David Biale and Sarah Abrevaya Stein
As the Holocaust fades further into history, it seems to loom larger and larger in memory. Seventy years after the end of the war, a second and third generation born after those traumatic events continues to wrestle with their meaning. Indeed, it is striking how that struggle becomes ever more intense just as the first-hand witnesses pass from the scene and their testimony can only be recovered second-hand or through dusty documents.
Within the growing literature of memory, that produced in France occupies a special place. There are many reasons for this. France was the primary destination of refuge for German, Austrian and Polish Jews, even before the war, more than doubling the French Jewish population from 150,000 to 340,000. During the Holocaust itself, the Vichy regime was one of the most eager to collaborate with the Nazis, passing anti-Jewish legislation as early as the fall of 1940 and before the Germans even demanded it. The police and the railroad authorities—to name but two French authorities—participated fully in the roundup and deportation of the Jews to their deaths. And, yet, the fact that over 75,000 Jews—and not more—were deported to the death camps, while some 264,000 survived, says much about the willingness of ordinary Frenchmen and women to hide and protect those whom their own government was hunting. And many of these were foreign Jews, whom Vichy targeted first.
The French record is therefore complex, even contradictory. And given the relatively high rate of survival, the French Jewish community, still today, has deep and extensive connections to that past as well as an increasing culture of commemoration. Indeed, no casual tourist in Paris—or elsewhere in France—can fail to notice the plaques on schools memorializing the Jewish pupils brutally deported from the neighborhood or on ordinary houses where others were sheltered and thereby saved.
The culture of Holocaust memory therefore owes a great deal to French creativity. One thinks of that iconic memoir, Elie Wiesel’s Night; Andre Schwarz-Bart’s pioneering novel, The Last of the Just; Jean-François Steiner’s angry polemic, Treblinka; and Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece, Shoah. To this list, we can now add Ivan Jablonka’s A History of the Grandparents I Never Had. We have here a project of recovery, not only by a grandson who never knew his grandparents (as the title tells us), but also by the historian’s father, who was barely three years old when his mother and father were seized by the French police, interned in Drancy and shipped to Auschwitz in March, 1943.
Unlike the other works just mentioned, however, Jablonka’s book, written in luminescent prose, is the meticulous product of an historian who combines oral interviews with survivors and their descendants with archival and other printed evidence—all with the ambition of filling a historical void. In Jablonka’s words: “To do history is to lend an ear to the pulse of silence, to attempt to replace an anguish so intense as to suffice unto itself, with the sweet, sorrowful respect the human condition inspires in us. This is my work.” As he strains against silence, Jablonka refuses to indulge his imagination, even where he has gaps in his story. Near the end, he relaxes this firm historical rule when he tries to reconstruct his grandfather Matès’s months in Auschwitz, since the evidence suggests the possibility that he may have been assigned to the Sonderkommando that worked in the crematoria. Because his death was not witnessed or recorded, Jablonka entertains several possibilities, but all within the realm of the plausible.
As a history of the Holocaust, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had has certain virtues that are missing from more synoptic accounts. This is the story of two people—not six million—and not only of their tragic fate but also of their dreams and struggles. It has the virtue of a micro-history in that we come to identify with these two passionate young people—Matès and Idesa—whom Jablonka has brought to life (one is tempted to say: “resurrected”). At the same time, through their particular stories, we also engage a panorama of twentieth-century Jewish history, for Jablonka refuses to let the Holocaust serve as the inevitable telos of his story: just as his two protagonists could not know their fate, so we must attend to their hopes and dreams before the iron cage closed.
Jablonka reconstructs in vivid detail the shtetl of Parczew, southeast of Warsaw, during the interwar period. It was highly symptomatic of the time that Shloyme Jablonka, the fervently Orthodox keeper of the ritual bathhouse, should have had five children all of whom embraced Communism. The winds of secularism and revolution thus blew through this small Jewish community, carrying along many of its children with them. Why they should have abandoned tradition so decisively and taken up the red flag remains hard to fathom, but the break was dramatic and irreversible. Both Matès and Idesa were prepared to undergo imprisonment at the hands of the Polish government for their beliefs, as fervently held as was the religiosity of their forebears.
Like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews, oppressed by rising antisemitism, political persecution, and economic misery, Matès and Idesa flee for France. But the land of “liberty, equality, fraternity” is not as welcoming as it had been in the past to refugees and migrants. We are struck by the desperation of foreign Jews in the late 1930s, many of them—especially the Germans and Poles—divested of their citizenship but rejected by France. How eerily familiar it sounds today, as similarly desperate Africans and Middle Easterners attempt to crash the borders of Europe. To be stateless in the 1930s, as Hannah Arendt, herself a stateless Jew in France, reminds us, prefigured what has become so much of the human condition. If for no other reason, this part of the book should be required reading for those seeking to gain some perspective on the crisis of migration today.
Another little known story is the role of foreign Jews in the French army after the beginning of the Second World War. Despite the cruelties of the French state, which had rejected them and tried, with varying degrees of success, to deport them, many rushed to enlist, motivated in part by hopes of regularizing their status and in part by the fervent desire to defeat fascism. Absent any direct account by Matès of his experiences in the war, especially after the German invasion of May 1940, Jablonka skillfully reconstructs what Matès must have gone through by use of both military histories and memoiristic accounts by others.
The final chapters of the book concern the German occupation and the looming threat of a much more ominous deportation. Here, too, lacking any direct account by Matès or Idesa, except for a few fragments, Jablonka painstakingly traces those who lived in the same hiding place in Paris and solicits information from them and their relatives. Stunningly, the small passageway where his grandparents hid with their children is but a few steps from where Ivan Jablonka’s own children attended preschool, a sign of how intimate are these sites of memory.
The war years are a tale of darkness and light: the darkness of Auschwitz and the light of rescue. The sheer goodness manifested by so many people in saving Suzanne and Marcel, Jablonka's aunt and father, cannot compensate for the loss, but it somehow comes close to evening the ledger: the Polish Christian who told the gendarmes who had come to take Matès and Idesa that the children were his; Annette and Constant—she Idesa’s cousin and he a French non-Jewish anarchist—who served as the children’s guardians; and the elderly couple named Courtoux, who sheltered the children for a year and half in the Brittany countryside. And these in addition to underground organizations like the Rue Amelot Committee, all of whose members risked their lives so that others, especially children, might live.
Ivan Jablonka tells this story in passionate yet reserved style, appropriate to the historian, even when writing about his own family. He interjects himself sparingly into the tale, but to good effect, so that we can appreciate the challenge of reconstructing two lives seemingly swept away by history. In meeting that challenge, he has not only given new life to the dead of his family but also made them our family.