Book Reviews

Maman, What are We Called Now?

By Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar

Persephone £12.00

Review by Anne Sebba, Weekend Telegraph, October 31 2015

Maman, What are We Called Now?There are not many still alive who suffered the horror of being a Jewish child in France from 1940-44. But those who are, now approaching ninety or beyond, increasingly want to tell their life stories, often after decades of largely self-imposed silence. This summer, at the annual commemoration in Paris of the Vel dHiv round up of July 16th 1942, when French police using French buses arrested 13,152 French Jews including more than 4,000 children most of whom were then killed in Auschwitz, an elderly woman stood at the podium and relived the terrifying experience. Annette Krajcer, a survivor now in her late 80s, spoke of the deafening noise, the filthy and insanitary conditions, the painful hunger with almost nothing to eat and drink for three days and above all the gut-wrenching moment when she said goodbye to her mother, deported to Auschwitz. And yet the abiding memory for her and most of the children was, above all, one of constant fear and uncertainty. “Maman, que vont ils faire de nous?” she and her sister Leah kept asking their mother, who of course had no answer. Like so many, the Krajcers thought of themselves as law-abiding French citizens living in a country that prized tolerance and human rights, especially since France was the first European country to emancipate Jews. Why, then, were they now being hounded out? Although Annette and Leah survived -“by a miracle”- the rest of her life was, she said, marked by her experience of knowing that most of the other 4,000 children did not.

Unquenchable fear, for adults as well as children, is at the heart of “Maman, What are We called Now,” a journal kept by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (her nom de plume) after her husband Andr, then fighting in a Jewish resistance network, was arrested and deported on the last train to Auschwitz. When she hears that he is in being held in either Fresnes or Cherche-Midi, both notorious Paris prisons where inmates were often tortured or shot, she says how impossible it is to share such visceral fear as “It cuts one off from everyone.” She has to carry on talking normally, flirting with the crooked black market grocer, putting on her makeup and doing her hair. It is the only way, even though she feels such behaviour is a betrayal of her husbands suffering.

Jacqueline was born into a middle class, assimilated Jewish family who identified as French rather than Jewish, and was educated at the Sorbonne. Her diary has a vibrant freshness to it – she knows that the Allies have landed in Normandy and that the end of the War is a matter of time – but she knows this may be too late for Andr. But the diary is also full of flashbacks as well as eloquent reflections on the situation in France and on life in general. In spite of her desperate anxiety, she tries to maintain normality for the couples daughter, Sylvie, who celebrates her tenth birthday on August 15, 1944 with a small and sad tea party, held at a secret location where her mother is in hiding. The description of how parents try to shield children from painful knowledge is brilliantly drawn. Sylvie is extremely knowing. She stiffens slightly as she tried to hear what the adults are saying thats how children are now, now that they know; their mistrust is oppressive but intermittent…

“What do our children really know about our fear? So close to it and yet so removed, often they seem to leave us, to abandon the adult world in which time moves on, to live in their own eternal present.”

Jacqueline is disturbed by some of the strange things her daughter is now saying such as the time she dreamt her baby cousin had been put in a box labelled ‘Deportation’ but has to ask what the word means? Another time, right in the middle of the station at Aix-les-Bains, where she and her mother were making yet another hasty departure, amidst all the confusion, Sylvie asks loudly, Maman, what are we called now? a poignant question which Persephone has taken as the books English title. Then, one morning in the street when a stranger asked her how old she was, Sylvie turned and anxiously referred the question: “How old am I, Maman?”

Mesnil-Amar has written one of the most eloquent accounts of what happened to the Jewish population of France as a result of their abandonment by the Vichy government of Marshal Ptain. She is painfully articulate about the blindness of ‘old’ French Jews to the true situation and the shameful reactions of so many of us. The poor foreign Jews were, she writes, such easy victims, and, “it has to be said, (they) received precious little help from French Jews.” But she pays tribute to the courage of some ordinary French women, like the magnificent Nana, who risked their lives to shelter Jews.

Mesnil-Amars decision to publish her diary in 1957 was driven by the memory of those she had encountered returning to Paris from the camps, emaciated, shaven-haired and dazed, often still in their concentration camp clothes, who begged her tell the world of their suffering. But by that time the country was fighting a war in Algeria and there was little appetite for looking back at “Les Annes Noires,” the black years of French history. Attitudes changed very slowly, but after the 1969 the film Le Chagrin et Le Piti, followed in 1972 by Robert Paxtons demythologising book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, there was a growing desire to understand why the country had agreed to collaboration. Finally, in 1995, President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the complicity of the French state in the tragedy of Vel DHiv and apologised.

This is the first English translation of Mesnil-Amars book and, like all Persephone books, is beautifully printed with thoughtful endpapers, in this case a yellow and black design from a contemporary fabric printed in Lyons – the yellow a sad evocation of the star which all Jews had to sew onto their outerwear in France after 1942. Some however, like Jacquelines father, in hiding with the family cook, bravely refused; he insisted on sporting his World War One medals instead. This edition greatly benefits from an insightful introduction by Caroline Moorehead as well as photographs by the US photo journalist, Thrse Bonney, from her book Europes Children 1939-43. Bonneys images of frightened children behind barbed wire, their doleful eyes staring at the camera not knowing what is to become of them, lying on a street asleep or freezing with a blanket wrapped around them, shocked the world in the 1940s and are now shocking us again, almost daily, in Europe, images many thought they would never see again.

Amazingly, Andr and five companions escaped by jumping from the train taking them to Germany and, after the War, he and Jacqueline founded an organisation to help returning Jewish deportees. While it might have pleased Jacqueline to know that in 2015 she was reaching a new, English audience, she would have grieved at the timelessness of her subject matter. She railed at the appalling fate of Europes hundreds of thousands of displaced orphans and children, many of whom had forgotten who they were or where they came from, let alone what religion they were. The final part of this book contains some of her essays about the unsettled life facing these orphans such as nine year of Olga, who survived three weeks hiding in the family flat after the rest of her family had been deported, until the day the concierge found her by chance. She had tried to gas herself.

Anne Sebba is writing Les Parisiennes: how women lived, loved and died in Paris from 1939-49 to be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2016