I am reading Suite Francaise at the moment, as good a book as I have ever read. It is about France during the second-world war, written by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian-Jew who lived in France and was carted off to Auschwitz in front of her two daughters on July 13th 1942. “I am going on a journey now,” she told them. Of course they never saw her again. She died a month later aged 39.
Her story made me weep. I suppose as a writer with two daughters it was easy for me to relate to her. But it also made me think about how easy we have it now and how much we take for granted.
Yesterday I took Olivia to the dentist. In the waiting room we sat next to an elderly lady called Francoise. She told me about Pezenas during the war, when the Germans were here. She told me how she worked as a maid in a house with a large terrace. On that terrace there were vast pots filled with earth. Every day she pushed the pots a little closer to the edge, ready for the final push when she would tip them onto the German soldiers marching below, singing nationalistic songs.
She regrets to this day that her plan was foiled by the lady of the house who was too scared to let her go on with it. “I was almost there,” she told me. “But they were so heavy I could only do a bit each time.”
Francoise, now aged 86, lost her husband and brother in the war. Her husband died in a POW camp never knowing he had a little daughter called Leanne. She still hates the Germans.
In her dedication at the front of Suite Francaise Irene’s daughter (who found the book among her mother’s belongings) dedicates it to “everyone who has felt and continues to feel the tragedy of intolerence”. My generation has no reason to hate for as long or with such venom as Francoise’s does. I hope it stays that way.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007