A review of A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

A World Elsewhere
by Sigrid MacRae
2014, 978-0-670-01583-2

Sigrid MacRae’s A World Elsewhere, is a family history of interest to World War II buffs. MacRae was inspired to write it on reading her father’s letters to her mother during their courtship.

At six, newly arrived in the United States from Germany, young Sigrid von Hoynigen-Huene was called a “Nazi” by a schoolmate. As a child and teenager, she blamed the father she had never known for her feelings of not belonging. Although Heinrich von Hoynigen-Huene, who died in July 1941, was an “iconic presence” when she was growing up, the “family lore” about him troubled her.

“I had read his letters from France as an officer in Hitler’s army, where an occasional passage sounding like Nazi propaganda had made me squirm,” she writes, “yet his awareness of history, his wide learning, his sympathy for people and his enviable optimism shone from every page.” His brief Russian front diary “made me question what his being in Hitler’s army really meant,” MacRae adds. Reading his letters as a young man in love with her mother, however, made her see that she “was not the devil’s spawn after all, just the product of two people in a particular time and place, enmeshed in circumstances, their hopes upended.”

What were the circumstances that brought Aimee Ellis and Heinrich von Hoynigen-Huene together? Aimee was a poor little rich girl born in 1903 into a wealthy Hartford, Connecticut family. After her mother’s death, when she was three, her bereaved father buried himself in work. Diagnosed with scoliosis at six, she lived in body casts until she was twelve, and her education inevitably suffered. In 1923, on a European tour with a friend, she fell in love with the old world. After studying art in New York City, she returned to Europe in 1927 with another friend, the American actress, Hope Cary, who was eager for her to meet a Russian baron whom she’d met while with a touring company in Rhode Island. He was now studying in Paris.

Heinrich von Hoynigen-Huene was born into Baltic German nobility. His family were part of St. Petersburg high society in Czarist Russia, and also enjoyed a rural estate in Latvia. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the von Hoynigen-Huenes fled to Germany where they had to earn a living. The family’s former governess, who had married an American, told Heinrich of a career opening in Providence, Rhode Island, where his languages would be an asset. By 1927, Heinrich had saved enough to resume his education in Europe and aspire to a diplomatic career.

Aimee and Heinrich fell in love. Dazzled by her baron, Aimee decided to stay on in Paris, live on a trust fund from her mother, and be near him. Their love letters were written during brief separations, such as his research trips to London and her journeys to America to settle her affairs and collect her things. Although Heinrich’s family had reservations about his marrying an American, they welcomed Aimee and arranged their elegant wedding in Dresden in October 1928.

Although Aimee was twenty-five when she married, she was naive, ill-informed on history and current events, weak in German, and lacking in wise counsel from her own family. (Her father was dead; her brother distant.) “[Heinrich] was utterly impoverished but that was never an issue,” writes MacRae. For Aimee, “this marriage was a passport to a life of family, of belonging to something, of kinship.” MacRae never suggests that Aimee made a big mistake. Instead, by painting a detailed picture of the von Hoynigen-Huenes’ privileged life pre-World War I, and their sufferings during that war and the Russian revolution, she gives the impression that it was an honour for Aimee to marry into Heinrich’s family.

Aimee’s first baby was born in 1929 and a second in 1931. After a harsh first winter in Breslau, where Heinrich was finishing his thesis, they moved to Berlin, where they found a comfortable apartment but a troubling economic and political climate. With the onset of the Great Depression, hiring in the German Foreign Office was frozen, so there was no job for Heinrich. “Nazis loomed large; brawls and bloodshed were everyday business,” writes MacRae. The couple moved to a country estate, Blumenhagen, one hundred kilometers north of Berlin, “funded with American dollars”.

At Blumenhagen, Heinrich grew “restless in the role of gentleman farmer”, and spent a lot of time in Berlin, where he had an affair. Devastated, Aimee confided her hurt to Heinrich’s sister, but found a “startling dissonance between his family’s deep piety and a class tradition that accepted such behaviour.” Feeling very alone, she focused on her children – a fifth was born in 1936 – and in keeping their farm productive. Her friendship with a local woman doctor and her assistant, who later moved to Blumenhagen, provided essential medical and moral support after 1939.

Heinrich’s family considered Hitler a “vulgar upstart”, but because they had survived war and revolution, they felt that his was just one more bad regime which wouldn’t last. As war clouds gathered, the U.S. consulate in Germany (which functioned until Hitler declared war on the United States in December, 1941), informed Aimee that if she intended to return home she should go soon. Under American law, however, children born prior to May 1934 in a dual nationality marriage took their father’s nationality, while those born after that date took their mother’s. This meant that Aimee’s four older children would be classified by the U.S. government as “enemy aliens” and would be denied entry. She could not desert her eldest four, who ranged in age from ten downward, so she stayed.

When war began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Heinrich was hired to work in the Kolonialbund (Colonial Office), but soon he was called to active military service as an infantry lieutenant. As part of the Nazi invasion of France in the spring of 1940. He wrote that he was not in any danger and was happy to be involved in something demanding. “An old world is sinking but even in ruin she is beautiful,” he wrote. “What is passing is a political system that no longer had blood in its veins.”

The political system to which he referred was western liberal democracy. Readers like myself, born in a democracy (in my case, Canada) whose family members joined the armed forces to fight Nazi Germany, will find it hard to warm to Heinrich at this point. His accounts of being part of the invasion of France make it sound like a tourist adventure. His comfortable life in occupied Paris at Supreme Army Command, where he was a member of a gentleman officers’ club that dined at Fontainbleau, will irritate many readers.

Heinrich knew in advance about Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, which took the world by surprise in June 1941. He volunteered for the eastern front because he was “chasing the dream of delivering his home from the Bolsheviks,” writes MacRae. He was killed on July 23, 1941, leaving Aimee pregnant with her sixth child and faced with the need to keep her farm productive to support this large family.

Aimee’s struggles are an interesting account of wartime life in Hitler’s Germany. Life was tolerable for several years, but by 1944 the Germans knew they had lost. In a short but fascinating scene, Aimee’s young daughter, Brigitte, follows her down to the great vaulted cellar at Blumenhagen and asks her about the failed attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer: why would people want to kill Hitler? Aimee speaks frankly for the first time, telling her child that Hitler was doing terrible things inside and outside Germany and people had tried to kill him to stop him killing others.

Fear of the invading Russians and the danger that her fifteen year old son would be called up for last-ditch military service forced Aimee to leave Blumenhagen with her children. She had a frame built on her best farm wagon, put two Persian rugs over it for protection from the weather, and packed food, clothes and family papers. The children had small chamois drawstrings, containing her brother’s address in Chicago, to wear around their necks in case they got separated. On the road with other refugees, they were strafed by Allied planes, slept in barns and cooked over campfires. This fast-paced, detailed account comes alive for readers. We know that Sigrid, the youngest, and some of her siblings made it to America, but did all of them, and if so, how? Readers who shook their heads over Aimee’s earlier decisions will admire her courage at this crucial time.

“The past is another country,” wrote British author L.P. Hartley. Sigrid MacRae has employed her considerable writing skills to make these particular inhabitants of “another country” come alive for 21st century readers.

Ruth (Olson) Latta has a Master of Arts degree in History from Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. Her books include The Memory of All That: Canadian Women Remember World War II. Visit her blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com