Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 1942 (translation published in 2006)
Nemirovsky began to write this book in 1940 after the fall of France to the Nazis. She had planned a series of five volumes describing the war and its impact on France, but was interrupted by her arrest on July 13, 1942 by the French police and confinement in the Pithiviers concentration camp. Despite extra-ordinary efforts by her husband, Michel Epstein (!), her publisher and influential literary friends, she was sent the next day to Auschwitz in Convoy #6 and died at Birkenau on August 17, 1942. She was 39 years old. Her husband was also arrested, transported to Auschwitz and murdered on November 6, 1942.
The two volumes in this book were ultimately translated and published due to the efforts of their daughters, Denise and Elisabeth who had been 8 and 3 at the time their parents were murdered. Hidden and cared for by a family friend, they managed to elude the pursuit of the French police who hounded them from Issy to Bordeaux. They survived the war and despite the continuous chaos and danger, Denise had saved her mother’s handwritten notebooks which when transcribed and translated, resulted in Suite Francaise.
Nemirovsky and her husband had emigrated from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. Both had come from wealthy banking families and had lost everything when they fled Russia. They had settled in Paris where Nemirovsky became a well known and respected writer and her husband worked in banking. They had converted to Catholicism in 1939 when it became clear that being Jewish wasn’t a good idea, but the Nazis didn’t recognize their conversion and the French were more than happy to help in killing Jews.
The book’s two sections are quite different. The first entitled Storm in June describes the flight of thousands of Parisians as the blitzkrieg descends on France and the French army dissolves. It is a poignant reminder of the plight of civilians innocently caught up in history, evocative of the situation in Ukraine today. The second section, entitled Dolce describes the occupation of a small French rural village by German soldiers. The occupiers and the occupied achieve a tense equilibrium where every French citizen must determine how they will relate to the invaders. Beautifully written with three dimensional characters, the Germans are depicted as human, not monsters, while the French are portrayed as deceitful, cowardly, and hypocritical.
The book and Nemirovsky’s story reminded me of why I don’t read Holocaust literature. It’s too painful, too real, and too close to home, but if you can manage the emotional upheaval, it’s a book well worth reading.