You may be tempted, as I was, to give up on this short book after the first 20 pages. But if you press on you will be rewarded for your effort. Modiano intertwines three stories: that of Dora Bruder, a young Jewish girl in occupied Paris; Modiano’s father, who barely escaped arrest at that same time; and his own story, in postwar France. And the reason you might feel like giving up on the book is that it is at first hard not to think of the story of Modiano and his father as being unnecessarily narcissistic, given the great crime and tragedy that befell Dora Bruder.
Modiano came across a brief notice in an old Paris newspaper of a father asking about the whereabouts of his daughter, Dora, who had disappeared two weeks earlier. Modiano was intrigued, in part because he had lived in the same neighborhood as the Bruder family, so he began to do research, to learn more about Dora and her family. They were Jewish, the father from Vienna, the mother from Budapest. Dora had been born in France. Prior to her disappearance Dora had been boarded at a Catholic girl’s school, presumably to hide her from the authorities. Her parents had been obliged to register, as Jews, at the local police station and the father omitted Dora from the family registry. Conditions at the school were highly regimented, and Dora was said to be an independent and rebellious girl, and after 18 months she ran away. She was either apprehended or returned of her own volition (it’s not clear which) and resumed living with her mother; her father by this time had been arrested and was in an internment camp. Eventually, Dora was arrested and sent to the same camp as her father, and the two of them were sent east, to Auschwitz where she and her father died, or were murdered.
Interwoven with this is the story of Modiano’s father, living as an outlaw under the occupation and, later, becoming estranged from his wife and son. We are told the story of Modiano’s mother sending him, Patrick, to collect the meager child-support payment from his father, and having his father call the police to report him as a hooligan. We hear about how the father narrowly escaped from detention during the occupation because a timed light went off in the police barracks just as he was being led in.
Finally there is the story of Modiano himself, quitting school, living somewhat rough in the suburbs of Paris, at times in the same neighborhood where the Bruders lived. Living in apartments that, he would later learn, were connected in some way with the story of Dora Bruder. Seeing parts of pre-war suburban Paris razed to the ground, in much the way that the records of the occupation were destroyed either during or after the war.
The power of this book comes from the way that Modiano reveals the slow but inexorable persecution of Jews in Paris. It was not as though one day Jews were fully a part of French life and the next they were rounded up and sent to camps. No. It started with the requirement that all Jews register with the police; then came curfew restrictions; then the requirement to wear a yellow star; and they were forbidden to use the telephone, or to own a radio, or a bicycle. And then began the roundups, at first making a distinction between males over the age of 18 and everyone elsee; and finally, no distinctions were made: children age three were “arrested”, as were the very elderly and frail. And all of this with the active cooperation or tacit acceptance by the bulk of French citizens. The Paris Metro police were crucial to the success of the program; as were good French neighbors who helpfully reported that such and such Jewish girl was often seen leaving her apartment without the mandatory yellow star.
And now fascism is once again on the rise in Europe and America, this time directed not at Jews but at Muslims - though Jews will certainly be the next target if fascism gets well and truly underway. And I am tempted to say that this is a result of collective amnesia about what happened a mere 80 years ago, but I no longer believe that to be the case. Fascism was a popular movement, with enthusiastic support across most of Europe, among the bourgeoisie and the working class. Whether a result of “false consciousness” or not, fascism and anti-Semitic racism was an attractive proposition given the terrible hardships of the depression era, and Jews were a convenient scapegoat. As Muslims and immigrants are now.
It is in my nature to condemn those who aided fascism, as well as those who opposed it but did nothing. But in my heart I know I would have remained in that latter camp for as long as possible, out of fear and a desire to simply live my life as well as possible. Just as I do today, despite my deep and sincere opposition to what I see as a fascist movement here in America. It is the slow tightening of the noose that makes this possible. Each small step seems both impossible to stop and not big enough to justify turning one’s life upside down. The Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the establishment of extra-judicial detention without due process, the use of torture on “terrorist suspects”, the imposition of mass surveillance: how, I ask myself each time, could I possibly effectively resist these steps? And the answer each time has been: I can’t, so I do nothing. But what is at the end of this road is a condition that will be intolerable, and how then will I justify my lassitude and inaction?
These are the questions that this book raised for me. Your mileage will vary, but in any case this is a book worth reading.