Holocaust Victim's Lost Novels Help Daughter Heal More than 60 years after she died at Auschwitz, Irene Nemirovsky's novels are garnering worldwide recognition. For decades, her daughter, Denise, kept the manuscripts in a suitcase. Now that the novels are published, they are closing a chapter for Denise.
NPR logo

Holocaust Victim's Lost Novels Help Daughter Heal

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14540705/14620486" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Holocaust Victim's Lost Novels Help Daughter Heal

Holocaust Victim's Lost Novels Help Daughter Heal

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14540705/14620486" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Next week, a French novel, "Fire in the Blood," will be published here in English. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, died in the Holocaust 65 years ago. There's been a revival of interest in her since her daughter discovered the unpublished manuscripts for this and another novel, "Suite Francaise." Both were written just before Irene Nemirovsky's death in 1942.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Denise Epstein is still stunned by the worldwide success of her mother's novel "Suite Francaise." Epstein, Nemirovsky's oldest daughter and only surviving child, is the one who discovered the manuscript for "Suite Francaise."

Today, the trim and active 77-year-old sits in her sun-filled apartment in the French city of Toulouse, surrounded by reminders of her mother.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. DENISE EPSTEIN (Irene Nemirovsky' daughter): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Epstein's phone rings. Another call congratulating her on a newly released biography of her mother. On one side of the room are photos and shelves filled with her mother's books, including Nemirovsky's latest novels, "Suite Francaise" and "Fire in the Blood." There are also 13 novels from the 1930s, which are now back in print. Epstein says the renewal of interest in her mother makes her own long struggle seem worthwhile.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) My God. My life is just now starting to justify itself with "Suite Francaise." Because I always found it so unfair that I have lived to be so old and my mother died so young. It's difficult to live with. And "Suite Francaise" somehow brought her back and let her live again. And somewhere, I tell myself that if I have lived so long, it's to have the time at the end of my life to bring you back again.

BEARDLEY: "Suite Francaise" depicts the mass exodus from the French capital after the Nazi victory in June 1940. The book continues through 1942 with a portrait of a small village at the beginning of the occupation and the first hints of collaboration.

The second of her recently discovered novels, "Fire in the Blood," will be released next week in the United States. It's set in the small village where Nemirovsky took shelter in 1941 and where she was arrested in 1942.

"Fire in the Blood" is a story of murder, love and betrayal in rural France. The novels have left Epstein with two images of her mother.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) In the books, by the way, my mother is someone very tender, who lavished attention on us. She let us be with her when she wrote. When I see the violence, it's hard to believe my mother is that writer. So I have two images of her. But the one I prefer is of the mother that accompanied me for 13 years of my life.

BEARDSLEY: Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. The family fled the Russian Revolution for France and a privileged emigre life of balls and banquets. In 1926, Nemirovsky married fellow Russian emigre and businessman Michel Epstein and the couple had two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth.

By the 1930s, she was a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government's anti-Jewish laws, Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested by French police in July 1942 and deported to Auschwitz where she died one month later of typhoid. She was 39 years old.

Olivier Philipponnat is the co-author of the biography "La vie d'Irene Nemirovsky."

Mr. OLIVIER PHILIPPONNAT (Co-author, "La Vie d'Irene Nemirovsky"): (Through translator) "Suite Francaise" was a shock for the French because it is the first and one of the rare documented works of fiction on the occupation and the exodus from Paris. The big novels on the occupation date from 1945 but there are no others written in the heat of the action like this.

BEARDLEY: Nemirovsky could have fled but undoubtedly felt protected by her writing and by her belief in individual liberty. Although she was Jewish, that was never really important to her, and she had converted to Catholicism years earlier. Some of her articles appeared in right-wing magazines, a few of which later developed an anti-Semitic stance. But for daughter Denise, her mother's disappearance marked the brutal end of her childhood.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) I have never known hate. My mother wouldn't have wanted that. But I have been angry all my life, and I still am. I was even mad at my mother, my parents. They just didn't understand the situation and did nothing to escape. I consider that my sister and I were abandoned for her passion for writing.

BEARDLEY: When her father was arrested three months after her mother, Epstein's complicated relationship with her mother's notebooks began.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) He gave me the suitcase and said, you keep this bag with you. It's full of your mother's notebooks. So he put me in charge of two things - that bag and my little sister.

BEARDLEY: The suitcase and its manuscripts followed Epstein and her sister into hiding, from cellar to convent to attic. For the rest of war, she never parted with them, but never opened them either.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) I never opened them for nearly my whole life. My sister and I saw her writing all the time and we were scared it was a diary, but I still needed it. I loved the smell of it. I would hold it to me and caress it. It was almost a fetish.

BEARDLEY: In the late 1980s, Epstein began transcribing them using a large magnifying glass to decipher the miniscule words written on cheap wartime paper. It would take her two and a half years.

Ms. EPSTEIN: (Through translator) It was physically difficult, and it was emotionally difficult. I had to stop every so often because I would recognize people or places. And at times, this became unbearable. And that's why it took me so long. And when the original manuscripts went to the state archives, I really broke down. I felt as if something had been ripped from inside me.

BEARDLEY: Epstein put her transcript in a drawer and there it sat until a writer-friend found out about it and persuaded her to call a publisher. Nemirovsky's works are now considered classics in France and are part of school curriculums.

Biographer Philipponnat says there is justice in her revival.

Mr. PHILIPPONNAT: (Through translator) I think the success of Irene Nemirovsky in France is in somehow due to the remorse of the French people for having forgotten her as a great author and also because she was deported. So there is a certain joy and enthusiasm among the French public to rehabilitate her.

BEARDLEY: Epstein says her mother's renewed popularity helped her endure the past. What's difficult now, she says, is she must share her beloved mother with the rest of the world.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from Irene Nemirovsky's new novel, "Fire in the Blood," at npr.org/books. And to listen to WEEKEND EDITION's podcast at your leisure, you can go to npr.org/podcast.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.