(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!