Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Paris Journal XII: Irène Némirovsky (1903-1942)

“As of the summer of 1942 and due to the use of files established after the promulgation of the German decree making it obligatory for all the Jews to be registered in census, the Jews of France were hunted down and systematically rounded up by the French police and the Nazi occupying forces” (Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris). 76,000 Jews were deported, many of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 3,000 were sent to camps in France, while another 1,000 were executed on the spot. One of these boys was Edouard Schiff, born in 1937 and deported in 1942 when he was five. His picture is one of thousands preserved at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. Another was Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky, who was born in Kiev and died at Auschwitz in 1942, was the author of ten novels, including David Golder, published in 1929 and made into movie by Julien Duvivier in 1930. L’héritage familial, le souvenir d’être Russe, l’étrangete d’être juive, la volonté d’être francaise—“family heritage, the remembrance of being Russian, the strangeness of being Jewish, the wish to be French”—were some of the themes that the curator of the exhibit at the Shoah Memorial has singled out in Némirovsky’s work. The author, whose oeuvre has been compared to Tolstoy, Balzac and Dumas in its realism, was what we now call an assimilated Jew, and her earliest memories where not of the pogroms, which occurred in Kiev from 18-20 October 1905, but of the Carnival at Nice, which she saw in 1906 at the age of three. Her parents used their wealth to escape their ethnicity and eventually emigrated to France. Némirovsky disdained her mother, and David Golder, the story of a Jewish businessman, in many ways seems to be a roman à clef about her father Léon, who was a banker. She received criticism about the novel in the Jewish press. Portraying the world of moneyed Jews was regarded as a form anti-Semitism. But even Némirovsky’s baptism and conversion to Catholicism in 1939, which appears to have been a defensive measure in the face of the growing anti-Semitism she faced, didn’t spare her. Némirovsky wrote, Si le bonheur n’existe pas, il y en a du moins un contrefaçon assez exacte ici bascréer; créer de la vie ou de l’art, peu importe, créer est un plaisir plus que humaine, créer est le passe-temps des dieux.  (“If happiness doesn’t exist, there is at least something close enough—to create. To create from life or from art, it doesn't matter. To create is a pleasure more than human, to create is the pastime of the gods.”) Némirovsky wrote that in 1920 when she was only 17 and had yet to live her short, complicated life.

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