BOOK REVIEW: Refugee Writer Irène Némirovsky Loved the French To No Avail As She Was Swept Up in the Holocaust

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Note: This review was originally published on the Huntington News Network site (www.huntingtonnews.net) in 2010. I thought it deserved republishing now in view of recent events in France.


Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever do they forgive them. — Oscar Wilde

There are only two tragedies in life; one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. — Oscar Wilde

The first statement by Oscar Wilde is quoted in “The Life of Irène Némirovsky ” by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated from the French by Euan Cameron (Knopf, 464 pages, $35.00, 16 pages of photographs, bibliography, notes, index), the first full-scale biography of a Russian-Jewish emigre writer (1903-1942) who perished in Auschwitz because of the shameful French collaboration with the occupying Germans during World War II.

The second Wilde epigraph is one that came to me as I pondered the thinking of Irène Némirovsky and her fellow refugee husband Michel Epstein, who were repeatedly turned down for French citizenship as war clouds formed, due to the pervasive anti-Semitism of the French. Not that French citizenship would have kept her and her husband from the Nazi death factories (their two daughters, both of whom were French citizens, survived), but the refusal to grant these lovers of France citizenship after they lived in France for decades speaks volumes about the thinking in the “Dark Continent”, as British historian Mark Mazower so accurately describes 20th Century Europe in a masterful book 1999 book (also published by Knopf) bearing that title.

Their oldest daughter, Denise Epstein, born in 1929, labored mightily to preserve her mother’s literary reputation, gathering the unfinished manuscript of what was published in 2004 as “Suite Francaise.” The posthumous publication of what has been called the “War and Peace” of the Second World War won Irène Némirovsky international acclaim and brought millions of readers to her work.

But, as Philipponnat and Lienhardt write, the story of Irène’s own life is no less dramatic and moving than her most powerful fiction.

With her well-to-do family, she escaped Russia in 1919 — they lived in Kiev, Ukraine, and had visited France many times before World War I — and settled in Paris, where she met and married fellow Jewish emigre Michel Epstein, who called himself a banker. In reality, Michel was a relatively minor functionary at a bank that “Aryanized” itself when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, firing all its Jewish employees.

Michel’s income while he worked was not sufficient to support the lifestyle that Irène had become accustomed to so they depended on the income Irène earned from her writing. Beginning in 1929, with the publication of “David Golder”, Némirovsky chronicled the life of wealthy Jews and Gentiles in books written in expressive French, the language she loved above all.

Irène’s books were controversial, with Jewish critics often claiming that they fueled the anti-Semitic stereotypes that prevailed throughout the world, but were especially virulent in France and Germany. Irène retorted that she wrote about what she knew, growing up in a world where her father was a one-time business associate of one of the Bernie Madoffs of the time, Swedish “Match King” Ivar Kreuger, a Gentile who committed suicide in his Paris apartment in 1932.

When France was defeated by Germany in June 1940, Némirovsky’s reknown wasn’t sufficient to protect her; without French citizenship, she was forced to seek refuge in a small Burgundy village with her husband and their two young daughters. In July 1942 Némirovsky was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died the following month. He husband was also arrested and murdered by the Nazis; daughters Denise and Elizabeth survived.

This biography draws on Némirovsky’s diaries, previously untapped archival material, and interviews, her biographers give us at once an intimate picture of her life and turbulent times and an illuminating examination of the ways in which she used the details of her remarkable life to create what “The New York Times Book Review” called “some of the greatest, most humane, and incisive fiction [World War II] has produced.”

The authors themselves wondered why the family didn’t travel to Switzerland or another country that would have saved their lives. I think Irène and Michel trusted the French; they loved the nation that literally turned its back on them, one of the greatest tragedies and ironies of their story. This is a powerful biography and an indictment of an inexplicable hatred that persists to this day in the “Dark Continent” (Europe) and elsewhere.

Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com

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