Arrested as a Jew under the racial laws, Novelist Irene Nemirovsky, died at Auschwitz at the age of 39. Successful in her day, she is now best known for the posthumously published Suite française. How France sent its greatest chronicler of the Nazi occupation to her death.
By Alex Kershaw – Author of ‘The Bedford Boys’, ‘ Avenue of Spies’ and ‘The Liberator’
“In life, as on a shipwrecked boat, you have to cut off the hands of anyone who tries to hang on. Alone, you can stay afloat. If you waste time saving other people, you’re finished.”
Irene Nemirovsky, author of Suite Francaise.
On 11 July 1942, 39-year-old Irene Nemirovsky walked alone through beautiful countryside near Issy-l’Eveque, a village in the Bourgogne around two hundred miles south of Paris. Her home was a large building near a former livestock building in the village, just a short walk from the local police station. She had a wonderful view of the Morvan hills. Her husband, Michel, grew beetroot and other vegetables in a large garden nearby and so she and her two daughters had not gone hungry.
The Russian-born writer was a striking woman with large, highly intelligent eyes, her dark hair usually pulled back from her broad forehead. That day, she felt unusually carefree, her sense of dread and doom having abated. She had been forced to write these last months in minute lettering because of a shortage of paper and was near completing what would be her masterpiece, to be titled Suite Francaise. But as a Jewish author she could no longer publish her work and she had little hope, if any, of ever seeing it in print. Nor could she ride a bicycle or take a train to her beloved Paris, which she had fled in 1940 just ahead of the German advance.
She had recently been reading the journal of the writer Katherine Mansfield and had noted certain lines that matched her own mood: “Just when one thinks: “Now I’ve touched the bottom of the sea – now I can’t go down any lower,” one sinks deeper still. And so on for ever.” But she did not feel that way today, 11 July 1942, as she walked in the woods near her home. Pine trees towered above her as she down on her blue cardigan, which she had laid on a dank blanket of rotting leaves. She had a copy of the novel Anna Karenina and an orange in her bag. She listened to a steady drone of honeybees. Later that day, she would pen her last words in a letter to her editor in Paris: “I’ve written a great deal lately. I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”
Two days later, on Monday 13 July, the weather was again superb. It was around 10am when a car stopped in the Place du Monument aux Morts in Issy-l’Eveque. There was the sound of footsteps then a knock on the door. Two French policemen had a summons with them. Irene’s two children were with her and her husband. One was called Denise. She heard her parents go into their bedroom. Irene asked her husband to do all he could to secure her release through contacts with important people in Paris, those with connections to the Germans, especially high profile collaborators. There was a “dense silence”, recalled Denise, and then the gendarmes allowed her to kiss her mother goodbye. Irene threw a few things into a suitcase. Her voice frail, she told her children she had to go away for a while. Denise looked at her father. He was clearly very upset but he did not cry. Finally, Denise heard a car door slam shut and then the “dense silence” returned.
Irene was taken to a police station at Toulon-sur-Arroux, ten miles away. The next day, Irene wrote to her husband: “If you can send me anything, I think my second pair of glasses in the other suitcase (in the wallet). Books, please, and also if possible a bit of salted butter. Goodbye, my love!” Before they could be arrested, Irene’s children, Denise and Elizabeth, were taken to a safe house. They would miraculously survive the war. Meanwhile, Michel contacted anyone who might be able to help him secure Irene’s release. He was convined that some of his contacts, such as Rene de Chambrun and other “influential friends”, would exert pressure and save his wife.
The following evening, 14 July, Paul Epstein, Irene’s brother in law, had a face-to- face meeting with a prominent collaborator, a corporate lawyer called Rene de Chambrun, in Paris. It was Bastille Day but there had been no national celebration. Two days later, Epstein was in turn arrested. Andre Sabatier, Irene’s editor, tried to contact Rene de Chambrun, calling him urgently on the phone several times. It is not known if Rene returned any of the calls.
Paul Epstein was one of thousands caught up in the mass arrests that came to be known as the Grand Rafle, which began on the night of July 16 and lasted well into the following day as 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4000 children, were arrested and around half of them taken to the Vel d’Hiver, a large velodrome beside the Seine. The round up, carried out with great efficiency by the French police, was the only thing people all over the talked about, it seemed, in every food line, office and hospital ward. The screams of Jews committing suicide pierced the terrible quiet in some quartiers. The famous German writer, Ernst Junger, serving in Paris, noted with matter of fact precision in his diary that he had heard “wailing in the streets” as families were literally torn apart, with adults being separated from their young children.
