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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Postcard by Anne Berest

To say I was possessed by The Postcard and its author, Anne Berest, is not an exaggeration. I was possessed, obsessed, and grateful. It is 475 pages that I only put down when my eyes felt swollen: a novelized true story of Berest's family's experience when Nazis invaded and occupied France and Berest's investigation of that many years later. It is only called a novel because Berest wanted to write it as a nonlinear novel with dialogue and full characters, changing names of collaborators so that their descendants would not be persecuted, but this is a copiously researched investigation of what happened, who did what, and how Berest came to be a secularized Jew—when she began her investigation, she didn't identify as Jewish, look Jewish, had never followed the religion or been in a synagogue and had no experience in the culture.


This mystery, quest, hunt—told with all the dramatic tension of such stories—quickly became one of the most deeply personal experiences I've had.


When my parents married, both had had bad experiences of being Jewish and they mutually decided to erase the whole thing. We kids were only told that if we'd lived in Hitler's Germany, we'd have been killed in ovens, but other than that, we had no religion or affiliation.


I found a sister in Anne Berest. As she wrote memories—of her grandmother trying to tell her something when they were alone together, something Anne could not understand, but in retrospect, now that she is investigating her roots, she thinks it has to do with the story she is telling—as I read this, I recalled my grandmother telling something I cannot remember but I remember her voice breaking in a cry as she said the word "pograms." I'll never know what that attempt to pass on history was about, but as an adult I can imagine my parents shutting her down.


Unlike Berest, I look like a typical New York City Ashkenazi Jew, so my experience was that the outside world was constantly labeling me; as a young actress, I was qualified as an "ethnic" and therefore not considered for most commercial jobs in the 1970s and '80s. Yet I had no background to match my look and was forever furious when other Jews made assumptions about me that had nothing to do with my life. (See my use of all this in my first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove.)


And yet I feel Jewish. I feel it in my bone marrow.


Anne Berest's book throws illumination on this.


At the same time that I was reading this, a friend on Facebook posted this remarkable 18-minute documentary, giving the history of the Jews through the Barbie Doll, whose inventor was Jewish: The Tribe.


And here is a wonderful bookstore-recorded talk by Anne Berest: Anne Berest on Diving into Her History for The Postcard


However this most definitely is a book for everybody.


It is a compelling and necessary book for all of us at this critical time when we seem to be blindly repeating history:

The uniqueness of this catastrophe lay in the paradox of its insidious slowness and its viciousness. Looking back, everyone wondered why they hadn't reacted sooner, when there had been so much time to do so. How they had been so blithely optimistic? But it was too late now. The law of October 3, 1940, stated that "any person with three grandparents of the Jewish race, or with two grandparents of that race if his/her spouse is Jewish" would be considered a Jew themselves. It also prohibited Jews from holding any sort of public office. Teachers, military personnel, government employees, and those who worked for public authorities—all were obliged to resign from their positions. Jews were also forbidden to publish articles in newspapers or participate in any of the performing arts: theatre, film, radio.


[Anne talking with her mother in present day]"Wasn't there also a list or authors whose books were banned?"


"Quite. The Liste Otto, named after the German ambassador to Paris. Otto Abetz. It listed all the books withdrawn from sale in bookstores. All the Jewish authors were there, of course, but also communist ones and French writers who were considered 'disruptive' by the regime, including Colette, Aristide Bruant, André Malraux, Louis Aragon, and even some dead authors, like Jean de la Fontaine. (98–99)"


How does one ever trust anybody again after living in a country where neighbors or a postman (all who remain your neighbors and postman after the war is over) report you to the occupying forces, where a "white-haired, kind-faced clergyman, was in reality working for German military intelligence, paid 12,000 francs per month to be a double agent. A priest and member of the Resistance by day, by night, he lived on the rue Spontini, in the 16th arrondissement, with two mistresses—whom he supported with the money he earned as a collaborator. His specialty was encouraging young people to join the Resistance—then betraying them and pocketing the reward. (415)"?


A major prize-winner in France, The Postcard deserves all the adulation and press it is getting. It is that rare page-turner drama with something that the world needs now more than ever. I hope if you read it, it'll wake you up in whatever area you are asleep. For me, it was about my right to call myself a Jew—without confusion, apology, or explanation. For others, it may be a needed shove into activism, fighting book bans, bigotry in all forms, and the dissolution of personal body rights and democracy.

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