Cracking a Holocaust Mystery With a Little Help From Proust

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Marcel Proust and the madeleine that flooded him with remembrances of things past. Illustration by Nurit Spivak Kovarsky

“A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France,” by Miranda Richmond Mouillot, Crown, 288 pages, $26

“Allowing us to imagine what we do not know stimulates a desire for knowledge,” wrote French author Marcel Proust in his novel “Swann’s Way.” These words proved equally true for Miranda Richmond Mouillot, whose debut novel, “A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France,” delves into the tragic love story of two Holocaust survivors – her grandparents, Anna and Armand – whose marriage inexplicably ended after the war, unleashing the decades-long silence of the memoir’s title.

“The best way to uncover my grandparents’ secret was to imagine my way into it,” Mouillot writes. “I identified with my grandmother so deeply, and I knew my grandfather so well, that I was sure I could figure out what had happened, if I only could set all the facts around me like one of those Kleenex-box dioramas I’d made when I was a child.”

Using conversations and letters with her grandparents, archival documents, photographs, and objects such as an old tin plate that Anna took from a café in Strasbourg in the 1920s and a pink damask napkin she received from a woman awaiting deportation to Auschwitz, Mouillot traces her grandparents’ life and relationship.

Anna and Armand were French Jews of Romanian origin who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Switzerland during the Nazi occupation of France, starting in 1940. After World War II, they bought an old stone house in the southern French village of La Roche, part of the larger commune of Alba-la-Romaine. In 1955, after a decade of increasing alienation from one another, the couple split.

Anna, a physician, and pregnant with their second child, left for the United States to live in the suburbs of New York. Armand occasionally rented out their old house and moved to Geneva to work as a civil servant at the United Nations. They never saw or spoke to each other again until before Anna’s death in 2010, and never revealed what caused their estrangement.

Mouillot was left little choice but to muse on her grandparents’ marriage, the nature of their war trauma, and the emotions and motivations that may have prompted their separation. In 1945 the French Ministry of Justice hired Armand as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, exposing him to the full extent of the Nazis’ terror. Anna, meanwhile, had a more positive outlook on the war, calling it the “university” of her life. This discrepancy, Mouillot speculates, might have led to her grandparents’ divorce.

“The enormity of my grandfather’s silence, I realized, was commensurate with the enormity of the knowledge he carried away from Nuremberg,” she writes. “He did not know how to live in a world where love and that existed. And my grandmother, whose zest and ingenuity had carried them both so far — my grandmother did. And because she was able to continue loving, she left.”

What makes the book so lively are not only Mouillot’s imaginary scenarios, but her dense web of identifications: between herself and her grandmother (both have a talent for finding four-leaved clovers); between her grandparents’ experience of the Holocaust and her own generation as bearers of its memory; between herself as author and Marcel Proust, who helps her piece together her grandfather’s past; and between her grandparents’ love and the love of Proust’s protagonists Swann and Odette. Mouillot delightfully crosses different literary genres: tragic romance, third-generation Holocaust survivor novel, autobiography, fiction, Bildungsroman, and intertextual homage.

‘Work of memory’

Mouillot calls her book “a work of memory,” as it not only centers on the failed love between Anna and Armand, but also on their recollection of the Holocaust. Her grandparents represent two possible ways of commemorating the Holocaust. Anna preferred to take “triumphant pride in all the ingenious ways she’d figured out how to survive”: as a physician in a Swiss refugee camp, or, together with Armand, as grape pickers in the Pyrenees, and later as sandal-makers in Switzerland. She suppressed her painful memories and “surged through life armed with a lid she clapped over her memories when they got out of hand,” while Armand appeared to dwell on more bitter recollections.

“God had not been good to him, and in retaliation, he had become an atheist, [...]. My grandfather spent his days remembering []. His house was filled with books and articles on the persecution of the Jews during World War II, and he regularly attended conferences and films on the subject. The only Jewish holiday he observed was Holocaust Remembrance Day, when he forced himself to sit through at least three hours of Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah.’

“But much like the God he didn’t believe in, he did his remembering in silence. He never said anything about what had happened to his parents, and I never dared to ask him,” writes Mouillot.

Later in life, Armand and his memory faded into dementia, caused by the trauma of the Holocaust and the loss of Anna, according to a nurse at a hospital where Armand had been admitted. Throughout the book, Mouillot relies on Armand’s favorite author, Proust, to help reconstruct his part of the past.

For Proust, the body was the most powerful and authentic medium of remembrance that sparked moments of “involuntary memory,” or bodily sensations that aroused past experiences: At one point in “Swann’s Way” the protagonist Marcel is sitting at a kitchen table, tasting a piece of his famous madeleine dipped in tea and flooding him with memories of former afternoon teas with Aunt Léonie and his youth in the village Combray.

Something similar happens to Armand in “A Fifty-Year Silence” while chewing a dried fig during a visit with his granddaughter in Geneva. The seeds between his teeth, Mouillot surmises, remind him of soldiers’ boots crunching over pebbles, and he begins to describe his time in the French mountain infantry during the war.

In a separate incident, Anna, sitting on the back porch of Mouillot’s parents’ house in North Carolina, experiences a similar moment of involuntary memory. Holding a dessert plate and looking at a streak of red juice smeared across it, she remembers the war and a nearly dead soldier buried under his fellow combatants. Remembrance, in Mouillot’s book, is sometimes contained in seemingly random objects; their incidental taste or sight becomes fodder for literature.

For Mouillot, remembering her grandparents’ experiences means acknowledging the gruesome past while not letting its horror seep into her daily life. “What I really wanted was my own home,” she writes, “a place to keep me safe from the lurking menace of destruction, the horrible crumbling feeling I knew was never far-off.”

Mouillot’s knot of fear and memory unwinds only after finding a home in her grandparents’ former house, which she begins to renovate in 2001, and where she spends her summers until her marriage to Julien Mouillot, a native of La Roche, in 2006. The house “had a presence so palpable, I felt I could grip it with my hands,” Mouillot writes. “Its walls felt safe, cool, and beautiful, as if no memory or sad event could ever perturb them.”

She appears to be following the advice of the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, who escaped the Nazis in 1940 and fled to Sweden, whose poem “To Those of You Building Your New House” encourages Holocaust survivors’ descendants not to let the atrocities of the past dominate the joys of the present.

She writes (according to the translation by Catherine Sommer):

“When you raise your new walls -
Your hearth, your bed, your table and chair -
Don’t hang your tears around those who are gone
And no longer will be living with you
On the stone
Not on the wood -
Or there will be crying in your sleep”

“A Fifty-Year Silence” was released just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year. Written at a time when most of those who witnessed and survived the Nazi genocide are no longer alive, Mouillot’s book is an affectionate tribute to two survivors, her beloved grandparents. The novel assures us that if memory should ever fail, what is forgotten will never entirely be lost. The past will still be there, occasionally showing itself, fleeting and contingent, in haphazard moments, such as the chewing of a fig.

“I realized that when my grandparents passed away,” Mouillot writes, “I would carry within me not only the memory of them but the memory of their memories, on and on over the horizon of being, back to the tohubohu before the waters parted.”

Sarah Pines is a journalist, writer and literary scholar. She currently lives in New York.

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