The medical conditions at the Vel D’Hiver, it was soon learned, were utterly atrocious. There were no lavatories. There was only one water tap for over seven thousand people. According to one account: “It was a rafle conducted in keeping with the best of French conditions, for at noon the policemen returned to their posts to have lunch while higher-ranked and better paid set off to nearby restaurants. Only after the sacred dejeuner could the manhunt continue.”
Women’s cries could soon be heard throughout the Vel D’Hiver. “On a soif!”
“We’re thirsty!” they called out.
Only two doctors were allowed inside the Velodrome, equipped with little more than aspirin. After five days, those incarcerated were transferred in cattle trucks to camps at Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande and Drancy, a modernist high-rise development built in the 1930s also known as La Cité de la Muette – the City of Silence.
A young Parisian called Annette Monod watched a batch of young children, who had been separated from their parents, as they were taken by French police from the City of Silence: “The gendarmes tried to have a roll call. But children and names did not correspond. Rosenthal, Biegelmann, Radetski – it all meant nothing to them. They did not understand what was wanted of them, and several even wandered away from the group. That was how a little boy approached a gendarme, to play with the whistle hanging at his belt: a little girl made off to a small bank on which a few flowers were growing, and she picked some to make a bunch. The gendarmes did not know what to do. Then the order came to escort the children to the railway station nearby, without insisting on the roll call.”
On 27 July, Irene Nemirovsky’s husband Michel wrote a letter to German ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz: “I believe you alone can save my wife. I place in you my last hope.” To make sure the letter was delivered to Abetz, Michel sent it to his wife’s editor in Paris, asking him to pass it on to Rene de Chambrun for forwarding to Abetz. The next day, Irene’s editor duly sent the letter to Chambrun who may or may not have passed it on.
Meanwhile, along Avenue Foch and elsewhere, trucks loaded down with furniture and other Jewish possessions could be seen after deported Jews’ homes were ransacked. The looters belonged to the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, actually headquartered on Avenue Foch. Eventually, according to the Nazis, this looting saw 69,619 Jewish homes, 38,000 of which were in Paris, “emptied of everything in daily or ornamental use.”
At the end of July, after over 14,000 Parisian Jews had been rounded up, the Catholic Church in Paris made a belated appeal to Pierre Laval on the children’s behalf. But the Vichy premier was adamant: “They all must go.” And they did. Less than four percent of those sent to the east returned. Not one was a child. Those responsible for this genocide later claimed they had no idea that the deportations were in fact to death camps, not some mythical Jewish haven.
It was a shameful time for France, especially for those who had actively collaborated with the SS and Gestapo. Their new German friends were part of something monstrous – the mass murder of their fellow French citizens. It was impossible to pretend one did not know what was happening. Indeed, those with the best connections to the Nazi regime found themselves begged by relatives and others to do something given their influence. At the height of the deportations, Josee Laval, the wife of Rene de Chambrun, was fully aware of the tragedy. She received two letters asking her to help save Jewish friends of friends. Yet she remained utterly self-involved. On the first day of the round up, she had complained in her diary that her beloved father, Pierre Laval, the head of the Vichy regime, was “too busy” to have dinner with her. She did not mention why.
Her husband was as guilty of inaction as Josee. He had been begged in person to help save Irene Nemirovsky. He had the power to do so given his close connection to German ambassador Otto Abetz who had allowed the Vichy official Fernand de Brinon’s Jewish wife to avoid deportation in 1941. Indeed, with the right connections, it was possible to buy or trade anyone’s release. And he knew it. Rene also counted the smooth-talking Rene Bousquet, head of the French police, as an old friend, having belonged to the same rugby team in his youth. Yet there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Rene took take up Nemirovsky’s case with either Abetz or Bousquet.
It was later learned that Nemirovsky, listed as “a woman of letters”, was deported from France on 16 July 1942 along with 119 other women. Her train had left promptly at 6.15am and arrived on 19 July at Auschwitz. Aged just 39, the author or the finest novel of the German occupation, Suite Francaise, breathed her last after just four weeks at the death camp. Two months later, the US government offered to provide refuge to a thousand Jewish children whose parents had, like Nemirovsky, been deported. Pierre Laval insisted that only “certified orphans” could leave for the US. Since nothing was officially known of the fate of the deported parents, the children were not allowed to go to the US. Most would die in the gas chambers. Nemirovsky’s husband, Michel Epstein, fared no better. He was arrested on 9 October 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. As with 77,000 other Jews in France, he would never return.