Isaac Levendel's mother was arrested near Avignon on June 6, 1944, deported to Auschwitz, and gassed to death. In this book, Levendel takes us along two quests: first, a search within himself for his "personal truth," as he struggles to come to terms with his experience as a boy of seven whose mother is taken away. This meant overcoming the silence and denial within which he wrapped himself for over forty years. His second quest was a search in the departmental archives of the Vaucluse for the persons responsible for his mother's death. This meant overcoming the restrictions imposed by the French State on access to police, prefectoral, and judicial records, as well as the preference of most of the people around him to forget the past.

Both quests are successful, at least on the surface. After many years of shutting out his unbearable memories, Levendel learns to confront them, accept the finality of his mother's death, and cope with his sense of guilt for not having accompanied her on the journey that led to her death. Levendel also succeeds, by dogged persistence and with some help from influential acquaintances, in finding out exactly who brought about his mother's deportation.

For years he had accepted the neighbors' explanation: "The Germans did it." It turned out, however, that the persons responsible for identifying and arresting Mme. Levendel were all French. The man who registered her on the prefecture's list of Jews, saw to its regular updating, and played a large role in a first arrest of foreign Jews for deportation in August 1942 was an eminent high civil servant in the Vaucluse, honored after the war as a victim of the Germans. His successors, respected civil servants, updated the lists and transmitted them, with some foot-dragging, to the local staff of the Vichy Commissariat aux Questions Juives, who passed them to the Gestapo. The men who, using that list, came to take Mme. Levendel away were members of a Marseille underworld gang who delivered Jews to the Gestapo in exchange for a fee and the liberty to pillage their belongings afterward.

These quests not only brought Isaac Levendel a sense of liberation; they also brought him a lot of pain—a pain he makes us share. This book is not always comfortable to read. Once we have begun it, however, it grips us with its intensity and authenticity. The author says what he thinks. He is angry.

Levendel has harsh things to say about practically everyone: not only the Nazis and their French collaborators, but, at times, his French neighbors, with their dislike of the "difference"—of people who are not like themselves; the American bombers' indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on the ground; the French Liberation Committee's summary justice after the war; self-satisfied veterans of the French Resistance; Catholics conditioned to envision Jews as "killers of Christ"; professional historians with their bloodless objectivity; archivists bent on keeping researchers away from their sensitive documents; civil servants who think only of their careers; and, last but certainly not least, his fellow Jews, with their propensity for lamentation and self-pity, their efforts to "pass," and their bland food.

Levendel's harsh judgment becomes bearable in the end, however, because he is also hard on himself. He admits he was a bit of a spoiled brat, and he continues to be willful and stubborn as an adult. Otherwise, he never would have persisted in these quests despite advice from friends and officials to let the past alone.

There are some heroes in this book, too. They are the Just Ones who helped the distressed child. The Steltzers, foreign Jews who also needed to hide, took the time to make sure the boy also had shelter. The Brès, a poor and uneducated but generous peasant family, took him in without hesitation and without the slightest calculation, in spite of the risks of trouble from the Gestapo or their French helpers. But the Just Ones were only a minority, and they could not change the course of events. The hospitality the Brès offered the Jewish child only magnified the neighbors' low opinion of them as irresponsible and improvident. They fit the theory that those who take risks to help members of a persecuted minority tend to be outsiders, people of independent values who are indifferent to respectable opinion.1 Levendel declines to let us take the easy way out and consider the Brès representative of the French people as a whole.

After the Liberation, another French family, the Sourets, gave the young Isaac a warmer home than his bereaved father could. When his father returned after the war from internment in Switzerland, Isaac felt only stiff awkwardness with him. The wounded Levendel family was not able to knit itself back together. It was as a boarder with the affectionate Sourets, whose reluctance to wash, love of good food, resistance to rules, and spontaneous good humor remind the reader of Marcel Pagnol, that the nine-year-old began to construct a normal childhood. Like many rescued children, however, he was torn between his happiness with the Sourets and the Jewish identity of which his schoolmates never failed to remind him.

Levendel claims he has sought only his "personal truth." He situates himself on a middle ground between the professional historians, whose bloodless abstractions are devoid of memory, and the excesses of self-serving recollection, without self-awareness and perspective, in which some victims indulge nowadays. But his book contributes in a number of ways to the more general truths sought by historians.

