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Nazis human not monsters

Irene Nermirovsky's newly discovered manuscript is about harmonious life in Nazi-occupied France.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 18:16 IST
Reuters
Reuters
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The story of how a Jewish girl survived World War Two, protected her mother's notes from the Nazis and saw them published decades later is as extraordinary as the acclaimed novel about life in occupied France itself.

When her parents were arrested in 1942 and taken to concentration camp to die, Denise Epstein, then 13, was on the run.

She hid in cellars and schools, covered her "Jewish" nose in public -- a habit she still has to this day -- and tried to prevent her five-year-old sister from making too much noise at night for fear of being discovered.

"This hunt, compared with what my parents went through, was nothing," Epstein, now 76, told Reuters in an interview. "There are moments that leave their indelible mark, but I'm alive."

Wherever she went during her flight, she took a suitcase containing what turned out to be a literary gold mine.

Her mother, a renowned writer, had been working on her masterpiece during the war, a novel set in occupied France that portrays German soldiers as humans, not monsters, and examines why so many French citizens lived happily alongside them.

In 1996, Epstein finally plucked up the courage to read the pages of tiny hand-written notes.

"When my father was arrested he handed me the famous suitcase and told me: 'You must never part with this because there is a notebook of your mother's inside'.

"This was perhaps the last thing he said to me. For years I did not even open the suitcase. I thought it was my mother who should open the case, and it was years before I could accept the idea that she would not do so."

Through several more happy twists of fate, the unfinished novel Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky finally saw the light of day, and was hailed as a sensation when it was published in France in 2004.

FRANCE'S SHAME

It has sold nearly 500,000 copies and is now being published in English. Reviews for a book that has been compared to Anne Frank's diary have been glowing.

"Even in its incomplete form, Suite Francaise is one of those rare books that demands to be read," the Guardian wrote. Le Monde called it "a masterpiece ... ripped from oblivion."

Epstein sees her mother's final novel as part of France's slow acceptance of a difficult passage in its history, when the Vichy government stood accused of being a Nazi puppet state.

"France preferred to maintain the image that (Charles) de Gaulle had after the war that all French served in the resistance. There was complete silence for years."

Suite Francaise, which comprises two of five planned parts that describe families fleeing Paris and settling elsewhere in occupied France, stands out both because it was written as the events unfolded and because it refused to stereotype characters.

Nemirovsky knew she was destined to die in a Nazi labour camp, and yet she pitied German soldiers who were called up to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front.

"I feel sorry for these poor children," she wrote in her diaries.

Nemirovsky, whose family fled the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian revolution, had enjoyed success as a writer in the 1930s and moved in privileged circles in pre-war France.

But that could not save her.

Epstein said: "In her very last letters to her editor, she said 'I am so tired, I am working so hard and yet I know that my works will be posthumous.'"