Yesterday I spent the day in Toulouse with Denise Epstein, the daughter of Irene Nemirovsky (see ‘We’ve never had it so good‘ blog below). Ever since I heard about Irene being carted off Auschwitz in front of her two daughters and read her brilliant book about the war, I have been obsessed with her story. I know there are millions of stories out there, most of which will never be told, but hers has really touched me.
Her daughter lives in a modest flat in Toulouse. She is now 77. She is a tiny woman but with a strength that shines through. Even now, after all these years, every time she talks about her mother tears well up in her eyes. One of the most interesting things she told me was that the characters in Suite Francaise are all based on real people that the family knew.
More shocking was the fact that it was the French police, not the Nazis, who pursued her and her little sister Elizabeth after her parents had been murdered. At the time she was thirteen and her sister was only five. She said they had a policy of deporting orphans because they knew what an economic catastrophe thousands of Jewish orphans would be for France. In fact when they were finally caught and arrested the Nazi officer they were taken to said he had no orders to deport them and told them to scarper.
It seems inconceivable that one can be arrested simply for belonging to a certain race. What’s to stop the French suddenly turning against the Brits here and stopping them from working, leading normal lives, owning property and then eventually carting them off to concentration camps? It seems far-fetched, but it happened to the Jews. I’m sure one of the reasons Irene didn’t simply leave France with her family when she could is that she didn’t believe it would actually happen to her. Maybe I would be the same. No, on second thoughts now that I know her story, I don’t think I’d take the chance. At the first sign of trouble we’d be off.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007