German banker Enno Ercklentz decides to take his family back to Germany via Japan and the Soviet Trans Siberian railway. Unfortunately it is the Spring of 1941 and they arrive in Japan just as the Hitler breaks his pact with Stalin and invades the USSR. Before they get passage back from Japan to the U.S.A., Pearl Harbor occurs. The family is stranded in Japan for the duration of the war.
The family’s journey is told by the middle child, only daughter Hildegarde (“Hillie”) who was seven at the start of the journey. She alone among the three children was born in Germany (during a vacation) while her brothers were both born in New York and are, therefore, American citizens. Her father loves the United States and, until home for the family has been a very comfortable apartment on Park Avenue. Her brothers attended the Collegiate School, and she attended the same school Caroline Kennedy would later attend. Theirs was a privileged life. The families back in Germany had multiple homes and great wealth, though that was, of course, greatly reduced after World War I.
During the war the family was first in Yokohama, where their life was very similar in comfort to their old life in New York. Later, all foreign families were exiled to the country and life became somewhat more difficult. They were never in prison camps or similar circumstances.
At the war’s end they were forced to repatriate to Germany, but such was her father’s record that it took only a few days for his de-Nazification papers to be processed. They would eventually find their way back to the United States for good and would reconnect with old friends and resume their old standard of living.
This book is the child’s view of things but was written by her 70 years later. Her experience was fascinating to me for it had some of the elements of my mother and uncle’s stories of leaving the U.S. for Brazil in 1944 when they were roughly the same age as Hillie and her elder brother.
I was very interested in the life she had immediately after the war in Germany, for she was eventually sent to Salem–the Gordonstoun sister-school on whose headmaster at the time was one brother-in-law of Prince Philip while the school was located at the home of yet another brother-in-law of his. Her she was educated with the children of the Valkyrie Plot officers who tried to kill Hitler. Her holidays were spent at her Grandparents former hunting lodge which was by then their main home. Their town home in Hamburg was taken over by the Americans. Her father quickly found a job with an American firm and her elder brother took time out from his education to work as a civilian for the U.S. Army.
What was difficult, as it has been in other books about Germans during or immediately after the war, was how little was said about feelings of the family for the Nazis–whether for or against. It seems obvious, given their life and the quick de-Nazification, that her father, like many of the old aristocracy, was anti-Nazi. Aside from mentioning her family had been visiting in Germany when Kristallnacht occurred, and telling of how the Gestapo chief in Japan (the man later named “The Butcher of Warsaw” and executed for war crimes) had tried to intimidate her father for putting his children in English language schools rather than party-approved German languages ones in Japan, almost no discussion is given to this topic. Nor is anything much said of the plight of the Jews when they arrived back in Germany after the war. It is mentioned that the former Crown Prince was undergoing his own de-Nazification at the same time as her father. Presumably, he had to stay “in” a bit longer though.
I would have loved Hillie’s job at Time & Life. I have read author Suzanne Massie’s account of her years in this sort of job at the great company, so reading more made me even more envious!
This was a quick, but compelling read. It adds to the body of literature on the experience of “stateless” persons (both offically stateless and, like this family, “quais” stateless).
Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in World War II by Hildegarde Mahoney
You can read more about the author at her website.
Other Books You May Want To Read
If you would like to read about another family “trapped” abroad in World War II, see My Faraway Home: An American Familiy’s WWII Tale of Adventure and Survival in the Jungles of the Philippines by Mary McKay Maynard. Read my review here.
For the story of an American woman married to an aristocratic German during the war and her flight from the Soviet’s at the war’s end, see A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae.
Read my review from my old blog:
This book is about courage–albeit of a different sort than that which lets a woman survive Auschwitz or hide a Jewish child from the Nazis. Aimee, an American, met an married a German aristocrat (albeit one whose family had been in Russia until the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution) before the Nazis came to power. They decided to stay in Germany. Their life was not nearly as hard as she thought–they lived on a large estate, he did not work, though he tried repeatedly to enter the diplomatic service, and they had all sorts of household help. When the war came, while not a Nazi in belief, the husband being of the correct age, served as a junior officer in the Nazi army. The story is told by this couple’s youngest daughter–the daughter with the fewest memories of “before” the war who drew on her parents letters for the early parts of the story. Upon learning that, due to American law for the years of their birth, some of her children were “German” to the United States while the youngest ones were “American” made this all even harder for Aimee. Her courage came to the fore in getting her family out of the way of the Soviet Army. In this she acted almost fearlessly and saved her family. There were other very difficult choices, but she faced them. This was an interesting memoir, but it lacked “something.” Only in the final days of the war were they really, truly in danger. They were subjected to rationing like everyone else, but still had help, still lived on their estate. She suffered no repercussions for refusing to allow her son to attend one of the “prestigious” Adolph Hitler Schools–an “elite” system of military boarding schools. I truly liked what I read of the husband who served on the Eastern front and had nothing what so ever to do with the concentration camps. He seems to have genuinely NOT been a believer in Hitler which is typical of the old German aristocracy. Still, after reading the other two books at the same time, I just wasn’t prepared to see this family’s struggle as that big of a deal.
A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae.