Dora Brud­er

Patrick Modi­ano; Joan­na Kil­martin, trans.

  • Review
By – June 29, 2015

Miss­ing, a young girl, Dora Brud­er, age 15, height, 1 m 55, oval-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports jack­et, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all infor­ma­tion to M. and Mme. Brud­er, 41 Boule­vard, Ornano, Paris.

Near­ly fifty years lat­er this small per­son­al ad, dat­ed 31 Decem­ber 1941, was placed, it caught the atten­tion of Patrick Modi­ano as he was leaf­ing through an old copy of Paris-Soir. This sparse notice — with an address that drew Modi­ano back to a neigh­bor­hood he once knew well — launched him on a search to find Dora Brud­er. Over the course of ten years, Modi­ano painstak­ing­ly and patient­ly pieced togeth­er Dora’s life and death, and in so doing found more places where his life and her family’s intersect.

Modi­ano traces Brud­er through one offi­cial paper after anoth­er — birth cer­tifi­cate, school records, police reports of her dis­ap­pear­ance, the reg­is­ter of her intern­ment before her depor­ta­tion and final trip — to Auschwitz. He walks the streets she walked. He inter­views rel­a­tives and the few sur­vivors who were interned with her. He finds pho­tographs of her. He tries to imag­ine the three months of her dis­ap­pear­ance after she ran away from the con­vent school where her par­ents had, per­haps, hoped to pro­tect her. He gleans a few facts about her par­ents. He puts flesh and blood on the stark­ly effi­cient records he is able to track down. And in these years of research he finds him­self haunt­ed by his own trou­bling mem­o­ries of his ado­les­cence, trig­gered by inter­sec­tions of his life and Dora’s, and of his con­flict­ed views of his father. In time we learn almost more about Modi­ano than he learns about Dora Bruder.

Whether it was Modiano’s pur­pose or not, this is a hard book to clas­si­fy — biog­ra­phy, mem­oir, his­to­ry, to some extent an act of imag­i­na­tion — but ambigu­ous as it is, it is also hard not to feel the force of the book. The search and desire to know what hap­pened to large­ly anony­mous peo­ple com­mand atten­tion as the read­er is pulled into the grey heart­less­ness of the occu­pa­tion of Paris and the shad­ows it cast on those who lived through it. Patrick Modi­ano is the win­ner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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