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Thursday, 27 January, 2005
French novel survives Auschwitz

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

"I am going on a journey," Irene Nemirovsky told her two young daughters as she was led away by the French police in July 1942.  Five weeks later this celebrated French writer, a Jew, died at Auschwitz, leaving behind handwritten notes that turned out to be her final novel.

Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky's novel has taken the publishing world by storm


As I passed a bookshop on my way to work, a face on the front cover of a book caught my eye.

It was a solemn sepia photograph of a woman in her early 30s.  A woman with haunting brown eyes which seemed to follow me as I walked past.

Curious, I stopped to take a closer look.

The novel was called Suite Francaise, by a writer I had never heard of, Irene Nemirovsky.

As I leafed through it, the introduction told a remarkable tale: the story behind the book and how it came to be published more than 60 years after the words themselves were written.

It is thanks to the courage of Irene Nemirovsky's daughter, Denise, that her mother's voice is once again being heard after it was silenced at Auschwitz in 1942.

'Fame and fortune'

Today, Denise lives in a small flat in Toulouse, a far cry from the wealth she was born into, as the eldest daughter of a well-known writer and a Russian banker.
Denise Epstein
My mother told me she was going on a journey... It was a solemn farewell but we didn't know it would be the last
Denise Epstein


She is a slim and elegant 75-year-old with the energy of someone half her age.

Bookshelves line the small room, bearing dozens of novels bound in soft calfskin leather with her mother's name stamped in gold.

They were editions of the 13 works that brought Irene Nemirovsky fame and fortune in the Paris of the 1930s, after a turbulent childhood in which her family was forced to flee the Russian revolution, taking refuge in France.

"My mother had a wonderful time in the 1920s and 30s," Denise says.  "Our apartment on the Left Bank was always full of writers, talking late into the night."

Denise's green eyes light up as she tells me how her parents met at a ball.  Her father Michel was a fellow Russian Jewish emigrant.

The children did not understand why, in 1939, their mother suddenly had them baptised into the Catholic Church, before sending Denise and her younger sister to the Burgundy countryside to live with their nurse and nanny.

But the Germans were advancing on Paris and anti-Jewish feeling was on the rise in France as well.

Fear and courage

The baptism was in vain.  By the time Denise's parents joined them in a village called Issy L'Eveque, the whole family was made to wear the yellow star of David, marking them out as Jews.
Irene Nemirovsky's handwritten novel
Denise needed a magnifying glass and patience to decipher the work

"And yet," Denise remembers, "they were the happiest years of my life.  We lived together as a family, and my mother took long walks in the woods, during which she wrote and wrote.  In the evenings, we had our parents to ourselves."

Irene never shared her fears with her young daughters, instead scribbling ever more urgently into her leather-bound notebook, knowing there was little time left.

She refused to leave France.  She had already lost one home in Russia.

Denise's face suddenly crumples and looks as vulnerable as a child's as she remembers the morning in July 1942 when a French gendarme knocked on the door.

"My mother told me she was going on a journey, and she went upstairs to collect her suitcase.  It was a solemn farewell but we didn't know it would be the last."

Outliving oppression
Irene Nemirovsky with her husband Michel Epstein
Married in 1926, Irene and Michel both died in 1942

Aged 13, Denise never saw her mother again.

She did not know that just five weeks later, her mother died at Auschwitz.  A few months afterwards, her father died there too.

The girls were forced into hiding, but as they left the house, Denise picked up a small suitcase that had belonged to her mother, containing photographs and what she thought was Irene's diary.

For two long years she carried it with her from hiding place to hiding place.  After the war, it stayed closed, containing memories too painful to open up.

But as the decades passed, Denise tells me, she finally found the courage to look.

Slowly, she began to read and then transcribe her mother's tiny handwriting — in azure ink on frail onion-skin paper — and discovered it was not a diary but a novel: her mother's last, unsentimental account of a French village under occupation.

Suite Francaise
Suite Francaise will be available in the UK towards the end of 2005


A village not unlike Issy, in which the French bourgeoisie collaborate with the Nazis to save themselves, their houses, their precious dishes and cutlery.

So why did Denise not publish it sooner?

"I wanted to leave the manuscript to my children, as a legacy to them," she explains.  It was only a chance meeting with a friend that made her send the manuscript to a publisher last year.  He read it with growing amazement and signed a contract the very next day.

Today, Irene Nemirovsky's face once again gazes out from every bookshop in Paris, forcing the French to confront their wartime history.

Little could she have imagined, as she wrote alone in the woods, that one day her voice would again be heard by hundreds of thousands of readers.

But she must have hoped.

Denise smiles.  "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read.  It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life.  It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her.  It is not vengeance, but it is a victory."





Caroline Wyatt has also reported for BBC's Newsnight programme about the book "Suite Francaise".









 
 







































































































































































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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on TheWE.cc website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.