“A World Elsewhere” by Sigrid MacRae is a book with many different stories. On the surface, it’s a look at wartime Germany from the inside, but as you read on, you realize that it’s far, far more than that. This is the story of an outsiders view from the inside, of the authors American mother living in wartime Germany; the story of the unlikely romance between this thoroughly modern young woman and her aristocratic father; the story of the faded glory of a displaced Baltic-German family yearning for the days before the Bolshevik Revolution, and finally, the story of a battle to keep a family together in an America that wasn’t sure it wanted them.
What makes this book fascinating is its unique perspective. Much of what we know of the Second World War in this country concerns Hitler and his military maneuvers, or of life during the Blitz in this country. What life was like for the people of Germany, miles from Berlin in the rural countryside is something that amidst the horrors of the battlefront and the concentration camps is rarely considered. The author’s father was a Nazi, serving on the Russian front. And yet far from our stereotyped image of a jackbooted Nazi soldier, we see the human face behind one of many thousands fighting a war they knew little about. In this case, a chance to fight in Russia was a chance to fight for what was once Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene’s homeland, rather than fighting for Hitler poisonous ideology.
What taking up the fight for his lost home meant though, was that the authors mother Aimee Ellis, an American woman with five young children and another on the way, was left alone on the family farm, to carry on in a war where increasing strains on food ands resources would leave her in desperate circumstances. As Germany’s war collapses, she is left facing stark choices for the survival of she and their children, and they embark on a long journey in search of a new home.
What’s striking is the sense of how, like Heinrich and Aimee, Germans came to vote the Nazi party into power. Faced with the prospect of being unable to find employment without joining the party, Heinrich decides to join, convinced that the excesses of the party would be curbed. History of course, was to prove him tragically horribly wrong. Even Aimee too concedes that she once voted for the Nazis, persuaded that it was the only way to keep the communists out, her fear of them having been stoked by her husbands family, who had lost everything they had in the 1914 Bolshevik revolution – the reason that as Baltic Germans from Saint Petersburg, they found themselves in Germany in the first place. The authors unflinching assessment of her parents characters is truly remarkable – and makes the picture she paints of them, and of their relationship with all its highs and lows against the backdrop of a Europe poised on the brink of war all the more vivid.
Reading this book leaves one with a profound sense of the importance of home – of the danger of being too nostalgic about home, of the horror of having your home taken away, and of the battle to belong and start afresh, creating a home out of the most unlikely circumstances.