(Posted by Evan)
The French police come knocking on Eva's apartment door, list in hand. While her father is home and answers the door, Eva and her mother, Mamusia, are across the hall babysitting a neighbor's kids. Eva watches through the peephole as the police take her father, and overhears how Mamusia and her were also on there list to be taken. Within the short amount of time this spares, Eva forges false identity papers and gets her and Mamusia on a train from Paris to the south of France, Vichy France, the so-called free-zone, where she hopes to find help for her father first, and then passage to Switzerland for her family.
This takes place in the summer of 1942. This blog provides a thorough timeline of the Nazi occupation of France, with important dates, and pictures and addresses of some places where important events transpired. It would make for a good travel itinerary for tourists who like history. It also shows that blogs are superior to Wikipedia and Britannica. A few key dates:
June 14, 1940 in the early hours of the morning: One lone German soldier entered Paris from the east and crossed Place Voltaire.Not a single shot was fired. Paris fell into enemy hands during WWII without a single bit of resistance.
In the Author's Note, Harmel lists Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead, Jews in France During World War II by Renée Poznanski, Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France by Agnès Humbert and The Journal of Hélène Berr in addition to the books about Resistance forgers I linked to in the previous blog, as books she used for her research during the writing of this novel.
In the southern (fictional) town of Aurignon, Eva begins to work as forger in a back room library of a Catholic church. She fabricates documents that allow Jewiish children to be transported to Switzerland and escape 'deportation' to concentration camps. There is an internal struggle for Eva, as she had initially only hoped to save her family, but working for the Resistance keeps her there. At the same time, she can not deny the life-saving value of the work she is doing and the pull of a divine calling to help in the epic battle against the ultimate evil. This struggle is heightened greatly by Mamusia who didn't even want to leave Paris in the first place and feels it was an abandonment of her husband and Eva's father, Tatus. Furthermore, she abhors the idea of assuming a false, non-Jewish identity as she sees it as a betrayal of their heritage.
It becomes exaggerated as Eva works longer hours in the church, and becomes closer with her associate forger Rémy, a French Catholic boy. Mamusia accuses Eva of abandoning her religion for Catholicism, and chides her for having feelings for someone who isn't Jewish, while pushing her to seek to become the wife of another member of the Resistance, her childhood friend Joseph a.k.a Gérard Faucon. While Eva mostly shrugs off Mamusia's disapproval and continues her work, she questions whether her mother is right about her forgetting who she really is. This leads her to ask for a way to record the real names of the children whom they are creating false identities for, so that after the war they may be reunited with their families and know where they came from. Despite the dangers of keeping a record of the children's true identities, Rémy comes up with a solution - to encode their real names and false names by marking letters in a pattern according to the Fibonacci sequence in a book of epistles and hence, the Book of Lost Names. It is the mark of the gravest of times when a choice must be made between the preservation of heritage, of not forsaking who you are, and the preservation of life. Or as the conflict between Eva and Mamusia presents it: what is contributing more to the erasure of the Jewish people, imprisonment and execution or going into hiding for survival?
In the early part of the book, Eva's father would say "Courage. Cheer up. The Germans can only bother us if we let them." This determination to not be afraid, however, did not protect him from arrest and imprisonment in the camp at Drancy, and subsequent deportation to Auschwitz. The latter occurs despite Eva and Rémy's attempt to get him out of Drancy using false papers. Although Eva knows that this is almost certainly a death sentence for him, she tells Mamusia only that he was transferred there, and Mamusia maintains hope that he will one day be released. Eva, unbelieving, can not bring herself to quite come out and say to her that he is almost certainly already dead. This explains some of the difference in their reactions to the Occupation, and Mamusia can't understand how her daughter could plan for their escape in a manner that would prevent them from ever being reunited with Tatus.
This sets up another internal struggle that afflicts everyone in this time of severity - whether it is necessary or dangerous to have hope. Again, the dividing line falls between Joseph and Rémy on this struggle. When Joseph visits with Eva and Mamusia for dinner in Aurignon, he tells Mamusia that he is confident her husband is alive, while privately admitting to Eva he is sure he must be dead. "I just wanted to give her some comfort. And I think I did." says Joseph, to which Eva responds "False hope isn't comfort, Joseph." Leading Joseph to say, "I disagree. We're all pretending to be something we're not, aren't we?" On the other hand, while a romance is clearly developing between Rémy and Eva, they both hold back, and while I may be reading something that isn't really there on this one, I feel the main reason for this is that they are scared to become attached to someone when they are maintaining an idea that they are in a temporary existence. Is it better to have hope to persevere through pain or better not to in order to try to prevent the pain all together?
There's no place like home.
The Father of the church, Father Clement, decides to take Eva to see the children she is working to save in order to inspire her, by reminding her what she is doing it for. They are holed up in secret by a school teacher, who continues to teach them even as they hide and wait for a courier to take them to Switzerland. Eva feels an immediate connection with a young girl who goes by Anne through their mutual love of reading. Anne is reading The Wizard of Oz (by L. Frank Baum) and asks Eva if she's read it.
