Unpacking the past

By Stacy Coburn

The work and life of ‘Suite Française’ author Irène Némirovsky

More than six decades after Russian-born Jewish author Irène Némirovsky perished at Auschwitz, the Museum of Jewish History hosts the first museum show dedicated to her work and life. Némirovsky’s eldest daughter, Denise Epstein, carried the manuscript in her mother’s boxy brown leather suitcase for half a century before garnering the courage to read it. Finally published in 2004, “Suite Française” drew immediate acclaim for its deeply engaging interpretation of life in 1940s Vichy France. Némirovsky’s tragic demise and the dramatic public discovery of her novel add to its allure. Combined with the controversy surrounding the author—she published pieces for anti-Semitic magazines, portrayed Jews in stereotypical and negative roles, and converted to Catholicism in 1939—is the compelling story of Némirovsky’s life, work and resurgence.

This might explain why the exhibit is one of the most popular and eagerly awaited shows the museum has ever displayed. Introducing Epstein at the sold-out talk, “Irène Némirovsky: A Daughter’s Discovery” on Sept. 24, Museum Director David G. Marwell joked about the road construction outside the museum: “We had to close the streets in order to keep away the crowds who couldn’t get tickets.”

Epstein was 13 when her father was arrested and entrusted her with the suitcase containing her mother’s manuscript. Her sister Elisabeth was five. Epstein explained she did not read it partially because for years she hoped her mother would return, and later, when she realized this was impossible, because she thought the notebook was a journal, which would be too painful to read.

The exhibit reveals not only the story of the author who was renowned in her own time and is celebrated today, but also of a mother and father killed in the Holocaust, and their surviving children’s stories.

In a filmed interview aired in the exhibit, Epstein’s eyes filled with tears as she discussed the pain her family endured. In the months before her father’s arrest, she said he turned to drinking and banished her and her sister to the upstairs of their home in the small town of Issy-l’Evêque and where they were “forbidden to smile.”

Once her father was arrested, Epstein and her sister hid for two-and-a-half years in basements and cellars in France. Epstein, whose sister Elisabeth died in 1996, said she was overjoyed to bring her mother “back to life” by publishing the work, now available in 38 languages. She is publishing her own memoir in French this month.

The original manuscript of “Suite Française,” written in furious, tiny handwriting in Némirovsky’s signature blue ink, is on display, along with the suitcase. Concerned about a paper shortage due to the war, the author crammed two novellas, “Storm in June” and “Sweet,” into 140 pages, one-third of the space it would eventually fill. The former describes the flight of citizens from Paris before and after the German invasion, and the latter, the calm days of German occupation in the small town of Bussy.

Visitors feel the author’s love for her family while reading Némirovsky’s last letter to her husband and daughters from Pithivier’s camp, “Courage and hope. You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all.” They also feel her husband’s anger and grief while reading his letters to government officials begging for his wife’s release in the months before his own arrest and execution.

The manuscript for “Suite Française” is at the center of the exhibit. Visitors can click through the pages of the original on computers in a reading room or read the published version, which is placed on tables surrounded by white chairs. The museum displays the manuscript behind a case, open to reveal its yellowed pages, and posts large replicas of pages on the walls, which reveal her editing and revising marks.

Several of Némirovsky’s other works are also on display and available to be read, including her most divisive work, “David Golder,” the story of a cruel, greedy Jewish banker. The film of the movie, made in 1930, will be shown as part of a film series hosted by the museum in tandem with the exhibit, which begins Jan. 18.

Epstein admitted her mother had a cruel perspective, but said she was critiquing the power of money in “David Golder.” The museum also includes Némirovsky’s own terse defense for her descriptions of Jews, “That is the way I saw them.” But the museum also quotes her reported regret in 1939, “If I were to write ‘David Golder’ now, I would do it differently…The climate is quite changed.”

Némirovsky was unable to complete “Suite Française,” only outlining the third section, “Captivity,” and tentatively titling the fourth and fifth sections, “Battles” and “Peace” since she wasn’t sure what was to come. The exhibit invokes contrasting senses of loss and gratitude for what was found.

Courtesy Irène Némirovsky Archive/IMEC — All rights reserved

This identity card allowed Irène Némirovsky to visit her children in Issy-L’Évêque, where they had been evacuated for their safety. Later, Némirovsky and her husband would also leave Paris and join their children in Issy full time.