Ear­li­er this week, Lau­ren Grod­stein wrote about her strange rela­tion­ship with her son’s all-Amer­i­can looks. Her most recent nov­el, The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, will be pub­lished next week by Algo­nquin Books. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

For the past eight sum­mers, I’ve taught cre­ative writ­ing at the Paris Amer­i­can Acad­e­my, a small school in a neigh­bor­hood dot­ted with plaques cel­e­brat­ing French hero­ism dur­ing World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reas­sur­ing speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neigh­bor­hood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood, I lift my eyes to oth­er sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jew­ish chil­dren were tak­en from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remem­bers the com­plic­i­ty of the French.

The com­plic­i­ty of the French. My fam­i­ly is of Pol­ish and Russ­ian descent; dur­ing the ear­ly part of the 1900s, they fled their East­ern Euro­pean shtetls and head­ed west. Those who had the mon­ey kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz dur­ing the war. The few who sur­vived, my cousins, live in Paris.

Every sum­mer, while I’m in France, I have din­ner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: trav­el and books and movies, noth­ing too seri­ous. They’re won­der­ful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to fin­ish. We sit out in their gar­den after and some­times I steal one of their cigarettes. 

This sum­mer, I men­tioned that I’m work­ing on a new nov­el, and that one of the char­ac­ters has a grand­moth­er who sur­vived the war in France. My cousin Fran­cois was curi­ous. How did she survive?”

I was embar­rassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hid­den by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a but­ter deal­er before the war and used his con­nec­tions to save her?

Absolute­ly not,” Fran­cois said. The Jews weren’t in the but­ter busi­ness, and any­way the dairy farm­ers were in Nor­mandy, which was occu­pied by the Ger­mans. Your char­ac­ter would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with sub­sis­tence farmers.”

We went back and forth on the logis­tics of this character’s sto­ry for a while, with Fran­cois describ­ing the way the police kept records of its French cit­i­zens, the way they round­ed up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a sta­di­um and then onto the cat­tle trains. This all hap­pened when his moth­er was sev­en years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her moth­er. When they returned they found their apart­ment ran­sacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. With­in weeks her moth­er found her refuge with peas­ants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the peo­ple she knew died in the camps.

As the details grew more grue­some, I found myself feel­ing off-bal­ance. How could I spend sum­mers here so blithe­ly, in a coun­try that hunt­ed down my own fam­i­ly? And how could Fran­cois be so proud to be French, to have mar­ried a French woman, to be rais­ing French kids? To serve me these entire­ly French meals? And you’re sure this wasn’t the Ger­mans, doing these things?” I was used to think­ing of Ger­mans as the enemy.

No no,” he said. It was the French.” 

I paused, then said some­thing rather impo­lite, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing Francois’s eter­nal hos­pi­tal­i­ty. I just don’t under­stand how you can live here.”

Well,” he said, calm­ly top­ping off our glass­es, like we were dis­cussing the weath­er. How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?”

Fran­cois, the USA nev­er hunt­ed down its own people!”

Didn’t it?” he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to con­vey the unsayable. I looked away.

Lis­ten, all coun­tries have their own hor­ror sto­ries,” he said. And you know, it was French farm­ers who saved my moth­er, a French police­man who told my grand­moth­er to stay away the night of the round up. French resis­tance mem­bers who found my grand­moth­er her false papers. And years before that, it was France that wel­comed them when they escaped the Cossacks.”

Yes, but – but then they -” He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.

Then they what? Some French peo­ple were good, some were not so good. His­to­ry is com­pli­cat­ed,” he said. It’s com­pli­cat­ed for me, and for you, too, non?”

What to say to that? I picked up one of his cig­a­rettes, com­pelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is com­pli­cat­ed, and being Jew­ish any­where is com­pli­cat­ed, I know that. My own coun­try is com­pli­cat­ed, and so is the sto­ry of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not know­ing how to feel. It wasn’t an argu­ment I could win, nor was it one I want­ed to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its peo­ple were? Then why was I so hap­py there, with my French friends, French cousins, French sum­mers? Why were peo­ple so gra­cious to me? Why had I eat­en, on its side­walks, some of the best Jew­ish food of my life? 

I lit my cig­a­rette, defeat­ed by the com­pli­ca­tions and my heavy bel­ly. So instead of solv­ing any­thing, I decid­ed to be grate­ful to be where I was, with the fam­i­ly that survived.

Lau­ren Grodstein’s books include the nov­els The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, A Friend of the Fam­i­ly, and Repro­duc­tion is the Flaw of Love and the sto­ry col­lec­tion The Best of Ani­mals. Lau­ren teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Rut­gers-Cam­den, where she helps admin­is­ter the college’s MFA pro­gram. Vis­it her web­site here.

Lau­ren Grod­stein is the author of Our Short His­to­ry, The Wash­ing­ton Post Book of the Year The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, and The New York Times best­selling A Friend of the Fam­i­ly, among oth­er works. Her sto­ries, essays, and arti­cles have appeared in var­i­ous lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and antholo­gies, and have been trans­lat­ed into French, Ger­man, Chi­nese, and Ital­ian, among oth­er lan­guages. Her work has also appeared in Elle, The New York Times, Refinery29, Salon​.com, Bar­rel­house, Post Road, and The Wash­ing­ton Post. She is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty-Cam­den, where she teach­es in the MFA pro­gram in cre­ative writing.