Photograph by Sigrid Estrada
In 1988, Sigrid MacRae received a decorated Moroccan box from her 85-year-old mother. Inside were letters from the father MacRae had never known; he was killed in World War II. Ten years later, when her mother died, MacRae finally sat down to read the letters, and they brought to life an extraordinary story of love and fortitude in wartime Germany.
MacRae’s mother, Aimée, who grew up in a wealthy Connecticut family, traveled to Paris in 1927 and fell in love with an impoverished young baron, Heinrich, whose Baltic German family had been exiled from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. The two were married on Aimée’s 25th birthday and settled in Breslau, Germany, where Heinrich was finishing his PhD in history. By 1940, they had five children and a rundown farm north of Berlin when Heinrich was notified that he was to report for duty in the German military. An infantry lieutenant who spoke four languages, Heinrich worked in intelligence and later volunteered for the Russian front. When Aimée received word in July 1941 that he had been killed by a sniper in Russia, she was pregnant with MacRae, “a furlough baby.”
MacRae tells the stunning tale of her mother’s escape from the advancing Russian army and her journey back to the United States in A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany (Viking, 2014). Using letters, memoirs, home movies, and the recollections of her older siblings, MacRae re-creates day-to-day life in Germany during the war, where shopkeepers telegraphed their allegiances with their greetings: “Heil Hitler” meant they were true Nazis or they felt the war was going well. “Good afternoon” could signify that they were stand-up people, MacRae writes.
Aimée’s struggle to raise six children in a decimated country not her own is gripping. In a freezing house, where the children were bundled in layers of clothes, their fingers turning blue, she oversaw the farm, conducted dinnertime conversations in English to teach the children her language, and organized house concerts and performances of Cinderella. MacRae’s chronicle of those war years is shaped in part by a stash of her mother’s old letters, which she discovered several years ago in the apartment of Aimée’s good friend, and which offer a new view of her mother.
“The picture I had had was of a woman worn thin by hardship, hard work, and war,” MacRae explains. “Later, in this country, there was still lots of hardship.” (Having survived the entire war in Germany, Aimée was told by the American consulate to sail for the United States in 1947, eventually buying a farmhouse in rural Maine.) But when MacRae read her mother’s letters recounting her romance with her father—“Yes, Paris, four mad and glorious days with Heinrich”—she discovered “this carefree, exuberant young person I did not recognize. She had found her Prince Charming and thought life was going to be gorgeous,” MacRae says.
The father she had never known also came alive, especially in his letters to Aimée: “You are the one who has won the war, our war—within and without. My part was easy, you are the one who bears the burden.”
Of the war, he wrote:
An old world is sinking, but even in ruin she is beautiful. Yet the real, the pure, the eternal will survive. The sun will continue to shine on the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge, on the white chateaux of the Touraine, through the bright windows of the great cathedrals. The spirit, the word, and art will remain.
“He had always been a phantasm, a family icon,” MacRae says, “but this made him real.” Of course, there are still many things MacRae doesn’t know about him, such as how he felt about the Nazis, but she suspects he did not endorse their views. When MacRae moved to the United States at age 6, however, a little boy at her school in rural Maine called her a Nazi. She has been asked about her German background throughout her life. After earning a graduate degree in art history at Columbia, MacRae worked as an editor at Time Inc. and Reader’s Digest. She is the coauthor of Alliance of Enemies, about the undercover collaboration between American intelligence agencies and the German resistance to end World War II. Writing A World Elsewhere offered her the chance to examine questions about her identity that have long plagued her and to understand the complicated journey of the woman who raised her.
Faced with widowhood, war, and six children, her mother “did not quail—at least not publicly,” MacRae says. “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.”