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  • Denise Epstein

    Not many of us can name a day when our lives change forever, but for Denise Epstein there’s an exact date. It remains a vivid and painful memory, etched on her mind like a tattoo...

    Not many of us can name a day when our lives change forever, but for Denise Epstein there’s an exact date. It remains a vivid and painful memory, etched on her mind like a tattoo. “For me life finished on July 13th 1942,” she tells me over a cup of Fortnum & Mason tea in her modest flat in Toulouse. “Since then I have been surviving day to day.”

    On that day in July, Denise’s mother, the writer Irène Némirovsky, was arrested in the small Burgundy village of Issy-L’Evêque where the family had fled after the fall of Paris for being a “stateless person of Jewish descent”. She was interned at the French concentration camp Pithiviers and then transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later, aged just 39.

    Denise, now aged 77, is an extremely petite woman who moves like someone twenty years younger. Elegantly dressed in a cream polo-neck jumper, black skirt and cardigan, she is extremely warm and welcoming when I visit her, taking my hand in both hers and leading me into her sitting room. Her face is lined and animated, her voice deep and gravely. When she lights up the first of many Benson & Hedges cigarettes she asks me again and again if I mind. I do, but of course I don’t tell say so. At least she has a good excuse for smoking.

    On the day her mother was arrested, Denise recalls that a neighbour ran over to warn the family that the police were coming. The neighbour took Denise, then aged 13 and her younger sister Elizabeth, aged 5, into her house to hide them.

    “When she realised they had just come for my mother she let us go back to say goodbye,” Denise tells me. “My mother told us she was going on a journey; there were no tears, no drama. It wasn’t until I saw the effect it had on my father that I realised the situation was really very serious.” One effect was that he lost his temper with the maid because she laid the table for the evening meal and didn’t lay a place for her mother. “From that day on we always laid a place for her, just as if she’d just gone for a walk and would come back at any moment.”

    Denise’s story would be just another sad tale told by an old lady in a small flat in Toulouse, if it were not for something her mother left behind. Three months after her mother’s disappearance, her father was also taken away. Before he left, as he was convinced at the time, “to join his wife” he told Denise to look after her mother’s notebooks and her sister. When the time came for Denise to flee from the French police who were keen to limit the amount of Jewish orphans left in France, she had the choice of her sister, a leather suitcase containing the notebooks, and her favourite doll.

    “As I had only two hands, I took my sister and the suitcase. I often wonder what happened to that doll,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been searching for it ever since.”
    The manuscripts inside the suitcase contained the text of Suite Française, the French publishing sensation of 2004 which is taking the Anglo-Saxon world by storm. It tells in vivid prose the story of the early days of the Second World War and the reaction of the French to the German invasion.

    Denise only looked at the manuscripts for the first time during the 1970s. “At first I didn’t touch it because I thought my mother would come back and that it belonged to her,” she says. “But after I saw the state of people returning from the camps I lost all hope and realised she would never return. Then for so many years it was just too painful to open at all.”

    Finally a writer friend of Denise’s, on hearing that the notebooks contained the first two parts of a five-part novel, implored her to send it to her publisher. The day he got it he phoned her and asked her to come to Paris. Since then the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. The book has become an international bestseller in over 25 countries. Denise has been flown all over the world to meet editors, publishers and a public who are mad about her story and her mother’s prose.

    Denise remembers her mother as a woman who read to her constantly, who was affectionate, caring and hard-working. “She worked all the time; that was her passion, I was born into books.”

    Another work of Némirovsky’s will be published in France on March 1st. It is called Chaleur du Sang and is one of a number of papers including a selection of short stories Irène sent to a close friend for safe-keeping before her death. “It’s a lovely book,” says Denise. “No war and no Jews, which is a good start.”

    As in Suite Française, the setting and characters in Chaleur du Sang are based on the village of Issey-L’Evêque. “I have never named anyone publicly,” says Denise. “And of course a lot of them are dead. But the ones who aren’t know who they are; every person in it is based on someone we knew. Reading Suite Française was like reading a book about the life I once had.” Only one of the ‘characters’ has got in touch with her. “He’s thrilled to be immortalised,” says Denise. “But I’m not telling you who it is.”

    The only characters who have a real surname in Nemirovsky’s books are the Michauds. Cécile Michaud was the name of Denise’s nanny who became a close friend of Irène’s. On hearing that Hitler had been elected in 1933, Nemirovsky told Michaud: “We’re all going to die.” Denise is still shocked at how much her mother seemed to understand. “I was so angry with my mother when I saw how lucid her prose was, it was so obvious to me that she knew she was going to die and she just abandoned us,” she says.

