Summoning the Family Ghosts

August 29, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

The Postcard by French author Anne Berest is a remarkable true story of a Jewish family told in the form of a novel. It opens with the arrival of a mysterious postcard at Berest’s childhood home in the Paris suburbs in 2003. The front of the postcard shows the Opéra Garnier, a famous Paris landmark, and the back has four handwritten names – “Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, Jacques.” There is no other message and no signature.

Berest’s mother, Lélia, immediately recognizes the names as her grandparents, aunt, and uncle, all murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. The family debates who might have sent the postcard and why. Might it be a sympathetic remembrance? Or is it a menacing, anti-Semitic threat? Unsure and uneasy, Léila stuffs the card in a drawer.

Sixteen years later, Berest, disturbed by an anti-Semitic incident in her young daughter’s school, retrieves the postcard and pairs up with Léila to solve the mystery. As captivatingly recounted in Postcard, Berest not only discovers the author of the postcard, but unearths the extraordinary history of her own family.

When to emigrate?

In 1919, Berest’s great-grandparents, Ephraïm and Emma Rabinovich, were comfortably settled in Moscow. For Passover, they joined the extended family at the Rabinovich dacha outside the city. To everyone’s astonishment, Ephraïm’s father, Nachman, a prosperous businessman, warned that it was time to emigrate. Concerned about rising anti-Semitism, Nachman urged his adult children to accompany him to Palestine or go to America, but in any case, to leave Europe.

One hundred years later, in 2019, Berest witnesses an eerily similar conversation during a Passover seder at her boyfriend Georges’ home. The guests, successful French Jews, debate whether an election win by the far-right National Front would signal the need for Jews to leave France. Georges’ cousin is thinking of moving to Israel. Another guest opines that however deeply French they all feel, they are nonetheless descendants of Jewish immigrants, vulnerable to prejudice against outsiders. But others, as at the 1919 seder, dismiss fears of rising intolerance as overblown.

The Jewish love affair with France

As to Ephraïm and Emma, in 1919, they moved from Moscow to Riga, Latvia, then tried out Palestine and then, ignoring Nachman’s doomsday prophecies, relocated to France in 1929. Like many Jews of their time, they idealized France. They admired its egalitarian ideals, its history as the first modern European country to allow Jews to be citizens, and its courageous intellectuals who defended Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer wrongly convicted of treason.

Ephraïm eagerly filed an application for French citizenship, but was repeatedly denied. He and Emma drew consolation from seeing their three accomplished children head towards promising futures. Myriam hoped to become a philosophy professor, Noémie a writer, and Jacques an agricultural engineer. Tragically, only Myriam (Berest’s grandmother) escaped deportation and death.

Invisible Transmission down the Generations

Berest believes in what she calls “invisible transmission” – the idea that your ancestors’ experiences are embedded within you. Although she grew up in a secular household with no exposure to Jewish holidays or rituals, Berest found Georges’ seder in 2019 (her first) wondrously familiar: “My ears already seemed to know the Hebrew chants.”

Yet Berest also inherited a more difficult legacy: “a sense of being hunted.” She describes numerous fears, including being “afraid of being stopped by the police, afraid whenever I have to renew my passport. Afraid of saying that I’m Jewish.”  Nevertheless, she feels a profound responsibility to educate others about the Jewish experience in France, a goal that this engrossing, thought-provoking book surely helps fulfill.