Thoughts on the Sound of an Air Raid

Scott Simon offers memories and a reading, prompted by the sounds of air raid sirens in the Middle East.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The summer is filled with sirens...

(Soundbite of air raid siren)

SIMON: This one happens to be from Tiberius, northern Israel. It could just as easily be from southern Lebanon. I've covered wars in places where air raid sirens wailed about the approaching bombs. You tell yourself you have two minutes or so to find shelter and count your steps across the room and then down stairs.

But when you hear the sirens day after day, even this chill sound begins to lose its shock. You survive one air raid and you feel blessed. You live through 10 or 12 day after day and you begin to feel fatalistic, even careless. People cannot live at the high pitch of danger day after day, week after week, any more than they can stay giddy with love.

A book called Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky has just been published in this country. She was a Jewish woman born in Kiev, raised in St. Petersburg, who became a celebrated novelist in Paris, but was arrested by the French police in 1942 and was put to death at Auschwitz.

She wrote the autobiographical Suite Francaise in secret with smuggled paper and pencil. It's been acclaimed as a modern masterpiece of France, but great literature always imparts something universal that resonates from one time and place into another.

This week I thought of Irène Némirovsky's description of an air raid. The first to hear the hum of a siren were those who couldn't sleep, she said. The ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them, it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh.

It wasn't long before its wailing filled the sky, came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggle to open their eyes, murmuring, is it an air raid? The women more anxious, more alert, were already up. They had to dress their children by torchlight. Mothers lifted small, warm, heavy bodies into their arms. Come on, don't be afraid. Don't cry. An air raid. I'm staying in bed, sleepy voices murmured, I'm not scared. All the same, it just takes one, the more sensible replied.

In hot rooms with blacked out windows, children were born and their cries made the women forget the sounds of sirens and war. Children slept peacefully, held tight against their mothers' sides, their lips making sucking noises like little lambs.

Street-sellers' carts lay abandoned full of fresh flowers. The sun came up, fiery red in a cloudless sky. Beautiful fat pigeons cooed, swallows wheeled, sparrows hopped peacefully in deserted streets. The air raid was over.

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