The ProsenPeople

Interview: Maryann Macdonald

Monday, July 01, 2013 | Permalink

by Michal H. Malen

Maryann Macdonald is the author of Odette’s Secrets (Bloomsbury).

Michal H. Malen: Please tell us some more about the real Odette Mey­ers, the person on whom your fictional character is closely based.

Maryann Macdonald: Odette Meyers was a woman described by those who knew her as having a generous and courageous heart. Her child­hood was just as it has been described in Odette's Secrets. She was born in Paris in 1934, the daughter of Polish immigrants Berthe and George Melszpajz, secular Jews and socialists. They lived in a small apartment in a working class neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement on what was then called the rue d’Angouleme (now the rue Jean Pierre Timbaud). Just one flight below lived the building’s concierge, Marie Chotel, a Catholic, who was their close friend and the self-proclaimed godmother of Odette. As Odette wrote in her autobiography, “In the upstairs-down­stairs world of my early childhood, I went up and down like a yo-yo, at home in either place.”

When WWII broke out, George joined the French army, was captured by the Germans, and became a prisoner of war. Berthe continued work­ing in a knitting factory to support herself and Odette, and also became involved in the Resistance. Before dawn on July 16, 1942, the Vichy police arrived in the neighborhood to arrest all the Jewish people living there. Madame Marie was able to hide Odette and her mother in her broom closet, while distracting the police from their job with wine and conversation. After their departure, Berthe left to try to warn her sister about the round-up. Odette then had to travel to the remote French countryside where she would “hide in plain sight,” posing as a Catholic schoolgirl and living with a foster family. Berthe later joined her in the country where, despite many difficulties, the two survived until the end of the war.

In 1949, concerned by the Cold War, Odette and her family left Paris and moved to California. Odette went to college, became a university professor of literature, married the poet Bert Meyers and had two children, Anat and Daniel. She was active in her community, speaking about her childhood experiences in schools, churches and synagogues, and making many devoted friends. She made several trips back to France, and visited those she knew during the war years. She died in 2001 and was much mourned in her community in Berkeley.

MHM: How closely is the fictional Odette based on the real one?

MM: My goal in writing Odette’s Secrets was to paint as true a picture of Odette’s life as possible. When I first discovered Odette’s memoir, Doors to Madame Marie, on a visit to the American Library in Paris, I was fascinated by it. I pored over the photographs of her and her family and friends. I read and reread her adventures, especially the passages where she described what it was like to switch selves, not once but twice, both in the remote countryside of the Vendee where she hid and then back in Paris again after the war. I learned that thousands of French children had had similar experiences. I visited the street where Odette’s family lived, and sat in the square opposite studying the door and their apart­ment window. I searched for her school. I explored the alleyway where her dear cousins lived, the cousins who left France weeks after their ar­rest and never returned. I strolled in the park where Odette played, and in the cemetery where she went with her mother to honor the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.

One night, I told my husband Odette’s story. Together, we took the Metro to the 11th arrondissement and stood outside Odette’s apart­ment building. “I so wish I could go inside!” I said, looking at the oak door at the front of the building, a solid street door of the type that is always locked.

“Let’s see if we can,” my husband said, and pressed his fingertips against the door. It swung open! In moments we were standing in the tiled hallway where Odette had played with her red rubber ball. I couldn’t believe my luck…it seemed like a sign. I just had to write the story of Odette’s remarkable life for children.

But how? I knew I would need the permission of her family. And I knew she had a son, and he lived in Paris.

I found Daniel’s number in the Paris telephone directory. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the number. I left a message, explaining who I was and what I hoped to do. Then I waited. A few days later, Daniel called me back and invited me to lunch in his sunny apartment on the rue Rambuteau. He listened to my request and made his decision almost immediately. He was sure his mother would want her story to live on. As her literary executor, he gave me permission to use the facts of her life as the basis of a book for children.

I was thrilled, but wanted to learn as much as I could about Odette and her family and experiences first. Daniel gave me his grandmother’s autobiography and some of his mother’s poems. He showed me film clips and more family photographs. He also told me that although Odette and her three friends thought they were the only Jewish children in their small village in the remote country area of the Vendee, in fact, more than forty children were hidden there by local families.

I decided I needed to visit the Vendee. I took the train to Nantes, as Odette did at the time of her escape from Paris. All the way I studied the farmhouses, the villages and the train stations passing by. What was there in 1941? Did Odette see it as I did? Then I drove to Chavagne-en-Paillers, the first village where Odette was hidden in plain sight during the war. My husband and I were standing outside the house she lived in when a kindly old man appeared at the upstairs window and invited us in. He was Jaques Raffin, one of the children in the family who had taken Odette in. He showed me the garden where they played together on the swing and fed the doves. Afterwards, we visited the school Odette attended with her friends Cecile and Paulette, and the church where she went to Mass every Sunday. Finally, we went to the hamlet where Odette and her mother lived together under assumed names. We saw the forest and the square where she played hide and seek and hopscotch and the pathway she took walking to school in the town of St. Fulgent. The fields, the cows, and the cottages were all still there. Now that I had seen as much of Odette’s wartime world as I could, I was ready to write, ready to bring Odette’s childhood to life, as best I could.

