“The postman had just dumped the mail on the ground at the foot of the mailbox. My mother went to collect it…She flipped through the stack of envelopes…All very typical for early January. Except for the postcard. ..What caught my mother’s attention right away was the handwriting, strange and awkward…Then she read the four names, written in the form of a list.
They were the names of her maternal grandparents, her aunt, and her uncle. All four had been deported two years before she was born. They died in Auschwitz in 1942. And now, sixty-one years later, they had reappeared in our mailbox. It was Monday, January 6, 2003.”
If this beginning of the novel “The Postcard” does not grab you, I do not know what will. The novel is semiautobiographical and is the story of the Rabinovitch family, beginning in Moscow in 1918, led by Nachman and Esther Rabinovitch. In the year 1919, Nachman announces that is time for all of the family members to leave Moscow due to growing threats of antisemitism. Son Ephraim is relatively secular, although his wife Emma is observant, and refuses to acknowledge the threat. Nachman, Esther and one daughter go to Palestine and the rest of the family leaves for other places. Ephraim and Emma start out in Latvia, but then decide to go to Palestine due to the antisemitism they experience. Palestine is a little too undeveloped for them and ultimately they land in Paris and then to Les Forges in the countryside.
Ephraim refuses to acknowledge the dangers to them in France. He believes that they are exempt. In the meantime, his oldest daughter, Myriam, falls in love with Vincente Picabia, an uneducated, rather bohemian Parisian, and they marry. Vencente is not Jewish. When the Vichy officers come for the Rabinovitch children in Les Forges, Myriam is hidden and escapes. Her brother, Jacques, and sister, Noemie ultimately land and die in Auschwitz, as do her parents. Their route to the end of their lives is heartbreaking.
Myriam survives through the help of her husband’s family and friends, who are with the French resistance.
The novel’s narrator, Anne, is learning this family history as a result of the postcard. Anne’s mother, Lelia, daughter of Myriam, is a journalist and writer and has been making archives of the family history. Anne did not know any of the story until the postcard showed up in 2003.
Anne and her mother go in search of the family’s past and the creator of the postcard. What they find is frequently chilling, including property owned by their family and remnants of the Nazi and Vichy perspective. The search includes Anne better understanding her mother, as the child of a survivor, and Anne’s clarity regarding her Jewish history and identity.
“I was Jewish but didn’t look it. Sarah [Anne’s friend] looked Jewish but wasn’t according to the texts. We’d laughed about it. It was all so silly. Ridiculous. And yet it affected both our lives deeply. As the years passed, the issue remained complex, intangible, incomparable to anything else…Nothing else had ever characterized me as strongly in the eyes of the men I’d loved…My Jewishness always mattered in some way; it was never insignificant.”
The novel is part holocaust story, with a very personal and uniquely French perspective, part mystery and part examination of Jewish identity. Anne explains that although she knew she was Jewish, she had never received a Jewish education, celebrated Jewish holidays or been in a synagogue. And yet, the specter of modern day antisemitism arrives at her door when her six year old daughter, 16 years after the postcard arrived, tells her that “They do not like Jews very much at school.”
“The Postcard” was published in France in 2021 to great acclaim and translated and released in the United States in 2023. The novel is insightful, horrifying and unforgettable. In light of what is going on around the world right now, the novel reminds us of the importance of history and the importance of recommitting to Never Again! You can reserve The Postcard at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on https://discover.cuyahogalibrary.org/Record/207061