Sharing "Un Secret"

Last weekend I saw an extraordinary film: A Secret (“Un Secret“), based on the autobiographical French novel by Philippe Grimbert.

The New York Times review got it right:

To describe “A Secret” as a Holocaust movie would be perfectly accurate but also somewhat misleading. Its chronology is complex and elusive. It shifts from the immediate postwar years into the 1980s…and then back into the anxiety and panic of impending and actual war. In those days Maxime spelled his last name Grinberg, he was married to a woman named Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) and the two of them occupied the stolid center of a large and complicated extended Jewish family.

That family, as it heads toward catastrophe, is as much the setting of the story as its subject, and their fate as Jews under Nazi occupation is entangled in murky, sticky domestic issues of jealousy, betrayal and desire. An erotic spark ignites the first time Maxime and Tania meet — the day of his wedding to Hannah — and it causes plenty of guilt and tension. But it might have been safely (if agonizingly) extinguished in more peaceful times….

What is most impressive about “A Secret” is the way Mr. Miller artfully and gently gestures toward such enormous themes without spelling them out. Nearly every melodramatic impulse has been suppressed in favor of a calm precision that serves both to intensify and delay the emotional impact of the film’s climactic disclosures.

There is so much more to say about this movie, and given my past studies in 20th century French history, I feel compelled to say it. But I also want to wait until I have the chance to discuss it with one of my mentors and friends to get his take (and to ask him if he agrees with me about one possible anachronism amid all the incredibly good historical detail).

The film is just becoming known here in the United States, where Grimbert will be meeting with American readers/audiences in the coming days. I’ve already ordered the original novel from amazon.fr (it has been published in English in the United States as Memory), and I’m looking forward to hearing what the author of this intense, and intensely sad, story has to say when I attend this event at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction in Manhattan. Keep an eye out for any Grimbert appearances near you. And go see that movie. ASAP.

Letter from Shanghai: Guest Post from BJ Epstein

Remember BJ Epstein‘s guest post about her experiences as a Jew in Sweden? BJ is an intrepid traveler, and now she has graciously agreed to share impressions (and photographs) from her recent trip to China.

Earlier this month, when I went to China for a translation conference, I didn’t expect to learn some Jewish history. I vaguely knew that some Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War, but I didn’t think too much about it. However, a chance meeting at the breakfast buffet in our hotel with another American Jew convinced me and my trusty sidekick (a.k.a my mother) to make learning about the Jews in Shanghai a priority.

With that in mind, on our last full day in the country, we headed off to the old Jewish quarter, a small area centered around the synagogue. The Jewish Refugees Museum is in what used to be Ohel Moishe Synagogue. There, a young Chinese college student enthusiastically told us about how Shanghai warmly welcomed Jews from Europe during World War 2. Ho Fengshan, called the “Chinese Schindler”, was a diplomat in Vienna who gave visas to Jews so they could enter Japanese-controlled Shanghai and come to safety. My mother and I were told that at the height of the war, there were 25,000 Jews in Shanghai, many of whom had Ho to thank for being alive. After he died, he was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Vad Yashem. After the Holocaust, most of the Jews left China to settle in Israel, Australia, and the U.S., and today there are only around 3,000 Jews left, and they apparently have no synagogue. Some of them are descendants of refugees while others are business people who settled in Shanghai to take advantage of the booming Chinese economy.

Our guide also informed us that there is a close partnership today between China and Israel, and this was illustrated at the museum by many pictures of Chinese and Israeli dignitaries shaking hands and exchanging knowledge. Most of the captions were in Chinese, however, so although I could tell that Israel was, for example, sharing knowledge about cows with the Chinese, the circumstances were unclear.

The museum also had photographs showing the small synagogue in use during the 1930s and 40s as well as some artwork created to show the connection between Jews and the Chinese.

It must be said that China is not the most religion-friendly country in the world, so it makes sense that few Jews are left there today. Nevertheless, the people are extremely, and rightfully, proud of their role in saving Jews during the Holocaust. There was testimony at the museum from families who had been turned down by a dozen or more embassies before receiving a visa that allowed them to leave Europe for China and it is sad to think about what would have become of them without Shanghai’s open arms.

