One definitive observation that can be made about the literature of the Holocaust is that there can never be too much of it. Whether the stories are located in the camps or in hiding places, told from the point of view of an adult or a child, recounted close to the event or at a remove, every account must be preserved and published, read and recollected. This is an inviolable duty of the present generation, which is situated between the time of remembering and the time of forgetting.
As the 1996 death of the French writer and editor Elisabeth Gille reminds us, in the not-too-distant future the containers of memory--the eyewitnesses--will vanish, taking with them everything their memories contained.
Gille, fortunately, left behind “Shadows of a Childhood,” a sharply perceived, haunting novel based on her own experience of being hidden (with her sister) in the French countryside during the war. Gille was 5 when her mother, the Russian writer Irene Nemirovsky, was sent to Auschwitz. Her analogue in the novel is Lea Levy, who is also 5 when she is sequestered in a Catholic boarding school in Bordeaux. There, she is befriended by Benedicte Gaillac, who is two years her senior and the daughter of Resistance fighters. This relationship is Lea’s primary recompense for the loss of her parents, her identity and her childhood.
The recompense is imperfect. Among Gille’s many virtues is the complexity with which she presents the characters’ behavior. Lea has been deprived of her beloved parents, but she is no mere angelic victim. She is intelligent but petulant, brave but also devious. Similarly, Sister Saint-Gabriel, her protector, demonstrates noble tenacity in shielding this difficult little girl, yet she also dreams of the day when she will be free of her. And while Benedicte never wavers in her fidelity to Lea, she is also limited, by the difference in their situations and temperaments, in her comprehension of just how profoundly the war injures her friend.
“Shadows of a Childhood” is also distinguished by its richness of imagery and storytelling. Lea’s introduction to the boarding school is rendered so that her fear, the dark urgency of the night and the damp, rotting building all become palpably visceral. Gille sustains her vivid approach as Lea adapts to school life, slowly matures, and eventually becomes attuned to the extraordinary events taking place in Bordeaux and Europe. The girls endure air raids, hide out from a police search in a secret cupboard and witness the exuberant liberation of Bordeaux.
The liberation changes Lea, however, into a “mute little phantom,” and Sister Saint-Gabriel decides to take her to Paris to find her parents. They end up at the Ho^tel Lutetia, where refugees are being processed and nursed upon their return from the camps. Lea’s childlike incomprehension is heartbreakingly drawn--if her parents were back, she tells the nun, “They’d certainly have gone to get me before coming here to help all these poor people"--but she is quickly and painfully educated when she sees the bony, deformed survivors lying on their beds “like wax mannequins stripped of their wigs.”
In the book’s most disturbing encounter, she is confronted by a ghostly young boy with nocturnal eyes “whose black light turned inward as though a vision of hell had seared and reversed the lens.” She asks him if he knows where her parents are. “Gassed,” he tells her. “Poisoned like rats. Burned in an oven. Turned into black smoke. Poof, your parents. Poof.”
After the war, Lea is raised by Benedicte’s parents, who try to shield her from discovering the facts of the Holocaust. Lea does, though, and begins an obsessive quest for information, listening to radio bulletins, collecting magazine and newspaper accounts and sneaking into the collaborators’ trials.
One advantage to writing at some distance from the actual events is that Gille is able to bring a wider historical perspective to her material while never sacrificing the integrity of her portraiture. She firmly indicts such reprehensible behavior as the lack of Catholic opposition to the deportation of the Jews; the enduring anti-Semitism of the French; her compatriots’ postwar tendency to reconfigure their personal history to include participation in the Resistance; and the aim of the Resistance itself, which Lea forces Benedicte’s parents to concede was “to save French honor, to liberate France, more than to protect the Jews.”
Gille follows Lea to Paris and through her student years at the Sorbonne, but the novel is consistently unsentimental and unforgiving and ends darkly, leaving Lea with only the tiniest budding consolation. This is her discovery through a Russian professor of philosophy that she might be able to imagine a voluntary Jewish identity and “love one’s fellow man without either forgiving or forgetting.”
It is a small consolation to hope that “Shadows of a Childhood” enabled the beautifully gifted Gille to do a modicum of both.