Of No Inter­est to the Nation: A Jew­ish Fam­i­ly in France, 1925 – 1945: A Memoir

Gilbert Mich­lin; After­word by Zeev Sternhell
  • Review
By – August 27, 2012
Six­ty years after grow­ing up a French child of Jew­ish par­ents who were born in East­ern Europe, want­i­ng to hon­or his par­ents, Mich­lin searched mem­o­ry and his­tor­i­cal archives to write this mem­oir. Daunt­ed by the pover­ty and anti-Semi­tism of East­ern Poland, Michlin’s par­ents had tried to emi­grate either to the Unit­ed States or to Pales­tine, as they had rel­a­tives in both places. Not being Zion­ists, they had scant inter­est in going to Pales­tine even though the Unit­ed States had begun to lim­it the num­ber accept­ed for immi­gra­tion. Michlin’s cul­ti­vat­ed moth­er opt­ed for France where her broth­er lived. This is where the author was born and where, for sev­er­al years, the fam­i­ly lived a free and delight­ful life. His par­ents sought to total­ly inte­grate into French life, retain­ing very lit­tle, if any­thing, of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty or reli­gion. Still, his moth­er was denied cit­i­zen­ship because she did not fit into the var­i­ous cat­e­gories of accep­tance; she was of no inter­est to the nation.’ Although Michlin’s moth­er want­ed him to study med­i­cine, his father had insist­ed on his learn­ing how to do some­thing with his hands. This is what saved the author’s life in the camps. His skill in engi­neer­ing enabled him to belong to a spe­cial priv­i­leged cadre of pris­on­ers who worked for the Siemens plant. After sur­viv­ing the war, Mich­lin lived for a brief while in his family’s bare apart­ment in Paris. The mem­o­ries of his par­ents haunt­ed him, yet he could nev­er speak of his expe­ri­ences with the child­hood friends with whom he was reunit­ed. Ulti­mate­ly he emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, stud­ied and spent most of his life work­ing for IBM. He has writ­ten a ver­i­ta­ble case study on the fate of ordi­nary Jews, those mod­est peo­ple with­out wealth, con­nec­tions, resource­ful­ness or coura­geous Chris­t­ian friends. In an After­word, Zeev Stern­hell pro­vides a valu­able cri­tique on France’s hypocrisy, and the anti-Semi­tism that cul­mi­nat­ed in the Vichy gov­ern­ment and the French Catholic Church’s sup­port of its policies.
Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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