Job Opportunity at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Just received an e-mail about a job available at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Silberman Foundation ITS Research Scholar is responsible, “under the supervision of the Director of the Center’s Visiting Scholar Programs and in consultation with the Center Director, for planning and implementing research workshops, symposia, seminars, and other outreach activities that guide, encourage, and enhance scholarly investigation of the more than 100 million digital images of documentation held by the International Tracing Service (ITS) that are being transferred to the Museum. These activities may involve cooperative efforts with other research and educational institutions or with ITS itself. The incumbent will also undertake assigned research and publication projects utilizing the rich documentary resource that the ITS archives represent.” For more information, click here.

Rachel Shukert’s Nextbook Essay

An essay bearing a subtitle that reads “A Childhood Obsession with the Holocaust” doesn’t exactly promise loads of laughs. But laugh I did, at given moments, as I read this piece by Rachel Shukert on Nextbook today.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We need to talk,” said my mother. The ballet car pool had just dropped me at home.

I wriggled impatiently, anxious to fix some microwave popcorn and return to my copy of Nuremberg Diary. “Um, not now, okay?”

“I got a call today from Mrs. Finkel.”

“Mrs. Finkel?”

“The librarian. You know, at the Jewish Community Center. She’s friends with Grandma—”

“I know who she is. How did she get this number?” I demanded.

“What do you mean, how did she get this number? Probably she got it out of the Hadassah directory, the same way I would get her number.”

Nearly every Jewish woman and girl in the country belongs to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The local chapter directory is a veritable who’s who of area Jewish females. Earlier that week, I had casually mentioned to my mother that we might consider terminating our association with the organization and withdrawing our names from its records, as when They came for us, the Hadassah directory would likely be the first place They’d look.

“Mrs. Finkel told me that you tried to check out all four tapes of Shoah this afternoon.”

“So? You’re allowed to check out all four tapes! They come as a set! It’s like checking out one tape!”

She was still making that damn face. I hated that face. “She told me it was the seventh time you’ve tried to check it out in the past three weeks.”

“So what? She kept saying it was reserved.”

“It’s on the thirteen-and-over list, honey.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you have to be thirteen or over to check it out. That’s the rule.”

“That’s the first I’ve heard of any such rule.”

“Sweetie, that’s the rule.”

“IT’S A BULLSHIT RULE!”

My mother’s shrill temper flared at last. “And when were you planning to watch all NINE AND A HALF HOURS OF SHOAH, HUH? Were you going to take a night off from whatever weird fucking shit you’re doing to the walls of your room when the normal people are asleep?”

Never content to let a long period of insomnia pass unproductively, I had kept myself busy in the restless wee hours cutting out pictures of famous Jews from magazines and sticking them on the walls of my bedroom with bits of chewed gum, where they acted as talismans warding off the unspeakable evil that lay in wait. The resemblance to Anne Frank’s famous bedroom wall in the Secret Annex, touchingly adorned with colorful postcards and newspaper ads picturing film stars and babies, was not lost on me; however, I reasoned, if poor Anne had only been a bit more judicious, a little more ethnocentric in her selections, things might have turned out differently. The Gestapo wasn’t going to get me, not with that giant picture of Henry Kissinger on the wall.

I have to confess that there are aspects of this essay that really resonate for me. To some extent, the Holocaust “obsessed” me, a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany, during childhood, too. And it took me years (and, frankly, some therapy) to work through this obsession. I’m also convinced that writing fiction that might be labeled “post-Holocaust” fiction helped as well.

In any case, now that I’ve read Shukert’s essay, I’m looking forward to her book. Should be a good companion to this one on my bookshelf.

Mazel Tov to Arnost Lustig

A heartfelt “Mazel Tov” to Arnost Lustig, the latest recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize. (Learn more about Arnost and about the prize here; thanks to The Literary Saloon for posting the news.)

I had the honor of participating in one of Arnost’s fiction workshops at the 2004 Prague Summer Program. It was during my time in Prague as well that I read his extraordinary novel, Lovely Green Eyes. If you are going to read just one of his books, read that one.