Ear­li­er this week, Leslie Mait­land wrote about artist Gunter Dem­nig’s Stolper­steine project and recon­nect­ing branch­es of her fam­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed by the Dias­po­ra of the Nazi years. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by epigraphs — those bor­rowed words that authors choose to intro­duce and encap­su­late the mes­sage of their books. And so, almost as soon as I start­ed writ­ing my own book, Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time, I found my thoughts explor­ing sev­er­al pos­si­bil­i­ties, words whose pow­er had won them space in my cat­a­logue of mem­o­ry.

The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and hand­some French­man she’d left behind in 1942, when — flee­ing the Nazis—she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Ger­mans sealed its ports. She was Jew­ish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. What­ev­er the length of our sep­a­ra­tion, our love will sur­vive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had writ­ten to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. I give you my vow that what­ev­er the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and dis­ap­prov­ing fam­i­ly had inter­vened, and even as she tried to build a dif­fer­ent life than the one she had imag­ined, Mom shared with me her long­ing for the love that had been stolen from her.

The sto­ry of their star-crossed romance, cul­mi­nat­ing in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylans paean to a young love that endures:

The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.

Yet even in my silent read­ing, the gnarly twang of Dylans unique deliv­ery resound­ed as unre­served­ly Amer­i­can. It set the wrong mood as the open­er for a love sto­ry that unfold­ed in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too light­heart­ed for the peri­od and the har­row­ing expe­ri­ences I was depict­ing. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebel­lious bal­lads could be inter­pret­ed as a rejec­tion of my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. Indeed, the dis­dain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actu­al­ly for­bade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phono­graph, as if their scathing lyrics might dam­age the machin­ery.

Next in top con­tention for my epi­graph were favorite vers­es from T. S. Eliots Burnt Nor­ton,” the first of his Four Quartets:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Foot­falls echo in the mem­o­ry
Down the pas­sage which we did not take
Towards the door we nev­er opened
Into the rose-gar­den. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

The Nobel Prize – win­ning poet had com­plete­ly cap­tured the spir­it of my sto­ry, as he spoke to how a past, imag­ined yet nev­er lived, nonethe­less per­sists in mem­o­ry. The words that echoed in my mind, entranc­ing and enthralling me since child­hood, were all my mother’s words — her sto­ries from a rose-gar­den, a lovers’ gar­den, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Per­fect. Except for one dis­turb­ing thing. Eliot, whose philo­soph­i­cal poet­ry I adored, was a reput­ed anti-Semi­te, as exem­pli­fied most clear­ly in his ear­ly work.

Could I com­fort­ably enshrine the vers­es of an anti-Semi­te on the open­ing pages of a vol­ume that I had devot­ed in large mea­sure to describ­ing the plight of Euro­pean Jew­ry in the Holo­caust? I strug­gled with the ques­tion. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like trea­son. A betray­al of the mil­lions who had suf­fered and died for no oth­er rea­son than their Jew­ish­ness. And yet it grat­ed, in ban­ish­ing the artist, to have to sac­ri­fice the art – a dilem­ma far from new to us. We are used to squirm­ing as we read lit­er­ary clas­sics from times and places in which loathing for the Jew­ish peo­ple was a cul­tur­al prej­u­dice quite shame­less­ly expressed. Sure­ly, I argued with myself, we can­not be expect­ed to reject all the works where Jews appear unfa­vor­ably or whose authors are anti-Semi­tes. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wag­n­er?

Even now, after months of debate with myself and with oth­ers whose opin­ions I respect, my answers to these ques­tions feel mud­dled. Before my book went to print, how­ev­er, and not with­out regret, I relin­quished T. S. Eliot and won­dered whether, had I writ­ten some­thing dif­fer­ent — a physics text on the nature of time, for exam­ple — I might have felt more free to hon­or his cre­ative voice by quot­ing him in my epi­graph.

As it was, in place of Eliot’s vers­es, I final­ly chose a cher­ished line from Thomas Wolfe: 

O lost, and by the wind griev­ed, ghost, come back again.

It had the virtue of call­ing to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunit­ed, and of Hitler’s count­less vic­tims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semi­te, I was hap­py to assure him that while the great nov­el­ist had vis­it­ed Ger­many repeat­ed­ly in the 1930s, he had pub­licly denounced the Nazis’ treat­ment of the Jews. Retal­i­at­ing, the Nazis had banned his books in Ger­many. Wolfe’s long­time lover, I sud­den­ly remem­bered then, had been a Jew­ess named Aline Bern­stein. To her, A.B.,” he ded­i­cat­ed his mas­ter­piece, Look Home­ward, Angel, from which I drew my epi­graph with the sense I had arrived at the right place. 

Leslie Mait­land is a for­mer award-win­ning reporter and nation­al cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times who spe­cial­ized in legal affairs and inves­tiga­tive report­ing. Her newest book, Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time: A True Sto­ry of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, is now avail­able.

Leslie Mait­land is an award-win­ning for­mer New York Times inves­tiga­tive reporter who cov­ered the Jus­tice Depart­ment. A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and the Har­vard Divin­i­ty School, she spent a decade research­ing this book, trav­el­ing to every loca­tion involved to plumb archives and inter­view wit­ness­es. She appears reg­u­lar­ly on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture. Leslie Mait­land is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.