The Post­card

  • Review
By – July 24, 2023

The fate of French Jew­ry dur­ing the Nazis’ occu­pa­tion of France is not a new sto­ry. From Irene Nemirovsky’s posthu­mous con­tem­po­rary account, Suite Française, to Nobel Prize win­ner Patrick Modiano’s more recent fic­tion, the trag­ic tale of how the French col­lab­o­ra­tionist Vichy gov­ern­ment helped the Nazis round up and deport a con­sid­er­able per­cent­age of French Jews has been well doc­u­ment­ed. But as that hor­rif­ic era recedes and mem­o­ries fade, it becomes more vital to recall it. For many French peo­ple of lat­er gen­er­a­tions, even among descen­dants of vic­tims and sur­vivors, the events of the 1940s remain murky. Bring­ing them to light is espe­cial­ly nec­es­sary in a peri­od that has seen a rise in anti­se­mit­ic inci­dents in France and else­where. Thus, Anne Berest’s The Post­card, a final­ist for France’s most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary award, has been a hit in France.

Now appear­ing in Eng­lish, the book weaves sev­er­al strands togeth­er to achieve a high­ly orig­i­nal take. Billed as a nov­el, the book is in fact a mem­oir with fic­tion­al ele­ments. It describes how Berest and her moth­er Leila piece togeth­er the sto­ry of their Jew­ish ances­try after an anony­mous post­card arrives in her mother’s mail­box in the ear­ly 2000s. It con­tains only the names of four peo­ple: Leila’s grand­par­ents and aunt and uncle, all of whom were deport­ed to Auschwitz, where they died. Although she is intrigued by the vex­ing ques­tions of who sent the post­card and why, Anne puts it out of her mind for a num­ber of years — until she hears that her own young daugh­ter has been the object of some school­yard anti­semitism. This leads her to want to find out more about the Jew­ish side of her fam­i­ly, which is some­thing that Leila, a lin­guis­tics schol­ar and trans­la­tor, has been reluc­tant to dis­cuss with Anne and her sib­lings. Leila, how­ev­er, has been involved in a legal pro­ceed­ing to add her rel­a­tives’ names to a Holo­caust memo­r­i­al in the vil­lage where they resided and, in the process, has accu­mu­lat­ed a wealth of doc­u­men­ta­tion about their his­to­ry. Using this trea­sure trove, Berest con­structs a cir­cum­stan­tial account of the Rabi­novitch family’s jour­ney from post – Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia via Latvia and Pales­tine to Paris, where they pros­per and try to assim­i­late into French soci­ety, only to be ensnared in the Holo­caust. Berest ren­ders their per­son­al­i­ties with a novelist’s flair and an eye for dra­mat­ic detail.

While Leila’s grand­par­ents and two of their three chil­dren per­ish, the old­est sib­ling, Myr­i­am, is spared through a com­bi­na­tion of bureau­crat­ic bungling and a for­tu­itous mar­riage into a fam­i­ly active in the Resis­tance — the fam­i­ly of the famous French painter Fran­cis Picabia. Myr­i­am is Leila’s moth­er and Anne’s grand­moth­er, and her sto­ry occu­pies a major por­tion of the final sec­tion of the book — a sto­ry dra­mat­ic enough to be its own nov­el, a kind of spy thriller with a ménage à trois and guest appear­ances by painter Jean Arp and play­wright Samuel Beck­ett. In between long sec­tions recount­ing the sto­ries of the Rabi­novitch­es, Berest tells of her and her mother’s enlight­en­ing but often frus­trat­ing attempts to find out who sent the anony­mous post­card and why. She dis­cov­ers the answer quite inad­ver­tent­ly, after almost giv­ing up on what had seemed a Quixot­ic quest. But that dis­cov­ery only height­ens one of the key themes in the book: the impor­tance of memory. 

Mix­ing fact and fic­tion, Berest writes a sear­ing account that, in places, is dif­fi­cult to read because of its unspar­ing details about depor­ta­tion and the equal­ly har­row­ing expe­ri­ences of Myriam’s sur­vival. This is light­ened some­what by the com­e­dy of Anne’s and Leila’s attempts to play detec­tive. Occa­sion­al­ly there is a some­what clunky feel to the nar­ra­tive, but the over­all tri­umph of the book is its abil­i­ty to blend diverse mate­ri­als into a com­pelling and mem­o­rable whole. 

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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