Like Poe’s purloined letter, the postcard was in full view and yet invisible. For ten years, Anne Berest never thought about the macabre missive sent to her mother, the linguist Lélia Picabia. Four names were written on the back of a faded photo of the Opéra Garnier. Ephraïm, Emma, Jacques, and Noémie, all killed at Auschwitz in 1942, were Lélia’s maternal grandparents, uncle, and aunt.
Suddenly reminded of her Jewish roots when she is pregnant, and again just before her 40th birthday when a classmate makes an antisemitic remark to her daughter at school, the narrator feels a pressing need to identify the person who sent the postcard and to contact them. “I felt as if water were rising up around my bed, murky and brackish, oily and gleaming,” writes Anne Berest. “The dirty water of war, stagnating in underground pits, rising up from the sewers, seeping between the boards of my wooden floor.” Picking up the investigation where her mother left off, she pores through boxes of archive material, exploring every possible lead, and even hires a graphologist and a private detective.
The narration teases out two parallel threads, as if mirrored. One follows the fate of Ephraïm and Emma, persecuted and forced to flee Moscow for Riga, Haifa, and then Paris, where they stay even though European Jews are already under attack. The other portrays Myriam, Anne Berest’s grandmother, who escapes deportation thanks to her marriage to Vicente Picabia, and who arrives in unoccupied southern France with the help of her mother-in-law Gabriële. Shifting from documentary to non-fiction novel, Anne Berest dives deep into the past as if it were unexplored territory, connecting eras and characters, weaving together a collection of imagined letters and conversations, including one with her great-aunt Noémie, an aspiring writer who died in the camps. A beautiful book about transmission, Jewishness, and the power of fiction to fill in the holes of an incomplete family memory.