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Howard F Jaeckel

Book Review — “The Postcard”

Because of my family background, I’ve read many books dealing with the Holocaust. None has affected me more than Anne Berest’s autobiographical novel,  The Postcard.

Mass murderer Joseph Stalin is said to have observed that a single death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic. The exceptional power of The Postcard derives from its focus on a single family – the author’s — whose members the reader comes to know and care about through her intimate and sensitive portrayal. Though the reader of course knows the ultimate horror with which the Vichy regime’s escalating anti-Semitic measures will culminate, the sudden arrest and deportation of two of the children, amidst seemingly ordinary circumstances, is profoundly shocking

The plot is based on real events from the author’s life.  Anne (the author’s eponymous counterpart) relates how on a snowy January morning her mother received a tourist postcard, without signature or return address, containing nothing but the first names of her grandparents, aunt and uncle, all of whom were murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. The postcard is disturbing; who could have sent it and why? In the absence of apparent answers or any way to ascertain them, the postcard is put away and ultimately forgotten.

Until, that is, several uncomfortable incidents remind Anne, an unbeliever who has had no involvement with Jewish traditions or religion, that she is in fact a Jew. Feeling some shame about how little she knows about her own background, she presses her mother, who has previously done extensive research on the fate of her relatives, to tell her the family’s story.

That story, taking up the first part of the novel, is intensely involving.   As children are born and economic  prosperity is won and lost, the narrative follows the Rabinovitch family on their journeys, often as refugees, from Bolshevik Russia to Latvia and then Palestine, where the family patriarch has taken his wife to grow oranges, after warning his children that the chill winds of anti-Semitism are again blowing in Europe and urging them to get out.  Ultimately, the family  settles in Paris, then regarded as a golden land by East European Jews.

The family prospers.  Ephraïm, the father, is an inventor and gains a patent for a device that proves very successful commercially.  The two daughters, Myriam (Anne’s grandmother) and Noémie are brilliant students who are accepted at  the Sorbonne where they happily pursue their respective passions.  Jacques, the youngest of the Rabinovitch children, is less academically inclined than his sisters, but shows promise as an athlete.  Life is good.

But not all is well.  Ephraïm, who has made prodigious efforts to become more French than the French, repeatedly has citizenship applications for him and his family rejected, which historically-aware readers will recognize as ominous; foreign Jews were the first to be arrested by the Vichy police and deported to their deaths.

When the Germans occupy Paris, the Rabinovitch family retreats to their rural home in the “free zone,”  unoccupied by the Germans under the Armistice.  At first, life continues with relative normalcy.  But the noose of the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitic measures gradually tightens and ultimately Ephraïm, his wife Emma, Noémie and Jacques are deported.  By virtue of her sudden marriage to a young French bohemian who lives in the country, Myriam, the family’s only survivor, escapes by the slenderest of threads. She later gives birth to Lélia, Anne’s mother.

The novel’s second part,  concerns Anne’s intense need to find out who sent the postcard and why.  Her investigation leads her to a private detective and a handwriting expert.  Then, in the hope of finding living neighbors who might remember her relatives, she makes several trips, accompanied by her mother, to the small French village of their country home.  Pervasive in this part of the book is the theme of what being Jewish means to a non-religious and totally assimilated person like the author, who nonetheless has a family connection to the Holocaust.

As someone who never even had a bar mitzvah but whose physician parents were refugees from the Nazis and all of whose grandparents were murdered by them, that theme particularly resonated with this reviewer.   Despite my father’s having had a large family in Poland with whom he spent every summer, we had no relatives in the United States or in continental Europe.  As to my relatives in Israel and England — my  mother’s brothers, my dad’s sister, and their families – I did not meet them until I was in my teens.

I am very much an American.   My highest ideals are universalist American ones, as expressed in our wonderful national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” – Out of Many, One.  But I have a strong particularistic streak, a powerful Jewish identification that makes it entirely predictable what items in the day’s newspaper I will first read, and where I can likely be found when browsing in a book store.  And it makes me think in ways that my friends and colleagues with native-born American parents never would.

In the novel, Anne is unaccustomedly attending a Passover Seder at the home of her boyfriend when a romantic rival suggests that she is Jewish only when it suits her. Weeks later, reading a book titled “Children of Survivors,” she thinks how she should have answered that cutting remark:

“Deborah, I don’t know what it means to be “truly Jewish” or “not truly Jewish.” All I can tell you is that I’m the child of a survivor. That is, someone who may not be familiar with the Seder rituals, but whose family died in the gas chambers.  . . . You said I’m only Jewish when it suits me. But, Deborah, when my daughter was born, when I held her for the first time, do you know what I thought of? The first image that went through my mind? It was the mothers who were breastfeeding when they were sent to the gas chambers.”

I am a man, and will never hold a child to whom I have just given birth. I will never breastfeed a baby.

Yet I identified powerfully with that passage.

I remembered a time when I was taking my dog to the vet and, realizing where we were going, he began to whimper.  And what did his whimpering make me think of as I took him for a rather routine medical treatment?

I thought of the indescribable pain and helplessness parents must have felt on the trains to the death camps, being unable to do anything to protect or even meaningfully comfort their children.

That is part of what it means to be Jewish to the children of survivors.  Anne Berest has compellingly captured it.

About the Author
Howard F Jaeckel is a retired American lawyer who worked for a major broadcasting company for many years. He has a longstanding interest in constitutional law and has followed the issue of judicial reform in Israel closely.
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