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Anne Berest at the Jerusalem Writers Festival

Two nights ago, I attended the 2024 Jerusalem Writers' Festival to hear Anne Berest speak about her recent, award-winning novel, The Postcard. In French, la Carte Postal. It's just been released in Hebrew.

The Postcard was - hands down - my favorite read of 2023. (See below for my review of the book from last summer). In fact, it inspired my current work-in-progress. So I was thrilled to see she'd be coming to Jerusalem and I immediately bought a ticket to the event. She was interviewed by literary scholar and author Dorit Shiloh...Naturally, afterwards I went up and fangirled her...

Briefly, about the book:

In 2003, Anne Berest's mother received an anonymous postcard — on the front, a photo of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and on the back, someone had written the names of Anne's maternal great-grandparents and two of their children, all killed at Auschwitz. The postcard was shoved in a drawer and forgotten about for 15 years… Only after Anne's daughter came home from school and started asking her grandmother questions – (Are you a Jew? Is Mama a Jew? Am I a Jew? Because people in my school don't like Jews…) – did Anne remember the postcard. With her mother's help, she then embarked on a quest to uncover who'd sent the postcard, as well as an exploration - after being raised in a completely secular family - of her own Judaism and feelings about her people.

At the festival, Anne explained that her quest began when her mother insisted she go to her daughter's school.

"It's called obstacle avoidance in psychology," she said, "when you don't want to deal with the problem in front of you, so your brain creates a new problem to fix."

To avoid speaking to her daughter's school, she suddenly remembered the postcard. Her mother agreed to help only if Anne would, indeed, deal with the school.

Anne calls The Postcard a "true novel" - meaning many of the events are true, but there are certain aspects of the story in which she had to twist timelines for the sake of the narrative. It is also fictional in that she had to imagine and breathe life into her long-deceased relatives.

"When you search, you find," she said last night. "You will always find traces of your ancestors." This rang especially true for me, for anyone following my own recent discoveries (a photo of my grandmother from 1929, the deportation lists naming my great-aunts and uncles' and a cousin with their exact birth dates, and more).

There were three chapters very difficult for her to write, she said. I didn't catch the exact chapters to which she was referring, but I think they had to do with the deportation of her great grandparents and aunt and uncle. She said read many many testimonies and first-hand accounts. How could she assume to write about these things, when she was not there to witness? It was a moral problem for her. She got around the moral problem by taking the exact words of the testimonies. "I'm just a conduit," she said, "for those who were there."

Those in her generation – the 3rd generation after the Holocaust (and in my own) have heard testimony from survivors in our schools and communities. But very soon there will come a time when there are no longer survivors, and this is why it is incumbent on the rest of us – the 2nd and 3rd generations – to write something.

Anne said that while she was writing, she had a teenage girl in mind as her ultimate reader. She wants to pass on her knowledge to the next generation.

Being Jewish means spending your entire life wondering: what does it mean to be Jewish? Anne said she thinks she will spend her whole life answering that question.

When asked about what it means to her to be in Israel, at this moment after October 7th, Anne said that this is her second trip to Israel post-October 7th. She came in January, to both see her cousins and friends and to bear witness.

"I feel the need of being together," she said.

Anne, I'm so grateful – both for your words and for your presence. Thank you.

PS When I told her that I, too, am writing a "true novel", based on my own family mystery/secret from France, inspired by her work, she was lovely and exclaimed, "Oh! I want to read it!"

Here's what I wrote about it, last summer:

The Postcard by Anne Berest: From the moment I read the NYT review of Anne Berest’s award-winning book, newly translated into English, I knew this book was for me. In 2003, the author’s mother received an anonymous postcard — on the front, a photo of the Opéra Garnier in Paris (the first place Hitler visited in Paris, the place he wanted to his chief architect to emulate). On the back of the postcard, someone had written the names of Anne Berest’s maternal great-grandparents, Ephraïm and Emma, and their children, Noémie and Jacques—all killed at Auschwitz. Fifteen years later, Anne sets out to uncover her family’s wartime history while navigating the dangers of the present, knowing little about her Jewish heritage beyond the fact that it made her and her daughter a target. (To give you some idea, she’d never attended a Passover seder until she was in her late 30s/early 40s and had never stepped foot inside a synagogue, etc.). The Postcard is billed as a novel, because interspersed with the author’s quest to uncover who’d sent the postcard, she imagines and breathes life into Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, Jacques, and their daughter/sister Miryam, Anne’s grandmother, who refused to speak of her wartime experiences. Anne is aided by her wise, chain-smoking mother who says things like: “Indifference is universal. Who are you indifferent toward today, right now? Ask yourself that. Which victims living in tents, or under overpasses, or in camps way outside the cities are your ‘invisible ones’? The Vichy regime set out to remove the Jews from French society. And they succeeded.” I especially liked this blurb by Lauren Elkin in The Washington Post: "The Postcard is...a powerful exploration of family trauma...transmitted in the womb or down the generations; a longing for what we don't know and can never know of the people whose lives are responsible for our own existence, and an internalization of the very worst that humans can do to one another, visited on one's own family." (BTW I’d love to invite Anne to participate in Literary Modiin, so if any of you have contact info for her or for her agent/publicist, please let me know!)


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