On July 13, 1942, Irene Nemirovsky, one of the most popular novelists of her day in France, was arrested on the charge of being a “stateless person of Jewish descent,” by police in the town of Issy l’Eveque, in Vichy France. Four days later, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died of disease on August 17, at the age of 39.
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The life – and death – of Nemirovsky, who published more than a dozen novels, many of which were bestsellers as well as critical successes, would have been largely forgotten if not for her daughters. They survived the Holocaust, saved her final, unfinished manuscript - andhad it published in France more than 60 years later.
That book, which included a love story between a Frenchwoman and a German soldier, was critically acclaimed. Ultimately translated into more than 30 foreign languages, “Suite Francaise” led to the republication in France, and translation internationally of many of Nemirovsky’s earlier works during the past decade.
Privileged among the Jews
Irina Lvovna Nemirovskaya was born in Kiev, Ukraine, on February 24, 1903. Her father, Leon Nemirovsky, was a highly successful banker; her mother was the former Fanny Margoulis, whom the daughter portrayed in her semi-autobiographical fiction as a philanderer and social climber.
In 1913, the family received permission to move to St. Petersburg, an unusual privilege for Jews. There, Irene was raised and educated in French, and circulated with her family among the most privileged elements of Christian society.
However, when the revolution began in 1917, the family fled Russia. After brief spells in Finland and Sweden, they arrived in Paris in 1919.
There, in 1926, Nemirovsky received her bachelor of arts degree at the Sorbonne. That same year, she married Michel Epstein, also a Russian Jew, also a banker like her father. They had two daughters, Denise, in 1929, and Elisabethe, in 1937.
Nemirovsky published her first novel in 1927. Over the next 13 years, by the end of which time no French publisher would publish the work of a Jew, she brought out another 13 books.
Her first big seller was “David Golden,” in 1930, which depicted the relationships between a voracious, Russian-born Jewish banker and his self-centered wife and daughter. The book, which was adapted for the screen that same year, made its author famous overnight. It also led to accusations, even then, that Nemirovsky was deploying anti-Semitic stereotypes in her portrayals of Jews.
Jewish, after all
A similar discussion has greeted Nemirovsky’s posthumous career over the past decade. Clearly, Nemirovsky identified with her adoptive home of France, and was highly assimilated, and in some cases disdainful vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. As one of her characters, in Le Maitre des Ames, put it: “What I wanted was your culture, your morality, your virtues, everything that was greater than me, different from me, different from the muck in which I was born!”
But France didn’t want her, not even after she and her husband converted to Catholicism, in 1939, and Nemirovsky was shocked and hurt when France rejected her multiple applications for citizenship. By 1940, Michel was fired from his job at a Paris bank, and no respectable publisher would take on Irene’s work.
The Germans would invade Paris on June 14, 1940, ahead of which the family fled. They headed south, to unoccupied France, where the girls were placed with an adoptive family. Later, after the arrest of their parents, the daughters were helped by various friends to survive the war in hiding.
As for Irene, she wrote to Marshal Petain in 1940 protesting that she was not an “unwanted foreigner.” During the two months between her arrest and his own, Michel appealed desperately to the German ambassador for her release, writing that, “although my wife is of the Jewish race, she writes about Jews without any tenderness.”
Obviously, it didn’t help, and by November 1942, both Irene and Michel were dead, in Auschwitz.
Only in the 1990s did Denise Nemirovsky examine the unfinished manuscript of her mother’s that she had saved after Irene’s arrest, and kept with her for the intervening half-century. It turned out to be the first two parts of an anticipated five-part novel about the German occupation of France, written almost in real time. In 2004, it was published in France, as “Suite Francaise,” and almost immediately in other languages worldwide.