    So why didn’t they flee France when they had the chance? Denise says she doesn’t know. One theory is that having already fled Russia as a teenager her mother didn’t have the stomach to start again. Another is that they felt protected by those around them. Irène by then was a celebrated and famous novelist in France. The only step she took to try to save herself and her two girls was to convert to Catholicism. This did help the girls; a Catholic lady who had worked for Denise’s grandmother looked after them once their parents had been taken away. After the war Denise and Elizabeth went to their grandmother’s apartment in Paris. “If you’re orphans, go to the orphanage,” she shouted through the closed door. Years later the girls called their grandmother pretending to be journalists. “She told Elizabeth she had never heard of Irène Némirovsky,” says Denise. “The fact is my mother and her mother had a very bad relationship and in almost all of my mother’s books there is a portrayal of a terrible mother figure.”

    From the walls of her one-bedroom flat a photograph of her mother looks down at her daughter, smiling a gentle and mysterious smile, almost Mona-Lisa like. The walls are lined with bookshelves carrying mainly works by Némirovsky translated into everything from Swedish to Chinese. But there are also books by Oscar Wilde, Primo Levi and Tolstoy.
    Now that she is internationally famous, Denise is invited to every major event in Toulouse, such as Bastille Day, but she never goes. “How long will it take them to understand that I will never go to anything involving French flags flying and men in uniform?”
    Not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about the moment her mother was taken away. In fact she can hardly talk about her mother without tears welling up in her eyes. Another great sadness is that her sister Elizabeth died in 1996, before the success of Suite Française. She and her sister had a very difficult relationship to begin with.

    “Elizabeth pulled down a concrete wall on her past and wouldn’t talk about it. I felt guilty because I had memories of a happy childhood and she had none. In the end it wasn’t until she started to write about our mother that we talked about it all and became true sisters.”
    Publishers have been begging Denise to write her own story but she says all she wants to do now is to take a break and catch up with her reading. “I feel with Suite Française I have brought my mother back to life to a certain extent, but it has also been difficult because my own life and my memories of her have almost become public property. Now I want some time alone with them.”

    As I leave I ask Denise where her name comes from. “I don’t know why my mother chose it, I really don’t like it,” she says. “There are so many beautiful Russian Jewish names. But she never called me Denise.”

    “What did she call you?” I ask.

    Tears well up in her eyes. “If you don’t mind, I won’t tell you. I want to keep something between her and me.”

  • Memorial in France

    Sixty five years ago, on March 10 1944, seven young men assembled in the evening twilight for an important mission. They were tasked to fly a Stirling Bomber across to France and to drop seventeen containers to the Resistance. They were all members of 90 Squadron based at Tuddenham Airfield in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmonds.

  • Remembering French-British co-operation at Dunkerque

    Moving scenes in the Channel today as a flotilla of small ships sails from Ramsgate to Dunkerque, marking the 70th anniversary of the World War II evacuation from Northern France.

  • Remembering some of the 'Few'.

    Well, the 8th of May has come around once again and so 'Les Tricolores' have been unfurled on all the monuments in the villages and towns, and preparations made for celebrating the end of the Second World War in France.

    This has been one of those "come and go" celebrations in France where it was somewhat difficult to find sufficient veterans with genuine links to the Resistance to stand in front of the memorials while the National Anthem was played.

    I say "come and go" because various politicians have had a hand in changing the dates and meanings of these celebrations in order to pander to different sectors of the community.

  • The Liberation of St Jean-de-Losne

    We have long thought of French as being two distinct languages: the “written” one and the “spoken” one.
    For example, Pastis and Paris both end in “-is” but one is pronounced “-isse” and the other “-eee”.

    The French love it when we complain about these difficulties because it confirms what they have always thought and that is that everyone who doesn't speak French is somewhat retarded.
    “After all,” they say, “even a three year old French child can speak French!”

    However this week we discovered how difficult it is for French people who do not speak English at all, to sing in English.

    The occasion was the annual celebration in Saint Jean-de-Losne (pronounced John-der-Lone!) of the liberation by the Americans and Allies of the town towards the end of the Second World War. In order to introduce a sense of realism into the proceedings a couple of individuals were dressed in German Army uniforms and were “shot at”by an erstwhile looking member of the “Resistance” who was dressed complete with beret and coal-dust sideburns, to give him a sinister appearance. One of the German actors collapsed in the street from simulated gun-shot wounds, to loud applause from the on-lookers and the other was “arrested” and marched away.

    The “wounded” German was then tended by nurses in period uniforms from an authentic WW2 ambulance. The parade, complete with two bands, then marched around the town with a convoy of vehicles ranging from American tracked artillery pieces, armoured personnel carriers to a motorised tricycle with a chicken coop driven by a beret wearing Frenchman in a stripy jersey but no necklace of onions.

