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Zemirovsky’s Flight from the Juif

Zelda Gamson
January 7, 2018


by Zelda Gamson

Discussed in this essay: The Nemirovsky Question: The Life, Death and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France, by Susan Rubin Suleiman. Yale University Press, 2016, 376 pages.

from the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents


THE LIFE could have made a good novel, and she might even have written it — had she lived to do so. But Irene Nemirovsky died before she could live that life. She was hiding in plain sight, wearing the yellow star, in Issy-l’Eveque, a village in Vichy France. She was arrested in 1942, early in the Nazi occupation, and shipped to Auschwitz, where she died soon afterwards at 39. Her husband, Michel Epstein, died the same way a bit later. They left two young daughters, Denise, 12, and Elisabeth, 5, with their French governess, who spent the war years with them running and hiding from the Germans.

A novel that Nemirovsky had started not long after the German invasion, Suite Francaise, was published in 2004 to worldwide acclaim. Before the war, she had been one of the few women in France to break into the publishing world dominated by men. This is remarkable because she was not only a woman but a foreigner and a Jew.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, in The Nemirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in 20th-Century France, finds a way into Nemirovsky’s life that is compelling for 21st–century readers, Jews as well as other border-crossers. From a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled Russia in January 1918, when she was 15, Nemirovsky spent the rest of her life in France. Having spoken French since childhood, she quickly mastered not only the language but the culture. Her parents lived like the French upper classes, renting elegant apartments, vacationing in Nice and Biarritz, and making appearances in public dressed to kill. Irene led a carefree student life studying Russian literature, comparative literature, and Russian philology at the Sorbonne, and there developed a life-long love of Tolstoy and Chekhov.

When she met Michel, a banker from another wealthy Ukrainian-Jewish family, she realized he was the one for her. Irene had already published a bit before she and Michel married, and she was looking for a life in which she could succeed as a writer, both artistically and financially. Michel fed her already strong identity as a writer, and they led a glamorous life in Paris and various vacation spots. From the base offered by her marriage and Jewish family and friends, she made her way in the publishing world, made herself even more French, and learned the  modus operandi and cultural styles of the publishers she wanted to conquer. This meant cultivating the men who dominated that world, many of whom were conservative and some even antisemitic. She herself did not seem to have strong political beliefs but if she did, they were also conservative.

She published several novels in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as writing for newspapers and magazines. Her novels were realistic and “masculine,” geared to the general public and not to the smaller avant-garde audience of the time. As she grew quite famous, she hoped to make it into the Academie Francaise, a male bastion.


IN 1929, at age 26, she came out with Daniel Golder, the novel that made her reputation. The title character is a Jewish businessman from a poverty-stricken family who leaves his family in Russia and becomes wealthy in the United States. He finally settles in France but finds no happiness in spite of his wealth, and he dies alone. As Suleiman points out, this story is a familiar one: poor Jew becomes rich “by dint of cleverness and fierce ambition” and becomes “morally compromised in the process.” We have versions of this in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Mordechai Richler‘s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky.

Nemirovsky could draw on her own father, Leonid (Leon) Nemirovsky, for inspiration. Born into a poor Yiddish-speaking family, he made a fortune before World War I and was able to provide his wife and daughter with a lavish life in France, but never quite escaped his origins. Irene’s mother looked down on the “little Jews” from the ghetto, and that included her husband. A vain and self-centered woman, she rejected her daughter, and Irene, in turn, despised her mother and was close to her father.

Out of this family drama came Nemirovsky’s lifelong ambivalence about Jews and her love of France and the French language. French was just as much her native tongue as Russian. She and her family were assimilated and wealthy, unlike the poor, Yidddish-speaking Jews from Poland and Russia who made their way to “enlightened” France, where they were called Juifs. For class reasons, Nemirovsky could not be categorized as a Juif, but neither was she one of the long-established French Jews who called themselves “Israelites.” Nevertheless, while Nemirovsky may have been ambivalent about Jews, she wasn’t ambivalent about class; she knew she didn’t belong with the poor Juifs. Her friends were recent well-to-do immigrants like herself and Jews from old French-Jewish families, and she also craved acceptance by non-Jews, most particularly those in publishing.

Daniel Golder was attacked as antisemitic by some Jewish readers. Republished eight decades later (2004), as were other Nemirovsky works that had been forgotten, the book again stirred a hornet’s nest of accusations. Readers of the English translation were appalled by her crude stereotypes of Jews. Ruth Franklin, senior editor at The New Republic, wrote a long article that included a biography of Nemirovsky by the American scholar Jonathan Weiss, who analyzed her treatment of Jews in her fiction as well as her collaboration with a rightwing and antisemitic newspaper that had published stories and installments of her novels in the 1930s. Franklin found Nemirovsky’s treatment of Jews reprehensible, David Golder a “racist travesty of a novel.” When a later Nemirovsky novel, The Dogs and the Wolves, was published in England, the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement found its portrayals of Jewish characters so awful that a “Nazi publishing house” promoting “racial stereotypes” might have been very happy with it. Critics piled on, repeating Franklin’s accusations and coming up with some of their own.


