By now, many of the French people who lived through the massive deportations of Jews from France during World War II are gone, but the French literary preoccupation with that national tragedy is still renewed almost annually. The novelists from the first generation of survivors have given way to what Susan Suleiman has called the “1.5 generation”–children born during the war but too young to have understood what was happening around them. A second generation, born after the war but marked by their parents’ experience, by now has produced a significant body of literature as well. It has always been difficult to read books by Holocaust survivors with a critical eye: as we know, a tragic family legacy is no guarantee of literary success, and this difficulty has endured with generation 2.0.
Memory, the translation of a recent novel by Philippe Grimbert, takes on an important sociological issue: the experience of Jewish children born just after the war to parents whose lives had been drastically altered by their war experience but who preferred to keep their wartime suffering hidden from their offspring. The French 1950s, for Jewish families especially, was a time of frightful quietude. From 1945 to 1957, several thousand French Jews changed their names; many others converted to Catholicism. It is difficult today to understand that this strong desire to assimilate was grounded in fear. For some French Jews, bearing a Jewish-sounding name was the equivalent of wearing a yellow star–it marked them as outsiders, prey to a possible return of anti-Semitic politics. Children of survivors and children of those who perished in the camps alike were doomed to contend with this zeal for assimilation, which led in many cases to the repression of wartime losses and family secrets. Nadine Fresco, who studied a group of these children in adulthood, has described their predicament with a memorable phrase: “a diaspora of ashes.”
Grimbert’s novel might be understood as a textbook demonstration of Fresco’s “diaspora.” Published in France in 2006 as Un Secret, then translated in England as Secret, it has been renamed Memory by its American publisher. The title is a misnomer, since what Grimbert intends is a war story that his narrator, born after the war, can’t possibly remember but must come to understand for his own psychological survival. The skewed American title is only one of the problems with a book (and a translation) that manages to be both fascinating and irritating, formulaic and excessive, playing to the reader’s expectations almost too knowingly.
The story begins in ordinary childhood anguish. A scrawny, insecure boy is obsessed with the imaginary brother who has the strength and agility he lacks–qualities he wishes he had inherited from his athletic parents. He follows his mother into the attic, where he finds a toy dog whose existence sends her into a panic. He grabs it and brings it downstairs, to the great discomfort of his parents. He doesn’t yet know that this toy animal is the only surviving clue to a family secret he will learn several years later: he did have a brother–actually a half brother, who was deported along with his father’s first wife.
The task of the narrator of Memory will be to reconstruct the guilt-laden family story that has been kept from him. His father, Maxime, was married to a woman named Hannah but lusted after Hannah’s sister-in-law, Tania. Only after Hannah was deported with their son Simon, and Tania’s husband died in captivity, was he able to marry Tania. Out of guilt or lack of courage, Maxime and Tania decided to keep their former lives hidden from their son, who nonetheless bears the burden of their repression.