Return­ing from Silence: Jenny’s Story

Michèle Sarde, Ruper Swyer, trans; 

  • Review
By – December 12, 2022

It is telling that Michèle Sarde begins her sto­ry about sur­viv­ing the Holo­caust with the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion and the Jew­ish expul­sion from Spain. Focus­ing on her moth­er Jenny’s side of the fam­i­ly, Sarde recon­structs Jenny’s jour­ney from Saloni­ca to Paris in 1921. Her Sephardic, and specif­i­cal­ly Greek, her­itage is cen­tral to Sarde’s iden­ti­ty and thus to her account, which fol­lows Sarde’s family’s suc­cess­es and dis­ap­point­ments in Saloni­ca and in the part of the Ottoman Empire where Jew­ish cul­ture flour­ished for cen­turies. Sarde walks read­ers through mar­riages, busi­ness­es, and her family’s pio­neer­ing spir­it of mod­ernism, a spir­it that led sev­er­al fam­i­ly mem­bers to move to France before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. 

Assim­i­la­tion is a tricky dance even before the polit­i­cal tides and the Nazi occu­pa­tion made con­ceal­ing Jew­ish­ness a mat­ter of life or death for the young Sarde and her par­ents. Sephardic del­i­ca­cies that once filled the nur­tur­ing kitchens of Saloni­ca show up spar­ing­ly in the family’s new life in France. Nan­nies and schools place the high­est val­ue on French­ness, pres­sur­ing the fam­i­ly, eager in their own right to belong in their new home, to drop old­er customs. 

Jen­ny mar­ries and embarks on new­ly­wed life in her ear­ly twen­ties as whis­pered rumors slow­ly become more real, mak­ing their way from Cen­tral Europe to France. She must sur­vive and pro­tect Sarde by mov­ing and assum­ing false iden­ti­ties. While she finds sup­port and kind­ness from strangers in unex­pect­ed places, chal­lenge seems to come from every­where, includ­ing from fam­i­ly mem­bers as jeal­ousies and resent­ments run high. Sarde iden­ti­fies strong­ly with her moth­er, shar­ing her emo­tion­al wounds. 

After the war, the fam­i­ly grap­ples with death and a changed coun­try. They strug­gle to regain their foot­ing amid a back­drop of Nazi-col­lab­o­rat­ing neigh­bors, dis­placed per­sons and their unfath­omable trau­ma, scarci­ty, and the duel­ing desire and impos­si­bil­i­ty of regain­ing a sense of nor­mal­cy. Both Jen­ny and her daugh­ter con­tin­ue to feel unsafe and adrift.

A touch­ing account that com­bines fic­tion with research and mem­oir, Return­ing from Silence explores themes of immi­gra­tion, assim­i­la­tion, war, fam­i­ly ties, fem­i­nism, and reli­gion. It begs the read­er to con­sid­er ques­tions of his­to­ry and identity.

Lind­sey Bod­ner is a writer and an edu­ca­tion foun­da­tion direc­tor. She lives in Man­hat­tan with her family.

Discussion Questions