August 17th, 2012 Meaghan
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1942, 39-year-old French/Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky was gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.
She was a victim of the Nazis’ racial laws: anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, even if they themselves did not practice the Jewish religion, could be considered a Jew. Nemirovsky, born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine, had converted to Catholicism in 1939 — sincerely, insofar as anyone can discern.
Irene Nemirovsky fled Russian territory after the Bolshevik Revolution and spent a short time in exile in Finland and Sweden before eventually settling in France. There she married a banker, had two daughters, and published her first novel in 1930.
The book, called David Golder, was about a ruthless businessman (described by modern readers as “a Bernie Madoff of her time”) who in old age and poor health begins to regret the way he lived his life. It was a success and was made into a 1930 film.
Although she was widely acclaimed as a writer in France, even by anti-Semites, she was denied citizenship in 1938. By then she had lived in the country for twenty years.
Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Nemirovsky’s books were pulled off the presses and she was required to wear the yellow star. If she and her family had succeeded in obtaining French citizenship, this would have provided some protection; the French were reluctant to deport their own Jews, filling the cattle cars with foreigners instead. Irene was instead classified as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and the high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Kaltenbrunner called her a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony.”
The “stateless” Irene was arrested on July 13, 1942. She had time to write a letter to her family, asking them not to worry about her, before she was deported to Auschwitz four days later.
Although she survived the initial selection and was tattooed with a prisoner number, it was reported a month later that she had died of typhus, a common and deadly disease in the concentration camps. However, later investigation showed she had in fact been sent to the gas chamber. Her husband was also gassed in Auschwitz in November of that year, but their two children survived the war.
One of Nemirovsky’s books, All Our Worldly Goods, was posthumously published in France in 1947. However, for sixty years following the war this once-famous author was largely forgotten.
In 2004, however, she became a literary sensation when a previously undiscovered manuscript, Suite Francaise, hit the press. The “suite” consisted of two books out of a projected five, titled “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. Irene had written them while in hiding in 1940. When she was arrested she gave the manuscripts in a suitcase to her daughter Denise, who safeguarded them all those years.
The book was received to great acclaim and became a bestseller, and publishers blew the dust off her novels from the 1930s and brought them back into print. In 2007, another of Nemirovsky’s works, Fire in the Blood, was published. The book was a companion to Suite Francaise — and like Suite, Nemirovsky had worked on it while in hiding during the Nazi occupation.
Nemirovsky never escaped controversy, in her life or after her death. Several critics and scholars have accused her of being an anti-Semite, a “self-hating Jew,” as detailed in this article from the Australian publication The Age.
Novelist Paul LaFarge charged her as “a Jew who disliked other Jews.” Primo Levi‘s biographer wrote of her, “She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race’, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth…”
There is evidence to support this assertion.
Some of her books were serialized in anti-Semitic magazines, and during the occupation Irene also wrote a letter to Marshal Petain, head of France’s collaborationist Vichy government, to say she disliked Jews and shouldn’t be classified as a Jew, racial laws notwithstanding. Her husband wrote a similar letter to the German ambassador after her arrest, saying his wife “did not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever.” The ambassador never bothered to reply.
Irene, however, also has her defenders in this matter: “She didn’t dislike Jews,” said one. “She disliked some Jews. Big difference.” Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted David Golder, argued that, “Her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character [in the book] does not make Nemirovsky anti-Semitic; any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”
You could argue that if she appeared to be anti-Semitic it was because she was trying to conceal her own Jewish origins and thereby protect her family from the deadly consequences. Her daughters believed this was the reason for her assertions that she hated Jews.
In any case, whatever Irene may have said or thought about her religious origin did not save her life. She was just one of many thousands of Christian converts who fell victim to Nazi Germany’s madness.
Irene’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, wrote a novel titled Shadows of a Childhood which was based on her parents’ disappearance. She had only been five years old when Irene was arrested. In 2010, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt published the first major biography of Irene, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, 1903-1942.
Also on this date
- 1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors
- 1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi
- 1909: Madanlal Dhingra, Indian revolutionary
- 1571: Marco Antonio Bragadin, flayed Venetian
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Concentration Camps,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Wartime Executions,Women