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Maman, What are We Called Now? by Jacqueline…
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Maman, What are We Called Now? (1957)

by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar

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"We -- I in particular -- loved that Parisian life, the patrician culture, which was, essentially, already part of another era and, worst of all, we failed to foresee the hatred and the horror looming on the horizon, nor were we aware that we were about to be betrayed by a large section of our own social class, a betrayal that would be cold, timorous, and poorly concealed under a veneer of politeness. It was already too late when we began to worry about the German Jews, or the Spanish socialists, when we began to help the refugees who were starting to arrive in droves from every direction... We understood too late what was happening."

"They let it happen, didn't they, they let that poisonous climate develop on their own soil, and let it flourish over thirteen years, to become a breeding ground for injustice and blind brutality?"

I'll start with the physical book. The image above hardly communicates what a lovely objet d'art the book itself is. The feel of the paper, the construction of the book, the endpaper which is from a textile designed for l'Atelier Offner in Lyon 1939-42 (says the Persephone Books website) -- all add up to a delightful object that is a pleasure to hold and to read.

The narrative is the journal of a Frenchwoman from the last months of the Nazi occupation of France. She is a Jew and her husband has been deported; she and their 9-year-old daughter hide and wait and hope and wait for his return. The title comes from a poignant scene during which the daughter, trying to make sense of the ever-shifting landscape of desperate subterfuge for survival, asks her mother what their surname is at that moment. She asks other questions, as well: how old am I? Where do we live? All in a childish effort to tell the story her mother has urged her to tell, the truth as it exists that week, with a sensed but barely understood set of ramifications for failure to answer officials' questions correctly.

The author is a woman of some means and privileged in her longstanding French heritage. This hardly makes her safe, but it provide some buffer between her, her daughter, and the French collaborators who are all too happy to turn Jews over to the German officials. She recognizes the distinctions that render some human beings safe(r) and some absolutely vulnerable, and she rails against them as the war ends and she comes to terms with its terrible aftermath.

Highly recommended. ( )
5 vote EBT1002 | Dec 11, 2016 |
The first half of this book, a reprint of the author’s diary, is a scattered account of the days and weeks leading up to the Liberation of Paris in 1944. Inevitably, each entry veers between elation and despair: the end of the War is in sight but Mesnil-Amar’s husband is in German hands, and destined to be on the last deportation train out of Paris. The family, who are Jewish, have spent the war years moving between half a dozen cities in both Vichy and the Occupied Zone, sometimes living on the kindness of strangers, more often forced to pay for help. As luck would have it, they can afford to pay for shelter. They are affluent members of the Parisian upper class who have, until the War, taken their wealth and privilege for granted. ‘We failed to see the horror looming on the horizon,’ Mesnil-Amar writes, ‘…nor were we aware that we were about to be betrayed by a large section of our own social class, a betrayal that would be cold, timorous, and poorly concealed under a veneer of politeness.’

She is equally hard on herself. If, in the pre-war years, they had ‘danced on volcanoes’, as non-practicing Jews they had also failed to align themselves with the hordes of refugees arriving from outside their borders. She ‘understood too late’ the implications of this flight from Hitler and it is not until the second half of the book, written in the aftermath of the discovery of the death camps, that the personal finally become the political for Mesnil-Amar.

In a series of articles written between 1944 and 1946 she becomes the volcano. She is consumed by rage: at the Nazis… at herself… by the destruction of several generations of Jews. She pictures herself in the cattle trucks, she sees herself and her child in the showers at Auschwitz. She rejects attempts by the German public to whitewash their involvement, to deny their collusion, in the rise of Hitler. But it is for the French themselves that she reserves the worst of her scorn. The French have moved into a state of ‘willful amnesia’ over their role in the Holocaust and Mesnil-Amar will not stand for it. She names collaborators. She lists their crimes, she urges her readers not to forget ‘the appalling complicity,’ that followed the invasion, ‘the insidious almost smug cowardice, that shocking race for jobs, even by those who had no need of them, that frantic anxiety to please, to kow-tow, sometimes even taking a secret delight in doing so’. She refuses ‘to draw a line under it all’, refuses to move on until, called upon to work with refugees, she finally finds an outlet for her grief. ( )
1 vote romain | Aug 22, 2016 |
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