q: You write of your mother, “The questions remained, but questions were dangerous. With the added complication of being an American, however camouflaged, it was best not to attract any attention at all. Better to be blind, deaf, and dumb.” How much did she know about what was going on in Germany at the time?

A: It’s a very hard question to answer. I don’t think she was aware of a lot. There was a women’s concentration camp not too far away, Ravensbruck. She had a doctor friend, Helma, who kept saying, Keep your mouth shut. What would happen to the children? You don’t want to end up in Ravensbruck.

She did see people shoveling coal, and she did see freight trains with Russians and Poles, who had been captured. She knew we had Polish POWs conscripted to help with the farm. Beyond that, I don’t think she really knew. The times were overwhelming. She was swamped with children, responsibilities, and work; real life gets in the way.

She never talked about it. I never asked. One tends not to ask one’s parents certain kinds of things. I don’t think she knew a great deal. She knew that it made sense not to know a great deal. Treachery and betrayal were rife.

Q: About your own experiences as a child, you write, “But her father’s name marked her as a Hun. She even looked the part. There was no escape.” How did your family background affect you as a child once you had arrived in the United States?

A: That was not good at all. This was postwar America. I arrived in late 1947. I was a little kid; I didn’t know from nothing. I was in first grade, in my mother’s hometown, Hartford, and I was outside the art room looking at a cast I had made of my hand. A classmate, named Skippy, yelled, “Nazi!”

That was just the first of many. It went on and on and on. Guttural [accents], sieg heil salutes. Some were silly, some were just plain brutal.

Part of me needed to understand how my parents’ alliance affected me…[My father] wasn’t really “the Hun” at all. [One of the book’s reviews] said he had all the right stuff for the new Nazi regime. But he had all the wrong stuff. He wanted to be a diplomat, he was educated, he spoke many languages. He was very thoughtful and very religious.

I needed to figure out how much of my father’s background meant something in terms of [comments I’d receive such as] “Weren’t you the person I saw at the other side of the fence at Auschwitz?” How can you respond to that?

I discovered it didn’t apply. History is not as black and white as you think. My father grew up in Russia. He thought he was going to liberate the Russian people from Stalin, a bad actor. He thought he might go home again; the loss of [their home in Russia] had pretty much ruined his parents’ lives.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The things that surprised me most were my parents’ letters. My father was so educated and so savvy about the world at large. My mother—my sister at one point said, You make her sound like a flibbertigibbet! I said, this is her, not me, her as a 25-year-old.

The history was fascinating. [My father] was drafted and sent to France in the Reserves. He got there late in 1940. He describes the chaos of the French troops and the trails of refugees and their difficulties. He was put in charge of [the refugees] in his area.

When I read Antoine de Saint-Exupery, he was flying reconnaissance for the French at the time, and he describes precisely the same things. My father said you never see any French planes, but you see endless [amounts of] German planes.

I thought, That sounds like propaganda. Then I read Saint-Exupery. I had been horrified by what my father was saying; I thought it was propaganda, but it was absolutely true.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I started to work on another book some time ago, but since this book was sold in December 2012, I haven’t done much but work on this one. I wanted to stay in this particular realm.

I hope to get back to the other book. It’s a novel. It would make life much simpler to write a novel than write nonfiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the things some editors used to ask me is, how do we know this is true? I was a little dumbfounded; a lot is letters, and they are what they are.

How do I know the rest is true? A lot of history books tend to agree, but history books don’t tell the whole story. There isn’t one history, but thousands. My parents’ story is one of the thousands that history books will never tell.

Initially, victors write the stories. You can see that in American [movies]; the Germans are all awful and the Americans are all wonderful. Gradually, the time is upon us to rethink this.

That’s not to say that the Second World War was not a god-awful thing. The exterminations and the camps [defy] imagination. But it’s time to rethink some of the issue. I no longer feel I’m the person the woman saw on the other side of the fence at Auschwitz.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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