Ariane Bois’ fourth novel, Le Gardien De Nos Frères (Our Brothers’ Keeper), describes a little known aspect of France under German Occupation: the Jewish Resistance.
Simon Mandel, the book’s main character, is a member of an underground French Jewish scouting group that fought the Nazis. After the war, Simon is invested with a unique mission: seek and find Jewish children (including his own brother) who were hidden in orphanages or convents during the war. The beautiful and intriguing Lena, who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, assists him in this perilous investigation.
Ariane Bois will present her book at NYU’s Maison Française on March 30. Her new novel, Dakota Song, on the legendary Dakota Building, will be published in French that same day.
Daniel Hoffman interviewed her about Le Gardien De Nos Frères. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Hoffman: Why did you choose to write on Jewish Resistance?
Ariane Bois: That was the topic of my Master’s thesis at Sciences Po in 1984. At the time, no one talked about it, but witnesses were still alive and I was able to interview them. My goal was to fight this cliché, which remains prevalent today in Europe, that Jews were only victims, that they were sent to the slaughterhouses like sheep.
I also have a particular family interest for this issue. My great-uncle, Robert Cook, was a Protestant pastor in a southwestern French village and became a Righteous Among the Nations. He helped more than 30 German Jewish girls escape from the Gurs internment camp. He also participated in the liberation of the cities of Castres and Mazamet. My mother was a hidden Jewish child in Normandy. This dual heritage was extremely meaningful to me.
The book’s main character, Simon, is a member of the Éclaireuses et Éclaireurs Israélites de France, the EI. What is this organization?
It’s a Jewish scouting group, founded in the 1920s by Robert Gamzon. Gamzon’s ambition was to create a new man, a Jew who could work the land, a “muscular” Jew. The EI played an important role in the Jewish resistance. They placed children in the French countryside or sent them to Switzerland and Spain. They were also among the founding members of the Maquis de Vabre, a French Resistance organization in the east of the Tarn department.
The EI were not Zionist. They were young guys from Alsace and Lorraine who belonged to French families. Simon’s parents, for example, see themselves as PIF, Patriotes Israélites Français (French Israelite Patriots). They donate money to the Zionist movement, but have no intention to emigrate to Palestine.
After World War II, adult Holocaust survivors searched for “hidden children”—Jewish children who survived under hidden identities with non-Jewish families. This search is not a well-known part of history. How do you explain it?
After the war, the official policy was to show that France had unanimously resisted the Nazis, that the country had behaved well and that the good guys had won. These Jewish children proved that it was not true. They represented France’s guilty conscience. The “party of the 100,000 executed people” [a nickname of the French Community Party] or De Gaulle’s France of resistors: these were post-war myths.
Another reason was the extreme discretion of the Jews, since what they were doing was essentially illegal. Sometimes, they would kidnap kids right at the end of the school day! The big affair was the Finaly Case.* There was huge news coverage around this story. Figures like François Mauriac and Franco got involved. It almost became a new Dreyfus Affair. But in most cases, the search efforts remained secret.
Lastly, we must take into account the children’s trauma. If many of them were sheltered and loved, some were harassed, beaten, and even raped. They wouldn’t talk for decades.
The investigations had something ambivalent: on the one hand, they were a way to bring back children to the Jewish community, but at the same time, they were tearing away these kids from their host families. How was this dilemma handled?
That’s the central question. Was it necessary to traumatize these children a second time while some of them had found a new home?
The thing is that for many of them, several of their relatives were still alive. They could also be adopted by Jewish families: there was a lot of demand at the time. The children were also entitled to know what had happened to their parents.
How were the investigations funded?
Thanks to the Jewish Joint Distribution Community, an American organization. In total, approximately 140 children were found, which was considerably fewer than expected. It took a long time for this issue to resurface due to the silence and taboos of the postwar period. It was only in 1992 that the hidden children gathered for the first time in New York.
You worked with a lot of archival and academic sources. Did you consider writing an essay instead of a novel?
Originally, I wanted to write a short brochure on the postwar search for French Jewish children. But early on, I realized that it would be an incredible topic for a novel. These men and women who had to locate the children had themselves lost everything during the war. I decided to write a story on two young adults trying to start over despite their losses.
Can you say a few words on your two heroes, Simon and Lena, whose life trajectories are radically different?
Simon is 16 in 1939. He’s very different from the rest of his family, which belongs to the French intellectual bourgeoisie. Simon is very athletic, he enjoys boxing and fighting. His parents have him enrolled in the EI, which will prove to be a crucial decision. His father Henri is a lawyer who assumes that his social status and his network will protect him against Vichy’s anti-Jewish legislation. Simon doesn’t accept that: he believes that fighting back is the only possible solution.
Lena’s family is from Warsaw. Her parents are Jewish businessmen with almost no money. She has experienced anti-Semitism, the pogroms and the ghetto, but she managed to escape and hide in the forest. When she arrives in France, skinny and despairing, she knows that she has lost everything. She can’t go back to Poland, she has no country to live in. Only the Zionist ideal will save her.
Simon and Lena have two very different visions of Judaism. But both try to rebuild a world of their own and reinvent their lives. For Simon, it will be through architecture and a successful career in New York. Lena will chose to emigrate to Palestine and partake in the creation of the State of Israel
How can this story resonate in today’s world?
I’ve presented my book in middle-schools and high-schools. Surprisingly, many teenagers associated the Second World War with old black and white movies or comedies. But with the terror attacks in a Jewish day school in Toulouse and, more recently, in a Jewish supermarket in Paris, these students realized that Jews were often among the first targets of totalitarianism.
We’ve discussed the notion of resistance: What does it mean to say no? What can one do to fight barbarism? How can one find the courage to resist? We had rich and clever exchanges on these issues. I think this is necessary to have that today.
I’ve also met many Catholics. The postwar period remains very little known for them: these were years of opposition and hostility. The Catholic organizations that I’ve talked with really wanted to know what had happened, how the pope had reacted and why the relations with the Jews had been so terrible.
With this novel, I tried to question the meaning and the relevance of the word “resistance.”
*Robert and Gérald Finaly were two Jewish babies sent to a Catholic nursery by their parents, who would later be deported and killed in Auschwitz. After the war, the children’s guardian refused to return the boys to their surviving close relations, claiming that the two brothers had been baptized. This affair, which lasted until 1953, worsened the relations between Jews and Catholics against the backdrop of postwar anti-Semitism.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the following corrections. Patriotes Israélites Français should have been translated as French Israelite Patriots, not French Israeli Patriots. The nickname of the French Communist Party was the “party of 100,000 executed people” not 75,000.
Featured image by Wiesław Chrzanowski. WarsawUprising: Henryk Ożarek “Henio” (left) and Tadeusz Przybyszewski “Roma” (right) from “Anna” Company of “Gustaw” Battalion in the region of Kredytowa-Królewska Street. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.