For the Jewish experience in France, there is Sarah’s Key, a book that was recently released as a movie. It details the gathering of the Jews at the Vel d’Hiv, prior to their deportation. The story is told through the eyes of a ten year old girl as well as a modern day journalist. In a prior incarnation the Vel d’Hiv served as the arena for bicycle races, a location that is fondly remembered by Hemingway for the races that he attended there. I am struck by how such different associations can be attached to the same location at different points in time. The book was not one of my favorites, but it did illuminate the French history of the Holocaust. My visits to Paris will never be quite the same.
Also capturing the French experience, although not specifically Jewish, are the two books listed by Irene Nemirovsky. Although raised as a Catholic, but born as a Russian Jew, the author died in a concentration camp. A well-known author in her day, in Suite Francaise she writes of the Parisians fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans. Years later her daughter goes through her papers and discovers this last novel which was ultimately published sixty years after her death. Fire in the Blood was discovered soon after.
I just finished the book Smuggled by Christina Shea which relates the story of a Hungarian Jew hidden as a child in Romania by her non-Jewish father’s sister. The story follows her life after the war under Communist control and is an interesting view of life under Soviet constraints as well as after the fall of Soviet control.
Rashi’s Daughters is a series of books by Maggie Anton and tell the story of the daughters of the famous Talmudic scholar. I found these quite fascinating from a historical standpoint as they highlight the life of women within the Ashkenazic Jewish culture and present it from a female perspective. Rashi’s daughters were very unusual in that they studied the Talmud with their father who had no sons. The Talmud and Talmudic arguments are interwoven into the text. The stories take place in eleventh century France and the professional roles of Jews as Talmudic scholars and traders are well represented. The author’s extensive historical research as well as many years of Talmud study enrich these stories.
On the theme of Yiddish there are two books I would recommend in addition to the non-fiction Outwitting History of which I previously wrote. A few years ago I wrote about my discovery of Dara Horn’s writing. My favorite book of hers is The World to Come which melds a true story of a heist of a Chagall painting with Yiddish literature and Jewish mysticism. Horn artfully weaves characters from modern day New Jersey with Russian Yiddish writers during the time of Stalin. It has a very magical quality and draws heavily on Yiddish literature. The author won the National Jewish Book Award for her first book and has a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature from Harvard.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau is a well written and fascinating book about a Yiddish poet and his life in Russia and as an immigrant in the US. The poet has written his life story, but his book is in Yiddish so he connects with a young man to help him translate it. The young man is Catholic, as is the author, and like the author worked as a Yiddish archivist. I was very intrigued by the author’s background as his prior book Vows is a memoir of growing up as the son of a former priest and nun. The book felt very authentic in the manner in which it addressed Yiddish themes and I would highly recommend it.
In my opinion Geraldine Brooks has never written a book that didn’t warrant five stars. People of the Book is no exception. Here she traces the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah through centuries of history and the people who preserved it. A rare book expert is her modern day character who works to restore the Haggadah and learn its secrets. This is both a historical novel and a modern day love story.
Finally on my list is the book Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. In this book the main character is doing a series of oral histories with both German and Jewish survivors. The author did Shoah interviews for the Shoah Foundation so writes from her experience. This current story is interwoven with her mother’s secret love affair with a Jew and her subsequent coercive relationship with a high ranking Nazi. I’ve heard Blum speak and found her a very engaging speaker as well as a talented author.
With this post, I’ve concluded my discussion of the books that are listed on this blog, but hopefully not my discovery of new books of similar genre. I welcome any recommendations from readers of books that I may have missed.
Stay tuned for posts on artwork from the Jewish Identity & Legacy project.