Author Anne Berest Was Afraid of Her Jewishness. Then She Received an Unusual Postcard

‘The word Jewish was never mentioned at home,’ says the author, whose new book, ‘The Postcard,’ is about five generations of her family – from pogroms in Russia to her grandmother’s love triangle

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Author Anne Berest. 'The truth is that the postcard sent to my mother’s house scared us.'
Author Anne Berest. 'The truth is that the postcard sent to my mother’s house scared us.'Credit: Laurent Zabulon/ABACAPRESS.COM/Reuters
Gaby Levin

The appearance of Anne Berest’s new book, “The Postcard” – a family saga written almost like a detective story, was accompanied by a row that engulfed the French literary world. The list of candidates for the Goncourt literary prize, released at the end of September, had two books about Jewish families in the last century: Berest’s and “The Children of Cadillac” by philosopher Francois Noudelmann.

However, one of the judges on the panel, author Camille Laurens, had written a scathing review of Berest’s book. It quickly came to light that Laurens is Noudelmann’s girlfriend. His book was removed from the list of candidates and the Goncourt rules were changed to prohibit judges from publishing their opinion on a book listed for the prize. Berest’s book didn’t make it to the last stage of the Goncourt Prize, but was listed for the Renaudot Prize.

“The Postcard” is the result of meticulous research into the story of a Jewish family in the 20th century, beginning in Russia after the , going through Latvia and Palestine and ending in contemporary Paris. It portrays five generations of the Rabinovitch family and the well-known course of pogroms, persecution, financial success and the loss of property, Mandatory Palestine and the . Five family members left Palestine for Paris, where they strived to become French. However, four of them ended up at Auschwitz. The author’s grandmother, Myriam Picabia-Bouveris, survived the war and died in the 1990s.

The cover of "The Postcard."Credit: Grasset

“Writing our family history was really a journey into the past, made while at the same time I was trying to make sense of the present, the significance of being Jewish in contemporary France, with the secular life I lead. Until I wrote this book, the issue of Jewishness did not come up,” says Berest.

What initiated this investigation? Why did you go searching for your roots?

“Two years ago, when my daughter was six, she asked my mother, who had come to pick her up from school: Grandma, are you Jewish? After being answered in the affirmative, she asked if I, her mother, was also Jewish, and then if she were Jewish as well. When she found out she was, she was crestfallen. My mother asked her why the answer saddened her and she replied that Jews . I was in shock. I couldn’t ask her directly why it bothered her, I felt a barrier, an inability to deal with the question. And then I remembered the postcard.”

The name of the book refers to a surprising postcard that Berest received in 2003. In response to the question of why she suddenly remembered it, she says: “The truth is that the postcard sent to my mother’s house scared us. It was a photograph of the Paris Opera House, the colors indicating that it was taken in the 1950s. Four names were written on the postcard: Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques. Ephraïm and Emma were the parents of my grandmother Myriam; Noémie and Jacques were her younger siblings. All four died in Auschwitz.

“The postcard was unsigned and the handwriting was a bit strange, as if forged. This reminder, which arrived in our lives as if from beyond time, was threatening, as if it boded ill. The Opera House was very loved by the , and during the occupation, Nazi flags fluttered above it. Senior German officers loved operas, and fancy gala evening were arranged for them.

Anne Berest. "It took me a while to accept my Jewish identity."Credit: Marie Marot

“During Hitler’s short visit to Paris, he went to the building accompanied by architect Albert Speer, so that he could show Speer what the building to be built in the new capital that would replace Berlin should look like. The mention of the names of our family sounded like a threat, like a non-final list of victims. My mother, who is Myriam’s daughter, placed the postcard in a drawer and we forgot all about it. Perhaps we were all repressing it.”

A grandfather who liked men

The story of the Rabinovitch family begins in Moscow, after the October revolution. Nachman and Esther Rabinovitch, the founders of this dynasty, were affluent merchants. Even after the revolution, when they believed that hatred of Jews was a thing of the past, they sensed the evil winds blowing in their direction. The two decided to leave Russia and go to Palestine, to grow citrus fruit. Their three sons refused to join them, and wandered across Europe.

The eldest son, Ephraïm, was an avid socialist before the revolution, but was persecuted by the Communists in its wake, like the rest of the socialists and the Mensheviks. With his wife Emma and their new baby Myriam (Berest’s grandmother) they secretly crossed the border into Latvia, settling down in Riga. After a period of relative calm and the birth of their second daughter Noémie, there were rumors in 1925 of Jews being persecuted in the city of Lodz, in Poland. Esther’s family lived there, as well as across Eastern Europe.

Vicente Picabia in an undated photograph. The non-Jewish son of the avant-garde painter Francis Picabia married Berest's maternal grandmother Myriam.Credit: Family archive

Ephraïm and Emma decided to join his parents in Palestine with their daughters. They went to Migdal, where Nachman and Esther tended a citrus grove. But Ephraïm and Emma, who in the meantime gave birth to a third child, Jacques, could not handle the climate and the hard work, and after five years the family left for Paris.

Ephraïm, an engineer by profession, hoped to get French citizenship. In the meantime, World War II broke out, France surrendered to the Nazis and the Vichy regime promulgated its antisemitic laws, which placed foreign Jews in danger. As part of his struggle to obtain citizenship, Ephraïm gave up the prosperous company he had set up in Paris and bought a house and land in the countryside, hoping to pose as a French farmer. The entire family moved to a village, but his efforts were in vain. In July 1942, two of the children, Noémie and Jacques, were arrested and transferred to the horrific Pithiviers transit camp, and from there to Auschwitz. Ephraïm and Emma were arrested several months later, and their fate was similar to that of their children. All their property was plundered.

