Mysterious Postcard Forces French Author to Confront Her Family’s Holocaust History
JTA — On a snowy day in 2003, Lélia Picabia received a postcard at her home in Paris. Mysteriously, it only contained the first names of four of his ancestors who had perished in the Holocaust.
A linguist and Jewish mother of two, Picabia filed the unsigned postcard in her correspondence archive. She found him vaguely threatening and wanted him out of sight.
But the postcard, featuring a photo of an opera house that was once a former Nazi occupation headquarters in Paris, has never really been forgotten. Questions about the identity and intent of the author kept nagging her.
Finally, in 2019, Picabia and her daughter, author Anne Berest, 42, embarked on an investigation that not only likely solved the mystery — private detectives and a handwriting specialist helped Berest identify the likely sender — but also helped them trace the previously unknown history of their family. .
The duo turned their research into literary success in “La carte postale”, an award-winning French-language bestseller published last year. The autofiction work examines how the traumas of the Holocaust play out in the minds of French Jews today, as many of them wonder about their future due to the rise of anti-Semitism .
The success of what Berest calls her anxiety-filled “search for identity” is an “encouraging sign of society’s awareness of the Holocaust in these troubled times,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview.
A gripping personal account crafted as a thriller, featuring private eyes and descriptions of Resistance-era tactics, the book unpacks the saga of a family that the Nazis and their collaborators nearly wiped out. “La Carte postale” wins the prestigious Renaudot Prize in the student literature category, the Political Science Student Prize and the first American version of the even more prestigious Goncourt Prize.
Critical acclaim is not unexpected for Berest, a veteran writer who co-wrote the 2014 international hit “How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are,” a lighthearted ode to women in her city. But critics were impressed with the scope the new book demonstrated.
She was amazed and encouraged by the tens of thousands of book sales, and the many interviews and requests for public readings. It showed that “within French society, alongside anti-Semitism, there are a lot of people who care about Jews and have empathy for them,” Berest said.
Books on the Holocaust certainly have a large readership in France. “The Children of Cadillac,” another self-fictional work spanning three Jewish generations by philosopher Francois Noudelmann, was published last year to critical and commercial acclaim. (He was removed from the Goncourt’s shortlist over fears of a conflict of interest after Noudelmann’s girlfriend, who was on the prize jury, wrote a scathing review of “The Postcard.”)
Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2006 Holocaust epic, “Sarah’s Key,” is one of the most widely read novels written in French this century, with more than 11 million copies sold in dozens of countries. A film adaptation starred Kristin Scott Thomas.
But few books on the Holocaust in France have examined the role of Holocaust trauma in the thinking of French Jews today. Tens of thousands of French Jews have left the country for Israel in recent years following deadly Islamist attacks on them and hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks. Berest’s cousin also now lives in Israel.
The process of deciding to immigrate for security reasons is a recurring and central theme of the book, both in the parts that take place before and after the Holocaust.
The book includes such conversations that Berest herself had with her friends and family – conversations that were rare 20 years ago but have since become commonplace.
One such conversation took place in 2019 at a Passover seder dinner she attended with her life partner, George, who is also Jewish.
“You’re basically living the prospect of reliving what your father went through in the war,” Georges’ best friend William tells him during a conversation about whether it’s time to leave France due anti-Semitism and the electoral successes of the extreme right.
The book is personal, revisiting times in Berest’s own life when she experienced anti-Semitism. A swastika was painted on her house in 1986, and later a teacher who had lovingly mentored her suddenly began to treat her coldly upon discovering that her ancestors had died in Auschwitz.
It traces her childhood and youth, during which she oscillated between shame and pride in her Jewishness, and tells how she has come to own her Jewish identity in recent years. (Berest now attends a Reform congregation, though she says she’s not very observant.)
The book also recounts Berest’s dilemmas as a parent upon learning that his eldest daughter, 10, is going through similar issues to those Berest had faced growing up.
As Berest conducted her deep dive into her family’s Holocaust history, her daughter once remarked that she wished she weren’t Jewish because “at school they don’t like Jews. “. She was referring to a Muslim classmate who kicked her out of soccer games during recess.
When Berest and Georges discuss whether to complain to the principal, Berest says, “I’m not going to report the son of an immigrant housekeeper.
Recognizing that this attitude was condescending, she decided to speak with the director anyway. But she came away shocked by his perceived reluctance to act.
Large parts of the 512-page book are also devoted to telling the recent history of Ashkenazi Jewry through the biographies of Berest’s ancestors, starting in 19th-century Russia. The plot traverses Poland, 1920s France, the United States, pre-state Israel, Nazi-occupied Europe, newly independent Eastern Europe, then back to present-day Paris. today.
But the book begins with an attempt by Berest to explain to non-Jewish readers what it means to her to be Jewish. After an introduction to Judaism, the book quickly dives into the heart of very parochial debates and discussions.
In one, a Jewish woman more involved in community life than Berest accuses the author over dinner of not “being really Jewish”, supposedly of not caring enough about the anti-Semitism.
But being caring and caring enough to leave are two different things, as Berest discovered in her research.
“It became a traumatic question: why didn’t my family leave?” said Berest, whose siblings and grandmother’s parents obeyed authorities during World War II and were murdered. Meanwhile, her grandmother fled Nazi-occupied Paris for the countryside, where she survived in hiding. Still other parents had left Europe before the war.
“Will I, who come from a family that failed to find shelter, be able to? I became obsessed with this question. This is the central questioning of the book,” she said.
Could she and the French Jews currently live such a moment?
“I have moments of growing anxiety, which is definitely part of my identity,” Berest said. “As a good Ashkenazi, anxiety is part of who I am.”