Monday, June 15, 2009

BC About the Author: Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 into a wealthy banking family and emigrated to France during the Russian Revolution. After attending the Sorbonne, she began to write and swiftly achieved success with her first novel, David Golder, which was followed by more than a dozen other books. She was arrested by the French police in July 1942 and died in Auschwitz in August, aged 39 (although having converted to Catholicism in 1939, she was Jewish by descent). Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested by the French police a few months later in November 1942, and was sent straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

Immediately after arresting Michel, the police went in search of their two +/-
children, Denise and Elisabeth (Babet), then aged five and ten, but Denise's school teacher hid her behind her bed and the two girls were able to flee in the care of their governess and family friend, Julie Dumot. Before leaving Denise put her mother's manuscript in her suitcase as a memento of her mother. They spent the rest of the war moving from place to place, staying one step ahead of the police, who continued to hunt for them.

When the war was over, the two girls went to their grandmother's house for help. Their grandmother was very wealthy and had spent the war in great comfort in the South of France. But she refused to help the girls and told them to go to an orphanage. Each day Denise and Elisabeth would go to the train station with signs around their necks to meet the trains with survivors from the camps, and also to a hotel that had been turned into a reception area for returning deportees, but to no avail.

Many years passed and Denise and Elisabeth could never bring themselves to read the notebooks. Eventually, they agreed to entrust their mother's notebooks to an organization dedicated to documenting memories, but before giving them up, Denise decided to type the notes out. It was only then that they realized that these were not the notes of a private diary, as they had assumed, but a vivid snapshot of France and the French--spineless, defeated, and occupied. Elisabeth died in 1996 without having read the manuscript, but earlier she had written a magnificently imagined biography of her mother, Le Mirador (The Watchtower) who she never had the chance to know--being only five years old when Irene died in Auschwitz. More than 60 years later, Suite Française, was published posthumously, for the first time, in 2006. The book has sold 600,000 copies in French and close to one million more in 30 other languages.

To find out more about Irène's life, check out this article from the BBC. Still want more? Have a look at this site that's been put together as a companion to an exhibition, called Woman of Letters, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. (It will be open until August 30th.) This website is great because you can see photos of the manuscript (you can actually "manually" flip through the manuscript) and other artifacts from Irene's life. You can actually hear the curator of the museum through pre-recorded snippets that go along with each item. There is also a short video by Denise, talking about her mother's early life. So, you get pretty close to an actual hands-on experience without visiting the museum. Enjoy!

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