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.