In 2021, I received an extraordinary message on Twitter.
In 1942, the Gestapo, together with French police, were in pursuit of Lotte Wildman, my grandfather’s niece, the message explained. As the police closed in, Lotte was sheltered by a woman named Lucienne Oliviéri, the message writer’s aunt.
During the war, he said, Ms. Oliviéri protected a group of Jewish women in Southeastern France, helping some cross the border into Switzerland. The author wondered: Could I help Ms. Oliviéri, by then nearly 104 years old, be recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, as a righteous person? I had written a nonfiction book a few years earlier about my search for my grandfather’s girlfriend, whom he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Austria. Still, I did not know how I might help. I had no eyewitness testimony of this story.
I thought of this note, and of Lotte, when I read “The Postcard,” by Anne Berest, a lightly fictionalized account of Ms. Berest’s investigation into her own family’s Holocaust history. In France the book was wildly popular, a finalist for the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
The central narrative of “The Postcard” is true: Ms. Berest’s mother received a curious postcard in 2003 bearing only the names Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques — her mother’s maternal grandparents, her aunt and her uncle, all murdered in Auschwitz. A decade later, Ms. Berest and her mother set out to find out not only who wrote the postcard and why, but also to understand who Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques were — their lives, their hopes, the decisions they made as the walls closed in.
“During the Holocaust, millions of people were killed,” Ms. Berest told me recently. “But not only people were killed, also all the books they had to write. All the paintings they had to paint. All the music they had to compose,” she paused. “I think that is why we, the children and grandchildren of the survivors, are obsessed with working and writing books.”
I too have long been haunted by the breadth of the loss of human life, of dignity, of property and also of potential. The story Ms. Berest tells in “The Postcard” is an encapsulation of the effort of the third generation — of which I am also a part — to insist that the reader engage with the war at a granular level, murdered individual by murdered individual. Ms. Berest began her project as she was expecting her first daughter, conscious that the next generation will not know survivors the way we did.
Ms. Berest explained she was not told the fine details of her family’s war story as a child. That’s not unusual. Growing up, I imagined a time-lapse flip book of horror — Anschluss, Kristallnacht, the yellow star, Auschwitz — but I understood less how those events fit into the long rollout of a slow collapse of normalcy, the years of restrictions, humiliations and deprivations that led up to genocide. I had only a vague awareness of the trapped aunts and cousins and schoolmates and friends my grandfather could not take with him. I turned toward those stories only after his death, when I came across several stacks of letters he had stashed away, testimony after testimony on brittle onionskin pages.
In “The Postcard,” Ms. Berest considers what allowed Jews to be ensnared by their surety that an entire society could not turn against them. For her great-grandfather, she imagines it was simply impossible to envision being excised from a world in which he believed himself so firmly ensconced.
I told Ms. Berest that when I contacted one of Lotte’s children during my book project, he told me that references to the war years were “unspeakable” in his childhood home.
Ms. Berest’s grandmother, too, did not speak of the era. The pain was too great. In her book, Ms. Berest changes the names of the town, the mayor who proudly announced he had rid his town of its Jews and the neighbors who had stood by, to protect the third generation of French bystanders and perpetrators from the stain of their ancestors. Still, the terror mapped by the book is real: the screams heard from Drancy, the terrible transit camp, as women were forcibly ripped away from their children; the mercurial decision that protected Ms. Berest’s grandmother, Myriam. A neighbor really did hear the French national anthem sung by Myriam’s siblings, Noémie and Jacques, as they were taken away.
The third generation’s effort to reconstruct our own past and to understand the present is a means of passing on this legacy. It is also a bulwark against Holocaust denialism.
“A world with witnesses and a world without witnesses is two different worlds,” Ms. Berest said to me. Until recently, she continued, “The witnesses could say to the deniers: ‘No. I was there. That is what I saw, that is what I experienced, that is what human barbarity was able to do to another human being.’ Without them, it is very dangerous. We know the third generation has a duty of transmission.” We discussed how we have learned to use text and geography as witnesses when there are no people to be found.
It’s not incidental that “The Postcard” was researched and written during a particularly fraught climate in France regarding history and memory. In 2017, Marine Le Pen, the far-right French presidential candidate, claimed, contrary to historical record, that the French were not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews in Paris. (Some 76,000 Jews were deported from France.) More recently, Éric Zemmour, another far-right politician, was pilloried for racism and Holocaust minimization despite his own Jewish background.
Understanding how the Holocaust, and the hatred at its root, was nurtured and enabled by a society that adapted itself to the Nazis is also part of the responsibility we have to the past. And yet it seems as a society that we remain somehow unsettled about what it means to claim responsibility for the horror beyond a shadowy cartoon version of incomprehensibly terrible villains and blameless victims. Some of that is helped by stories like “The Postcard,” which forces readers to consider ripple effects across generations.
I showed Ms. Berest the messages I received about Lotte’s apparent rescuer. I told her it was a message from the past as well as the present, shocking and yet plausible: I had never understood how Lotte had survived. I knew her parents, Manele and Chaja, were killed in concentration camps. Her first husband, Eugene Stryks, only 27, was arrested in Lyon and put on a convoy at Drancy, bound for Majdanek and Sobibor; some 950 people in that convoy were murdered on arrival.
I very much want to believe in the goodness of this woman. I understood, as well, how important it was to the rescuer’s family that she receive an acknowledgment of her valor during a time when such actions were mortally dangerous. It could be a passage of bonheur across generations, a lesson in what is possible.
A few months after I received the first message, I learned Ms. Oliviéri’s resistance work was recognized with a small local medal ceremony in December 2021.
She died the following spring.
“You can feel how the Second World War is still alive,” Ms. Berest said to me, animatedly. “When we were children we thought the war was last century, a long, long time ago,” she said. “But the more you get older, the more you feel that the war was yesterday.”
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