Before the family’s arrest, their eldest daughter Myriam, then a student at the Sorbonne, got married to a young and handsome Bohemian, Vicente Picabia, the son of the avant-garde painter Francis Picabia, who wasn’t Jewish. Vicente smoked opium and loved men, but was attracted to Myriam as an act of defiance. “She’s not pretty but she’s Jewish,” he declared. Despite being married to a Frenchman, Myriam was still in danger and was saved thanks to Vicente’s mother Gabriële, who was a member of the French Resistance. She smuggled Myriam in the trunk of her car, along with Jean Arp, an anti-Nazi German, into France’s “free zone.”

Did your mother not talk about her family?

“My mother had a family archive, organized in boxes, but she never talked about her parents, not about Myriam and Vicente, perhaps because her father committed suicide at a young age, perhaps because he was homosexual, perhaps because of the unconventional life the two of them led with their friend Yves, with whom they had a love triangle during the war.

Anne Berest. 'Writing our family history was a journey into the past, made while at the same time I was trying to make sense of the present, the significance of being Jewish in contemporary France.'Credit: Laurent Zabulon/ABACAPRESS.COM/Reuters

“After she was smuggled into the free zone by Gabriële and members of the underground, Myriam hid in an isolated house on a mountain in the town of Céreste. Vicente and his friend Yves arrived a bit later. They were recruited to the Resistance, to a group commanded by Captain Alexandre, the nom de guerre of the poet René Char (a close friend of Albert Camus).

“After the war and the birth of my mother, and after Vicente’s suicide, Myriam married Yves and stayed with him in Céreste. But Yves also died under tragic circumstances, and her house was always full of melancholy, perhaps depression. She never talked about herself and I didn’t dare ask. I always thought she was from Provence, a region where I spent all my childhood vacations. The word Jewish was never mentioned.”

A pair of bumbling detectives

Berest, who is 42, lives in Paris. When she was young, she studied writing for the theater. She has two daughters. As writer and a playwright she has turned books into plays and has written several novels, as well as the biographies of Francoise Sagan, Gabriële Buffet-Picabia and others.

You conducted thorough research about your family, and in “The Postcard” you describe in great detail Vicente’s opium dens, the camp in Pithiviers. How do you, as a researcher, explain your earlier lack of interest in your family history?

“It took me a while to accept my Jewish identity. My father is not Jewish. His family name, Berest, is Breton, and so is the way I look. I was scared to be Jewish. Perhaps I internalized my grandmother’s fears, since she lost all her family because they were Jewish. The trauma has been going on for three generations, it seems. In order to write this book, I recruited my mother and turned her into a partner in my research.

The Paris Opera House. Hitler visited the building accompanied by German architect Albert Speer to get inspiration for the future capital of Nazi Germany.Credit: Peter Rivera/Flickr

“What interested us of course was the source of that postcard, who sent it and why they didn’t sign their name, why was the stamp stuck upside down, with the head of Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, pointing down? I turned to a graphologist to decipher the handwriting and find the sender. In the book, my mother, who is a linguist, and I became like a pair of bumbling detectives. But like in a detective novel, the identity of the sender is revealed only in the last lines.”

In your book you refer to the absence of graves for your family.

“Nachman and Esther, Myriam’s grandparents who went to Palestine, are buried at the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, a dignified location. I regard my book as a kind of Kaddish [mourning] prayer, or perhaps a grave, for my family that was murdered in the . But I prefer seeing Judaism as something living. For me, being Jewish means asking yourself throughout your life: What does it mean to be Jewish? I inherited certain fears, such as a fear of flying, a fear of authority and administration. I think all these are not foreign to my being Jewish. I inherited a neurosis and nightmares, but I’m alive.”

Anne Berest. 'I believe in a continuity that is transferred through names. My second name is Myriam and my younger sister Claire’s second name is Noémie.'Credit: Audrey Poree/ABACAPRESS.COM / Reuters

You attribute importance to the names of your grandmother Myriam and her sister Noémie, who died in .

“I believe in a continuity that is transferred through names. My second name is Myriam and my younger sister Claire’s second name is Noémie. Claire writes books just as our aunt Noémie, whom we never met, dreamed of being a writer. The original Noémie worshipped the novelist Irène Némirovsky, whom it seems she met at Pithiviers. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in his book ‘The Elusive Embrace’ that for him, as a secular Jew, names have a magical power. I as an author wanted to enter dark spaces; the mysterious past attracts me.”

You and your sister Claire wrote a biography of your great-grandmother Gabriële.

“Gabriële was a fascinating character: an independent young woman, a musician and feminist before the term existed. In 1908, at the age of 27, she met the painter Francis Picabia, who was already famous but also had a shady reputation. He felt the need to renew himself and married her, and she became ‘the woman with the erotic brain’ who made him think and clearly formulate his artistic theory.

Samuel Becket in 1966. Berest's great-grandmother Gabriële Buffet-Picabia, who was in the French Resistance, fought alongside him in Paris.Credit: Barbara Jackson/AP

“She was surrounded by famous artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp and Guillaume Apollinaire, and they were all in love with her. She wandered between Paris, New York, Berlin, Zurich and Saint-Tropez. She was the muse for abstract artists, for Dadaists, always at the forefront of artistic innovation. Vicente and his sister Jeanine were the children of Picabia, but it seems that their father was sorry that they were not the children of Duchamp, who was their mother’s lover. During the war Gabriële, who was in the Resistance, fought alongside Samuel Beckett in Paris.”

Regarding dark spaces, in your book you describe the death of Jacques in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Is that voyeurism? No one has dared to describe such a place, except perhaps Steven Spielberg in “Schindler’s List,” who did it in very poor taste.

“I allow myself to quote , who said once that on the day no witnesses to the Holocaust remain, novelists will have to write about it.”

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