Reading: A balm in Gilead

My mind is a jumble: more than one war, migration, building and preservation, what to make for dinner… Reading is a balm.

The Postcard, by Anne Berest

This autobiographical novel is the story of a family in France undone by the Holocaust. 

Our narrator Anne receives a postcard oddly inscribed with four names: Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, Jacques.

Why now? The four listed on the postcard had perished in the Holocaust. Since then, the family had fallen away from Judaism, because they’d been hid and cared for by Christians during and after World War Two.

This is a complex, perfectly told tale. (It’s based on Berest’s family.) We follow Eprhraïm, Emma, Myriam, Noémie and Jacques as they emigrate from Moscow and Palestine. The Rabinovitch family finally makes a home in France, eventually settling in Les Forges, a village outside of Paris. 

The parents take up farming, even though Ephraïm is an inventor and his wife is a pianist. Myriam and sister Noémie thrive at school; Jacques cottons to his uncle Boris, a noted agricultural scientist in what was then Czechoslovakia. 

We come to know this family intimately. 

As the Germans close in, Ephraïm’s brother flees to Los Angeles to continue his film career. A cousin on her way to New York scoffs at Ephraïm’s calm. A kind neighbor in Les Forges offers to help the family leave France. 

They’ve moved so many times, Eprhaïm thinks. They’re tired. They’ve filed papers to become French citizens.

First Noémie and Jacques are taken. (Miriam, married and living in Paris, eludes capture.) Weeks later, husband and wife are told to report for work in Germany. Trying to be good French citizens, they go — to their deaths. 

After the war ends, Myriam searches for her parents and siblings and takes a job in Germany as a translator. She clings to the hope that the four are alive, somewhere. 

Myriam’s story is the most wrenching. Her husband, jailed for transporting sheets and towels, becomes an opium addict and dies from an overdose. She leaves their small daughter in the care of a Christian. 

That child is Lélia, mother of Anne, our narrator. The two of them can’t quit the postcard: who wrote it? Who sent it? Why now? 

Near the end of this deeply satisfying book, Anne asks, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Maybe, she continues on, the answer was contained within another question: “What does it mean to wonder what it means to be Jewish?” 

I loved The Postcard. Here are some favorite reads that try to answer Anne’s question:

When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant. Set during the founding of Israel. 

The Loudest Voice, by Grace Paley. A short story about a young Jewish girl’s role in a Christmas play. 

Enemies, A Love Story, by I.B. Singer. A Holocaust survivor finds himself married to three women. 

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