This summer I finally did something I had always wanted to: I visited the place where my father spent the war.
My family left the Ukraine in the early Twenties and eventually settled in Paris. In 1942, they still had not acquired French citizenship. My grandfather had made his way up in real estate and developed good connections. This is what saved him, my grandmother and their two sons. A friend tipped him off just before the infamous Raffle du Vel d’Hiv, when most foreign Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. They promptly left town with just their clothes on their backs (it was July). A friend of a friend was renting him out his farm in Creuse, not very far from Limoges, in the unoccupied part of France. Amazingly my grand-father went to Vichy to register as farmer. A few months later, the whole of France was occupied and yet, nobody gave them away.
I grew up hearing about this place. My grandmother who loved to embellish things called it “le chateau” while my father told us about their two cows, the crops they planted, all the hard work involved in working the land. He was a young man then who had just been expelled after one year at medical school because of the racial laws. He was very strong but had always lived in the city. At first his brother stayed in Limoges during the week to finish secondary school but spent most of his time on the farm writing poetry.
Sadly my father died without taking us to Drouillas but this summer, a wedding in Dijon and one in Arcachon meant that we would be driving through that part of France I had heard so much about. My uncle gave me the directions and amazingly we managed to find the hamlet which is not even marked on the map. Then came the search for the farm itself.
There was one for sale more or less where I’d been told it would be. The place did not seem to have changed much since the time. Most of the house is actually occupied by the barn and hayloft. The living quarters were fairly small with no bathroom of course. We managed to get in through a broken window. I did not make it upstairs, not trusting the crumbling stairs and kept back by the thick layer of spiderwebs. But was it really the right house?
We met a young woman who lived nearby. She did not know anything about the past. But she was keen to tell us her own story. She was an environmental saint: grew all their food, had a dry toilet, was planning to home-school the children and actually building a new home, made of straw, for the whole family (after all her children might never be able to leave home in the new economic conditions) or, as a shelter for battered women. I tried to show her the irony of my family forced to live from the land, made good environmentalists by the War, but she did not show any sign of interest.
As we were ready to drive off, not entirely sure we had identified the right farmhouse, we met an old lady who looked at us curiously. And the miracle I had not entirely let myself hope for happened. She was a young girl then and her mother had just died but she did remember my family, particularly my father, the doctor (even though he was hardly qualified after just one year!), those foreign Jews, probably the first and last ones she ever met in her life and how kind they were. Over a glass of lemon syrup and cookies, she told us a story I had often heard too of how, towards the end, as the Germans were angrily retreating, everybody would go and hide in the fields, how, not very far from there, at Oradour, the whole village was rounded up in the Church which was then set on fire.
She had never moved away from that house where she had been born. She was very happy to have met us. And she did confirm to me we had been looking at the right house.
It is easy for people in the UK to criticise the French and what they did or did not do during the war. But who knows what would have happened this country. There were stories of abject cowardice and hatred but also of remarkable courage on the continent. In Drouillas, they were all in it together, the resistance, the men hiding from forced labour in Germany and those nice foreign Jews who were trying to blend in.
This is probably why I loved Suite Francaise so much. Irene Nemirovsky was able to show the full richness of emotions of a people who has lost its bearings. When I read David Golder, I felt endless tenderness for him, because I couldn’t help but making parallels with my grandfather I never met but who like Golder, spent his life trying to make money to escape the shtetl, the Bolsheviks and eventually the Nazis. And because, after all, this is the Jewish Book Week blog, I can say how deligthed I am to finally devote a session to this great writer with her biographer Olivier Philiponnat , her translator, Sandra Smith, and last but not least, her daughter Denise Epstein.