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Life Stories

Have you been following the discussion of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s new plan? As reported in The New York Times on Saturday, Sarkozy has “surpris[ed] the nation and touch[ed] off waves of protest with his revision of the school curriculum: beginning next fall, he said, every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.”

I have to confess that as much as I promote Holocaust awareness (and as intriguing as I’ve found Sarkozy to be), I’m not exactly enthralled with this idea. The Times article sets forth several sources for disagreement, but the one that resonates most with me, given my own childhood Holocaust-related nightmares, comes from Simone Veil, a prominent Frenchwoman and Holocaust survivor, who is quoted as saying: “You cannot inflict this on little ones of 10 years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”

It’s a heavy weight, I suspect, even for grownups. When I first heard about this plan, I thought immediately about Dora Bruder, a book by one of my favorite French authors, Patrick Modiano. In Dora Bruder, Modiano essentially does exactly what Sarkozy wants the fifth graders to do: He researches the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Dora Bruder is a powerful book, one very much in keeping with Modiano’s entire œuvre. (See Jean Charbonneau’s AGNI review for a good English-language summary.)

I know that I’m not quite up to Modiano’s level–my own family background, Ph.D. in history, and M.F.A. in creative writing notwithstanding. It’s unlikely too many French fifth graders are. Let’s leave this particular task to the Modianos of the world, and use their work to teach the fifth graders–when they’re a little older.

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