The bright young girl connects the story to her own: "I'm like Dorothée aren't I? I'm on a great adventure, and one day, I'll find my way home." Later, Anne asks Eva if she thinks Anne's parents are still alive, to which Eva replies, "I think there's every reason to hope they are." Then, with remarkable insight, Anne says: "You know, when Dorothée is in Oz, she has no idea whether her home in Kansas has been destroyed by a tornado. She is working so hard to get back to her aunt and uncle, but she has no way of knowing if they're there... But they were there... They were there all along, worrying about her, and when Dorothée got home, they were a family again." When Eva reminds her that "this is not Oz," Anne says, "We can imagine, though, can't we?... I know it's sometimes hard to believe the best. Isn't it better than believing the worst, though?" To which I say, yes, Anne, it is. You keep on believing in the best you can imagine.
Ending on a lighter note.
One of the games we play at Book Club sometimes is 'Who would you cast to play the characters in a movie?' I stink at this game because I don't know many actors or actresses at all and I am even worse at knowing their names. But in this case, our author has thrown in a gimme, and so for the role of Geneviéve Marchand, the forger who replaces Rémy as Eva's associate forger, I would cast Marie Bell, who you may remember from such mid-20th century French films as Madame Récamier, La Garconne, and Pantins d'amour.
The Children from the Book of Lost Names sing Wrapped Up in Books.
j/k. Real version. Happy Reading!
(Posted by Evan)
The novel begins with a librarian, Eva Abrams, who sees an article in an open newspaper about a German librarian making an effort to return books stolen by the Nazis back to their rightful owners, holding her book up in the cover photo. This sends Eva immediately off to Berlin to claim her book. We then transcend time and space and meet Eva, a French-born Jewish young woman of Polish heritage living in Nazi occupied Paris in 1942.
In the Author’s Note, Harmel describes how the idea for this novel began with interest in forgery piqued while writing her previous novel The Winemaker’s Wife. Two books then breathed fuel on the embers of that interest: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky and A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II by Peter Grose. The final piece of the puzzle came when her agent emailed her what I believe is this article from New York Times.
Otto Kuhn, the German librarian in the story, is fictional, but the work he’s doing is based in reality.
She also recommends The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell. The novel seems to be based primarily on two forgers she mentions: Adolfo Kaminsky and Oscar Rosowsky.
Kaminsky narrowly escaped deportation and became one of the primary document forgers for the Resistance in Paris, ultimately helping to save an estimated fourteen thousand people, though he was just a teenager at the time.
Oscar Rosowsky,... was just eighteen years old in 1942 when he was forced to flee his home, and by a stroke of good fortune, wound up in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a tiny village in the mountains of France that hid thousands of people wanted by the Nazis, including many children whose parents had been deported. Much like Eva, Rosowsky began by forging identity documents for himself and his mother-but when he found himself among like-minded people, he began to develop new forging methods that were quicker and more efficient. By war’s end, he had helped rescue more than thirty-five hundred Jews.
She also mentions forgers Mireille Phillip, Jacqueline Decourdemanche, Gabrielle Barraud, and sisters Suzie and Herta Schidlof.
While I am not far enough to have encountered the book-of-lost-names, aside from it's photograph in the newspaper article, there are many references to the power and majesty of books in general that are worth mentioning. To begin, Eva's father works as a typewriter repairman while Eva is studying English literature at the Sorbonne.
Moreover, there are some really great quotes about books:
She doesn't understand what it means to love books so passionately that you would die without them, that you would simply stop breathing, stop existing.
She took one last look at the wooden shelves that lined the walls, stacked from floor to ceiling with beautiful books, their pages full of knowledge she had eagerly absorbed over the years. ... She had devoured them all and saved up her own money to buy more. They had been her escape, her refuge, and now they would be all that was left of her in an apartment she might never return to.
"I-I was just thinking how much I love being surrounded by books."
"He had taught her to love reading, one of the greatest gifts a parent could give a child, and in doing so, he had opened the world to her."
I particularly and enthusiastically agree with this last one. I believe my dad did the same thing for me, and I've often contemplated how much that inspired love of reading has shaped my life. I remember some of the books my dad gave me to read when I was growing up. One of the earliest was John F. Kennedy and PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis. I also remember him giving me The Floating Opera by John Barth which made me want to be a lawyer. I don't know if he recommended I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo, because I remember my copy being a library copy, but he had read it and we talked about it as I read it (Great book!). It made me want to be a mob boss. Luckily, he also recommended two science books, one whose title I can't remember but it was about a scientist studying Red Tide or something like it, and the other was The Great Influenza by John Barry, which is as much about the development of modern medicine as it is about that pandemic. Most recently he recommended Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and now I recommend that book to everyone. Thanks Dad!
What about you Book Club friends? Did you have someone who inspired your love of reading at an early age?
Eva's friend Joseph calls her "mon petit rat de bibliothèque" or 'my little rat of the library', while her dad calls her "stoneczko" or 'little sun'. I'm not sure there's much to read into there, but I found it interesting. I do have to call Harmel out for the error though, as everyone knows that the term in French is 'Ink Drinker' (hat tip: Madison)
Blog about books. Write about love. Happy Reading!