     

    [caption id="attachment_2864" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="The liberation parade"]The liberation parade[/caption]

    The parade then paused at the town's War Memorial where flags were raised and banners were dipped to salute the Fallen, and the town choir sang the French National Anthem. Then to honour the Allies in the war, the small British contingent was to sing “God Save the Queen”. There were very few of us because this is not an area of France where many British ex-pats live. So to bolster our efforts the town choir had taken the trouble to learn the British National Anthem in order that we should not be embarrassed, but the problem was that none of them could speak, let alone sing, in English. So the choir had rehearsed a French phonetic version of English of the First and  Third verses of the British National Anthem, which I have added below, because not many British people know the third verse, and you never know when it might be useful to know it

    [caption id="attachment_2863" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Singing God save the Queen"]Singing God save the Queen[/caption]

    GOD SEVE ZE QUOUINE

    God sève aweu gwècheusse Quouine 
    Longue live aweu nobeul Quouine
    God sève ze Quouine
    Sènde eu(r) vic-to-rieus
    Hapi un-de glo-ri-eus
    Longue tou weigne oveur eusse
    God sève ze Quouine

    O Lord God eu-waïze
    Skètteur aweu è-ne-mize
    Un-de maike zem faul
    Connefaonde zer navich twrik's
    Conn-fiouze zer po-litiks
    One eur aweu hops oui fixe
    God sève ze Quouine

  • When the Village Christmas Lights went out

    The village where I live is in that part of France that was occupied by the Germans during World War 2, as opposed to the ‘other’ southern portion of France which was Vichy France.
    The consequence of this was that there was a German Lieutenant and a section of Germans troops billeted in the village during the War. This gave the village population someone to fear and hate directly, as opposed to the French South where the resources of Police and manpower were put at the disposal of the Third Reich, so ‘They’ instead became the feared official force.

    I have never seen a photograph of this German Lieutenant who was based here, but I am sure I know what he looked like.

    I believe that he was tall, slender and slightly stooped and if he had lived long enough, he would have had a receding hairline which would have meant that he would have been bald by the age of sixty five. In character I think he was dogmatic, dictatorial and definitely thought he was always right, because he did not seek any opinions other than his own.

    Why should be so sure about this?

    Well, I have observed a number of people in the village who have returned here to retire, this being the place of their birth. They all fit the above physical and mental descriptions, but they are not officially related to each other although they were all raised by single mothers, or mothers who apparently lost their husbands during the war. They are also in the age bracket of about 67 to 71. They seem to be like half brothers or sisters.

    The sad part for us present day villagers is that these people, who seem to have some sort of common understanding, have taken control of the village council, and one of them is the mayor. The hoped for result would be an efficient and incorruptible council, but instead we seem to have a dictatorial clique with no desire to question orders, under any circumstances, only to  impose their will on us, the people. The underclass.

    One of their recent edicts was, at the annual competition for “Flower Gardens” and “Christmas Lights” that any one who had won a prize the year before would be ineligible for a prize in the following year.

    There was one fellow who always won the “Flower Garden” first prize, because of the effort and time he expended. This is a guaranteed recipe for jealousy. A garden is not something you can “turn off and on”. It takes years of dedication and commitment. It was his pride and passion. He committed suicide a year ago, and although being denied his rightful place as “Best Gardener” was probably not the cause, it may well have been a contributing factor.

    However, “Christmas Lights” can be turned “off and on”.

    Last year in the village we had splendid displays of Reindeer on Roofs and flashing Stars of Bethlehem, with twinkling impressions of falling snow from the eves of houses. The competition of lights was intense and so unexpected by me, because the Burgundians are a pretty dour lot in winter, and they are not usually inclined to display any sort of exhibitionism.

    But this year’s lights: nothing.

    Well, almost nothing.

    Most of the residents have decided not to have any “Christmas Lights” as a passive protest against a Mayor who they hate. It is sad for the children.

    Two houses in the village have some lights and my little garden Christmas Tree with its single strand of lights will probably qualify for third prize.

    I won’t claim a prize if I win one, because my parents fought against the occupation of France and I will do nothing to support the sons and daughters of the late Occupiers.

    So I must be becoming as dour as my neighbours.

    Am I now condemned to be a Passive Resistor as well?

    I hope not.

    I prefer Active Resistance.

    But to deny myself the pleasure of “Christmas Lights” because the Mayor has decreed that prizes will not be awarded is giving her the ‘power’. There are enough decrees and objections to the celebration of Christmas already in France, and I shall not be a party to weakening, in any way, a celebration that gives everyone an opportunity to review their lives, loves and commitments and to renew friendships and contacts around the world.

    [caption id="attachment_2302" align="aligncenter" width="127" caption="German Lieutenant of WW11 "]German Lieutenant of WW11[/caption]It is sad to think that the German Lieutenant of WW11 is still exercising an indirect influence here.