Because Levendel was tenacious and lucky in gaining access to his archives, he can give us a vivid picture at the village level of how the Vichy machinery for identifying, making the census, and excluding Jews was subsequently taken up and used by the Gestapo and its French helpers for their much more radical goal of extermination. That machinery worked, even without ideological commitment on the part of the local fonctionnaires, and even after some of them had come to have doubts about Vichy. This reminds us that the cooling of French public opinion toward Vichy, stressed by recent historians,2 was not sufficient to prevent that regime from functioning. The vast majority of French people were neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to Vichy's anti-Jewish policies.3  On which side of the account book, however, shall we enter the prevailing indifference? On the one hand, the neighbors did not denounce the Brès to the police; on the other, indifference allowed the deportation machinery to function until August 1944.

Levendel's discovery that his mother was identified, tracked, and stamped not by ideological collaborators but by respectable civil servants following orders makes us look hard at "collaboration d'état." It reminds us how many ordinary French public officials followed a complex itinerary during the Vichy period, from routine obedience to reserve and, in some cases, finally, to resistance. The very ambiguity of those common itineraries makes it difficult for those who lived through the Occupation, and for us, to establish any single serene memory of that period. But does the ultimate transformation of some "collaborateurs d'état" into latter-day Gaullists make them more admirable than the ideological collaborators, or only more adroit? Or were they, too, victims of their leaders' blunders? In his closing lines, Levendel forces us to ask ourselves, too, whether we would sacrifice our careers in such a situation.

The haphazard manner in which some Jews were taken away and others were not is strikingly apparent in Isaac Levendel's story. Chance and individual circumstances play considerable roles. That means that the perennial question of how it was that two-thirds of the Jews in France survived the Nazi occupation can receive no simple answer. And while that answer surely includes actions by good people in France, among them some fonctionnaires, it can only in very rare instances include official acts by the Vichy government and administration. One of those rare instances was Vichy's refusal to extend to the Unoccupied Zone the German ordinance of June 1942 requiring Jews to wear a yellow star. Although this refusal was more a reassertion of Vichy sovereignty than a moderation of Vichy anti-Semitism, it offered the Jews in the Unoccupied Zone a significant advantage. Levendel gives it due recognition. But the absence of external marks made the prefectures' lists even more fateful for the Jews inscribed on them, along with the word "Jew" stamped relentlessly by Vichy officials on all identity papers and ration cards.

Levendel sees evidence that Vichy fonctionnaires were trying toward the end to save French citizens of Jewish origin (and France's own sovereign status) by placating the Nazi agencies with the foreign Jews. That kind of discrimination was also practiced by Admiral Miklós Horthy's Hungary, Bulgaria, and other quasi-independent regimes under the sway of Nazi Germany. But it is not a bargain in which defenders of Vichy can take much pride. Nor was it a bargain that succeeded. Isaac Levendel was not on the list with his mother, but had he gone back to Le Pontet with her on June 4, he would have been taken away, despite the French citizenship he had acquired at birth. The completeness of Vichy's homegrown anti-Jewish program before 1942, which subjected long-established Jews to most of the same restrictions as recent immigrants, hobbled Vichy's efforts after 1942 to protect the French citizens among them from Eichmann's men.

Levendel gives us a sensitive look at the awkward matter of living in France after 1945 with memories of the Occupation and deportations. He meets former school classmates on the street who once scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on his door, and who now expect to be treated cordially, as if nothing had happened.

Should Levendel have left the past alone, as many people urged him to do? Does he have the right to look in the archives for those whom he holds responsible for his mother's death, and to make their names public? Readers will have to decide for themselves how to establish an appropriate balance between two conflicting goods: their right to privacy against Levendel's right to know what happened to his mother. Does an official's undoubted right to privacy in his personal life extend to actions accomplished in the exercise of official functions? In any event, it would be difficult to deny Isaac Levendel the possibility of understanding his own life, and his duty to tell the next generation about this century's violence in all its gritty, quotidian details.

Levendel is an accomplished computer technologist and manager who writes without the benefit of literary artifice or training in historical methods. His book has more basic values. He is blunt and honest with us, and aware of his own subjectivity. That unsentimental tough-mindedness makes this one of the most convincing and moving of this kind of memoir of the Final Solution in France

Robert O. Paxton
Columbia University
, NewYork


1 See Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), a study of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews in Poland.
2 Pierre Laborit, L'Opinion Française sous Vichy, (Paris: Le Seuil, 1990).
3 Asher Cohen, Persécutions et Sauvetages (Paris: Le Cerf, 1993), pp. 238-239.

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