By Heather Rodriguez, College of Liberal Arts
“I am going on a journey now.”
That’s the last thing celebrated Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky said to her two daughters in 1942, as she was led away by police. Not long after, she was sent to Auschwitz, followed months later by her husband Michel Epstein. They both perished.
Yet Némirovsky’s legacy lives on, through her family, her literary work, and scholars such as Susan Suleiman, who will be discussing Némirovsky at the College of Liberal Arts’ Fallon-Marshall Lecture on March 28 in Rudder Theatre at 3:30 p.m. The lecture is co-sponsored by the Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study (TIAS).
“Choices and Choicelessness in Wartime France: Irène Némirovsky’s Final Journey” will cover the decisions that Némirovsky and her family faced during World War II under Nazi-occupied France.
“Like those of other Jews in France at the time, their choices—and eventually their choicelessness—can only be understood in the larger historical context,” Suleiman said.
Némirovsky was born in 1903 in Kiev, in what was then the Russian Empire. She and her family fled at the start of the Russian revolution, first to Finland and then settling in Paris. She later attended the Sorbonne, and began her writing career at the age of 18. She and Epstein married in 1926, and had their daughters Denise (1929) and Élisabeth (1937). Two years later, Némirovsky and Epstein converted to Roman Catholicism.
As the Nazis advanced on Paris, Némirovsky and Epstein moved their family to Issy-L’Evêque, a small village in Burgundy. They thought they were safe.
Yet despite spending over half her life in France as a successful writer, she and her husband never received French citizenship despite several attempts; and due to anti-Semitic laws under the Vichy regime, she was arrested as a “stateless person of Jewish descent,” and sent to her death.
“In Europe, Jews have always been the ultimate outsiders, having been expelled from many countries over the centuries. Anti-Semitic myths have portrayed them on one had as wretched and subhuman, and on the other hand, as powerful enough to take over the world–a contradiction that never bothered anti-Semites,” Suleiman said.
Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Élisabeth, only survived due to the courageous woman who had worked for the family and who kept the girls hidden after their parents were deported.
“After the war, she and her works were largely forgotten,” Suleiman said. “Decades later, her older daughter decided to publish an old unfinished manuscript she’d found in a suitcase.”
The manuscript Denise found, which she’d originally thought was her mother’s diary, contained two out of an intended five novellas that portrayed life in German-occupied France from 1940-1941. In 2004, the novellas became Suite Française, an international bestseller that led to a resurrection of Némirovsky’s career.
“Her previous works were re-issued, and she became quite well-known again. She was re-discovered; for some, she was discovered for the first time,” Suleiman said.
Élisabeth had already published a book about her mother in 1992, written in her mother’s voice. A few years later, shortly before she died of lung cancer, she wrote a moving autobiographical novel about a girl whose parents are deported.
“Her daughters were instrumental in bringing their mother back to life,” Suleiman said. “The books they published were a kind of gift to their mother, and in a way, their mother gave them the gift of changing their lives.”
Suleiman, the C. Douglas Dillon Research Professor of the Civilization of France and Research Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard and a TIAS Faculty Fellow, is considered one of the leading scholars of 20th century French literature and Holocaust studies.
She was born in Budapest in 1939, and has vague memories of 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary and began rounding up Jews for deportation. She and her parents survived thanks to false papers, and left Hungary in 1949. They arrived in New York a year later, and she didn’t return to Budapest until 1984–a journey with her children that triggered those memories and influenced the body of her scholarly work, which began to focus more on memory and on Jewish identity.
“I discovered this family’s story while writing my book called Crises of Memory in the Second World War, in which I mentioned Élisabeth’s novel. I became fascinated,” Suleiman said.
Her latest book, The Némirovsky Question, will be published this fall by Yale University Press.
On March 29, the day after the lecture, Suleiman will be joined by author Oliver Philipponnat and Department of International Studies professor Nathan Bracher for a roundtable discussion of Irene Némirovsky’s life and writings at 4 p.m. in room 311 of the Glasscock Building. The reception will begin at 3:30 p.m.