IN THE END, Irene and Michel met the fate of French Jews, Juifs as well as Israelites. For several years Irene and Michel talked about applying for citizenship, but for various reasons held off — once when she was in the running for the Prix Goncourt for David Golder — until it was too late. The whole family was baptized in February 1939, as many Jews in France and other countries were under the duress of Nazism. Michel left his job and the family depended on Irene to support them through her writing, but as a Jew she was prevented from publishing. Finances and negotiating daily life in Issy-l’Eveque preoccupied them, and it took some time for them to see the danger they were in. When Irene finally did hear about Vichy measures against foreigners, she wrote to Marshal Petain himself, invoking mutual acquaintances, her devotion to France, and their common bond as persons of letters. She asked that she not be categorized as a stateless person. “I cannot believe, Monsieur le Marechal, that no distinction should be made between the undesirables and the honorable foreigners who, if they have received from France a royal hospitality, are aware of having done everything in their power to deserve it. I therefore request from your great benevolence that my family and I be included in the second category of persons, that we be allowed to reside freely in France and that I be allowed to exercise my profession of novelist.”

“Monsieur le Marechal” did not respond. “What is obvious today,” writes Suleiman, “but much less so in September 1940 is that all the rules she had successfully lived by for more than twenty years were changing, indeed, they had already changed.” As they realized what could happen, they called on old friends and publishers to help. Her longtime publisher, Albin Michel, came through with payments that exceeded what she was owed. With the help of Michel, who spoke German, she wrote a letter to the commander of the administrative department where Issy-l’Eveque was located, asking for permission to go to Paris to see her publisher and take her daughter to the eye doctor. The commander refused the request.

Increasingly desperate letters went out until Irene was arrested, then Michel. What they didn’t do was run — to the Unoccupied zone not far away, to Switzerland, to Portugal, to the United States. There was little in their life in France that had prepared them to take such action. They didn’t have friends or connections to organizations that might have helped. Yet 75 percent of French Jews survived the Holocaust, one of the highest survival rates in Europe. French citizens and non-French heroes like the American Varian Fry helped save Jews, taking in children, hiding adults, getting them to Switzerland, Portugal, the United States. Irene and Michel’s privilege could have protected them; instead it exposed them.

Their daughters, however, survived. When as adults they came into possession of the suitcase their mother left behind, they found a trove of papers, notes, and a relatively intact new novel which became Suite Francaise. Suleiman’s book is partly based on interviews with them and their children and grandchildren. Elisabeth Gille, the younger daughter, was a senior editor at an important publishing house in Paris. She did not remember much about her parents. The older sister, Denise, did remember. Both sisters set about learning all they could about their mother, Denise doing research that Elisabeth incorporated into a book, Le Mirador (The Watchtower), published in 1992. In it, she refers to her mother’s obliviousness about the growing dangers facing Jews, herself and her family. She questions her parents’ poor judgment, which put their daughters at risk.

In 1996, Elisabeth completed a novel, Shadows of a Childhood, which tells the story of a young Jewish orphan girl during the war. Elisabeth died just as this book was published. It became a classic of autobiographical fiction about the Holocaust at a time in France when, after decades after the war, the appetite for such accounts was growing.

It fell to Denise to deal with what became Suite Francaise. From the pages in the suitcase, she produced a typescript, which she sent to the writer Myriam Anissimov, who brought it  to her publisher. It came out in 2004, won the Renaudot Prize, and became a bestseller sixty-two years after Nemirovsky’s death. Denise was invited around the world to speak about her mother, and at age 75 became a bit of a celebrity. The real celebrity, of course, was Irene, back from the dead with a gift to her family, a final, successful work that trained a critical eye on the French, not on the Jews.


WHY SHOULD WE be interested in the Nemirovsky story? In Suleiman’s brilliant telling, it has much to say about the choices that boundary-crossers (Jews, members of other minority groups, talented women) must make. Choices may be limited but there are some, depending on specific contexts. Assimilation is sometimes a choice, and so is non-assimilation. We see in Nemirovsky’s case that to make her way in the publishing world in 1920s and 1930s France, assimilation, even dissimulation, seemed to be required. Her private life was more mixed. Much of her writing (but not all) was built on Jewish characters and on the obstacles to assimilation, including their own unassimilable Jewish traits that they saw — with shame — reflected in other Jews. This might be seen as self-hatred or antisemitism, sometimes crude and sometimes more subtle. Suleiman reminds us that Proust and Kafka were also accused of antisemitism. “But the fact is,” she observes, that Jewish self-estrangement

existed and continues to exist, not only among Jews but also among other devalued minorities, and not only in Europe. It was the African American theorist W.E.B. DuBois who coined the phrase “double consciousness” to describe the split subjectivity that occurs in members of such a minority as they interact with their own group and with the privileged majority.

DuBois characterized this “double consciousness” as “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” For Irene Nemirovsky, the despised image she saw reflected in Vichy France’s mirror would reach out and destroy her.


Zelda Gamson, a contributing writer to our magazine, is a sociologist who was on the faculty of the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts. She works on climate change and affordable housing issues.