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Through telling the story of Iréne Nemirovsky, Jackie Goodall explains why it is so dangerous to remain silent in the face of tyranny and injustice.

Iréne Némirovsky at the age of 25

Iréne Némirovsky at the age of 25 Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During the early spring of 1942, the same year in which she would die at Auschwitz at age 39, Iréne Némirovsky worked relentlessly on her unfinished masterpiece, Suite Francaise, a fictionalized and deeply moving account of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Nazi-occupied France.

Thinking they were diaries, her eldest daughter kept the manuscripts hidden in a suitcase for almost 60 years before she could finally bring herself to read them. When they were eventually published in 2004, it wasn’t so much Némirovsky’s sparkling prose that captured the imagination of the reader, but the devastating notes and letters that accompanied them.

Born in Ukraine in a part of Kiev known as Yiddishland, Iréne Némirovsky was a lonely, troubled child. Bookish and introverted, she loathed her mother, who she regarded as vain, frivolous and snobbish. Her mother’s disdain of the Russian ghettos and the Jewish way of life obviously rubbed off on Nemirovsky and she was later accused, not unjustifiably, of not regarding her own people with any tenderness.

Fleeing first the pogroms of Kiev and then the October Revolution, the Némirovskys fled to Moscow and then Sweden, before finally settling in Paris in 1919. Her banker father, who had a penchant for betting large sums of money at the casino, quickly rebuilt his fortune.

In Paris, Némirovsky’s life underwent a complete transformation. She enrolled at the Sorbonne where she gained a distinction in literature and soon immersed herself in the glamorous life of the wealthy upper-middle class, writing in one of her letters “I’m behaving like a mad woman, it’s shameful. I dance all night long. Every evening there are very chic entertainments in different hotels.”

It was at one of these parties she met her future husband, Michel Epstein, a senior banking executive who would eventually meet the same fate as Iréne. During the early years of their marriage, she gave birth to two daughters and wrote as she lived – fast-paced, producing nine novels between 1935 and 1942, as well as 38 short stories and a biography of Chekhov.

Despite her literary success, connections and assimilation into French society, her dream of French citizenship would forever elude her. During the last seven years of her life, she applied repeatedly, writing in her notes “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 her reasons were also pragmatic. Her fear of the impending war and France’s new discriminatory laws loomed large, as did memories of the previous decade’s violent anti-Semitism. But it was not only France that continually rejected her. Years later, when approached by Irene’s youngest daughter, her mother shouted she had never heard of Iréne Némirovsky.

By 1941, Némirovsky’s heart had hardened, writing “I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us… when will it all end?” She had come to see her once beloved France in terms of a weak and fearful child who would rather be bullied than free; not an abstract fear of some major future event, but of “kicks in the arse or slaps in the face” and it was these small, yet intense indignities that she wished to capture in her writing: the waiting in queues at dawn, the arrival of the Germans, the profound indifference of the people.

Némirovsky depicted the horror of the imminent Holocaust not in factual statements, but in the representation of certain images replayed over again. Instead of describing the horror of shootings, she would present impressions of ironic contrast – a grand party at the Opera House set against people pinning posters on walls detailing those who had been shot – one word for misery, but ten for egotism and cowardice – her words having the effect of being played out on a movie screen, inviting the reader to see and to hear.

France’s final rejection of Némirovsky came on July 13, 1942, when she was delivered into the hands of the Nazis by the French police – her rejection of her Jewish roots and conversion to Catholicism were of no help. Three days later, she was interned at Pithiviers in northern France before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she died a month later. It is ironic perhaps, that Némirovsky means ‘he who knows no peace’. She once observed “I never knew peaceful times. I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger.”

In one of the final letters to her husband written from Pithivers police station, she sent out a last, poignant call for help “My dearest love… I thought we could also ask Caillaux (the former French Prime Minister and friend of Némirovsky) and Father Dimnet for help… If you can send me anything… Books please, and also if possible a bit of salted butter. Goodbye my love!”

Michel Epstein, sick with worry and caring for their two young daughters, wrote a flurry of pitiful letters over the following three months to Nemirovsky’s publishers and various well-connected friends, pleading for help, but although a few sympathised, it was rare to find anyone in the literary and publishing worlds who did not collaborate with the Nazis. In one letter to André Sabatier, the Literary Director of Albin Michel Publishers, Epstein wrote, “Could you please find out if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife…if this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her – we would be better off together.”

In October 1942, Epstein was arrested by the French police and interned at the Drancy internment camp. The following month, he was deported to Auschwitz and sent immediately to the gas chamber. Their two daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, although hunted relentlessly by the French police, escaped death due to the kindness of neighbors.

Under the circumstances, it’s a miracle Némirovsky’s manuscripts and correspondence managed to survive, as the suitcase that contained them accompanied the girls from one precarious hiding place to another.

In hindsight, Némirovsky may have inherited more of her mother’s characteristics than she would have liked to admit. Her pandering to the French elite and her depiction of anti-Semitic stereotypes gained her many detractors. Controversial as she is, however, her lucid writings serve as a vivid and constant reminder of how remaining silent in the face of tyranny and injustice is indeed to choose the side of tyranny and injustice.