MHM: What are the parallels between the Madame Marie of the book and her real-life counterpart?

MM: Again, I have tried to stay as close as possible to Odette’s own descriptions of Madame Marie and her actions. She was a woman who had experienced pain and difficulty in her early life in the Lorraine. She met Monsieur Henri during WWI and joined him in Paris after the war. Later, she became the concierge in Odette’s building and also her self-appointed godmother, caring for the little girl, teaching and guiding her in her early life. As Odette wrote of her in her book, “…my godmother…had indeed fulfilled her role, not only in shaping my soul but in saving my life and that of my mother.” Madame Marie was also responsible for helping to save others. Her name and that of Monsieur Henri are recorded at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, at Yad Vashem, and on the wall of Righteous Gentiles in Washington, D.C.

MHM: Madame Marie is a marvelous character, warm, loving and caring. Although a believing Catholic, she risks her life to help Jewish families survive. Can you tell us a bit about the interreligious relation­ships of the time and place? Where do you think she found the cour­age to act as she did?

MM: The French motto, “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” attracted large numbers of immigrants to France, including many Polish Jews in the 1930s. In fact, immigrants constituted 70% of the Jewish population of 350,000 before WWII. Immigrants, as is often the case today, were com­monly thought during this period to be responsible for taking jobs away from the rest of the population. They were also sometimes suspected of being spies. When the Vichy government came into power, Jews and communists—and many working class Jews from Easter Europe were communists or socialists—were both considered enemies and targets for persecution.

Catholic church leaders took a passive attitude towards the Vichy regime until the mass deportations of Jews began in France in the summer of 1942. But at that point, the Bishop of Montauban wrote a letter denouncing “the uprooting of men and woman, treated as wild animals.” This letter was read in churches throughout France, and over the BBC’s daily broadcasts, encouraging the French, most of whom were at least nominally Catholics, to protect Jews. It may have had some of its intended effect. Three quarters of the French Jewish population survived, including 84% of French Jewish children.

But free thinkers among the French population who acted to save the lives of Jews before that time acted according to their own consciences, as did Madame Marie. According to Odette, when Madame Marie was asked by Berthe why she had hidden them when the Pope had not spoken out on behalf of Jews, her friend replied, “Don’t worry. Popes and governments come and go; only God is eternal. This is between me and God. If he thinks I’ve done wrong, He will let me know.”

MHM: Odette is afraid to leave her comfortable surroundings for a new and uncertain life in the country yet she adjusts to country life and, returning to Paris finds her old life unfamiliar and strange. What can today’s children learn from Odette about security and permanence and adjusting to the unexpected?

MM: Odette’s story is partly a coming-of-age one, and in coming-of-age stories I think children learn about the inevitability of change. But earlier on, Odette is seen to grow in the resilience that brings security by responding with child-appropriate courage and determination to the needs of each new situation in which she finds herself during the war years. Later, she also learns to find security in family and community. “I’m a child of my family, a child of France,” she says after the war, “But more than these, my heart now tells me, I’m a child of my people.” Last but not least, Odette demonstrates that she has developed a conscience of her own and has learned to trust it in dealing with the unexpected, as in when she is suddenly confronted by the woman in mourning at the Pere La Chaise cemetery. “My heart tells me what to do,” she says. “It’s so simple. Let this woman be your mother. Be her daughter. So I hug her. I stroke her back as a lost-and-found daughter would. I am every Jewish daughter who has died. She is every Jewish mother who has lost a child.” Odette’s compassion for this grieving woman helps her get past what might otherwise have been a traumatic confrontation.

MHM: The book is written in a gently flowing free verse. Why did you make this literary choice in the telling of this story?

MM: At first, I tried to write Odette’s story as a straight biography. This seemed too dry. Then I remembered that Odette loved poetry. She believed the beauty of poetry was one of the things that helped her to survive her experiences in the Vendee. She even wrote poetry in her later years. So, I began trying to write her story in first person, in free verse, imagining insofar as I was able, the childhood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be.

At this point, since I was imagining Odette’s voice, the work became fiction, although I did not make up any of the events mentioned in the book. What I did was add detail, such as giving Odette’s doll a name, and putting into words conversations alluded to in her book and in her mother’s handwritten autobiography.

MHM: Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story with us.

MM: My pleasure, absolutely.

Michal H. Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children's editor of Jewish Book World.