I recently came across a fascinating new book about the French writer Irene Nemirovsky. The Nemirovsky Question by the Harvard academic Susan Rubin Suleiman traces the fascinating and complex story of the author’s life, against a backdrop of French literary culture, emigre culture and secular Jewish culture.
Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. Her father’s family came from the Ukrainian city of Nemirov, an important centre of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century, where they had become successful grain traders.
In 1918 the Nemirovskys fled revolutionary Russia for France, where they assimilated into French high society and Irene became a successful novelist. Prevented from publishing when the Germans occupied France in 1940, she moved with her husband and two small daughters from Paris to the relative safety of the village of Issy-l’Eveque. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Nemirovsky’s background closely mirrors my own. My grandmother was born near Kiev in 1902, also to a family of grain traders. And like the Nemirovskys, my family was closely linked to Hassidism – my great-great-great grandfather was a special advisor to one of the sect’s most famous Rabbis, Reb Dovidl Twersky.
Perhaps it was fate that took the Nemirovskys to France after the Revolution. They had initially fled to Finland, then Sweden. And maybe it was just luck that my family came to Canada. A cousin had ended up in Winnipeg before the revolution and much of the rest of the family followed over the next 20 years. And so my grandmother’s fate and that of Irene Nemirovsky were, mercifully, different.
Nemirovsky started writing Suite Francaise, her most famous work to contemporary readers, in 1941, based on the events taking place around her. In her writing, she denounced fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre. She had no illusions about the attitude of the inert French masses, nor about her own fate. She realised that her situation was without hope.
When Nemirovsky was arrested and deported, her husband, Michel Epstein, did not understand that this would mean almost certain death. He expected her to return, and petitioned the authorities for her release on the grounds of poor health. He too was arrested and died in Auschwitz. Miraculously, their daughters survived, having fled with their governess and lived in hiding for the remainder of the war, taking their mother’s manuscript with them from one hiding place to another.
In 2006 I happened to meet a charming middle-aged French couple while on holiday in France. When talking to them about my book, A Forgotten Land, the story of my grandmother’s early life in Russia in the early 19th century, they began to tell me about close friend of theirs called Denise, the daughter of a Jewish woman who had died during the holocaust. Denise had kept her mother’s wartime diary as a memento, but had found it too painful to read until decades after the war, when she discovered it was not merely a diary, but a powerful literary masterpiece.
“Is this the daughter of Irene Nemirovsky?” I asked. They were surprised that I knew of her; the book had been published in French two years earlier, and in English only that very year. For my part, I felt privileged to have met friends of Nemirovsky’s daughter, and so soon after reading Suite Francaise, when its horrors and brilliance were still so fresh in my mind.
The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv recently played host to an art exhibition based on a novella by the Yiddish writer Kalman Zingman (1889-1929). Published in 1918, In Edenia, a City of the Future, imagines a utopian vision of Kharkov projected 25 years into the future – to 1943. Edenia is a city where Jews, Ukrainians and other communities live side by side in peace and harmony, free to establish their own laws. Material needs are provided for with no need for money. The city is serviced by ‘airbuses’ and has fountains that keep the temperature at an ambient level year round. Children celebrate Jewish holidays in lush public gardens.
The theme of utopia was a common one among Russian writers and artists of the early 20th century, in a Futurist movement drawn towards the dynamism of modern technology and urbanisation. But it is an unusual topic for Yiddish literature, which more commonly focuses on the past or present.
Photo: Kharkiv, circa 1900.
Zingman’s projection of a utopian vision to the 1940s conflicts terribly with the reality of that time – the Nazi invasion and the murder of an estimated one million Jews in Ukraine. The book was written during Ukraine’s brief flirtation with independence following the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1921 was the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish became a state language.
But despite this, the era, and particularly the year 1919 – the year after Zingman’s work was published – was marked by the most devastating pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered across Ukraine. Some put the number of deaths as high as 100,000.
And today the Jewish population of the region has been torn apart by the horrific war in eastern Ukraine, with a new diaspora fleeing the region for other parts of the country or abroad, many departing for Israel.
Nearly 100 years on from the publication of Zingman’s novella, an international group of contemporary artists came together to create works of art for a museum in his imaginary city. The exhibition presents the artists’ work as an invitation to view our dreams from various angles. In the story, the protagonist Zalman Kindishman returns to his native city from Palestine and visits the art gallery. “He…looked at the figure sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”
At a time when Ukrainians are divided in their views of their Soviet past, of nationalist ‘heroes’, and of their country’s present and future allegiance with Europe or with Russia, the exhibition’s curators see it as an invitation to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams or nightmares in the light of today’s political challenges.
With thanks to the Calvert Journal for some of the content of this article www.calvertjournal.com
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.