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review 2017-09-13 13:57
Suite Française by Irène Némirovski
Suite Française - Irène Némirovsky,Sandra Smith

"War … yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, 'They’re people just like us after all,' but they’re not at all the same."

 

Irène Némirovski — famed writer, Russian emigre, and woman of Jewish ancestry — in the midst of World War II, and in the hands of the third Reich, began writing a novel. She did not live to see the end of the war or the end of the novel, but what she did write of that novel is what we have here under the title Suite FrançaiseNémirovski's work stands out from World War II stories I have read throughout my life, in particular those popular in America: It is not about America and it is not about the fighting of the war. The focus here is on the French civilians living in the shadow of war, people trying to survive and continue their lives in a world turned upside down.

 

Némirovski planned to write five parts for her novel, but only produced the first two before she was captured. The story starts in (free) Paris as news arrives that the French army is in retreat and the war is coming. We follow a handful of French citizens trying evacuate the city — specifically the wealthy Péricand family, working class Jeanne and Maurice Michaud, their son Jean-Marie, the author Gabriel Corte, and the rich Charles Langelet. 

 

Suite Française contains a very human story about the common choices we rarely hear about in the accounts of war. The characters of this book are neither heroic nor villainous in any grand sense. They make small choices that can have big consequences. they are sometimes brave, sometimes cowardly, sometimes decent, often petty. In many cases there is no easy answer at all. The good guys don't always act good and the bad guys aren't always terrible.

 

In this way, Suite Française feels immediate in a way few war narratives do. The horror of the story is not how alien this world is, but how familiar. Their choices are our choices but heightened. What do you do when you see someone in need? What would you do to others to protect your family? Or just yourself? You wouldn't have to kill someone, just steal gas, or pack your fine linens and drive past a line of people fleeing on foot. And on the other side, acts of kindness like caring for a wounded soldier in your home or helping reconnect children and parents after a bombing. There are many common decisions that suddenly hold the power of life and death in wartime and Némirovski never lets us forget that imperfect humans are the ones having to make these decisions. 

 

When we move into the second part, "Dolce," things get even more confusing. Invasion has given way to occupation and we get a look through the experiences of two households, each forced to house a German officer. "Dolce" takes place mostly in the summer two years after the invasion. Life is not back to normal, but it looks much more like it. Old grievances are renewed, people bicker and gossip, and we are told, despite numerous proclamations of French solidarity, that the townsfolk were reporting their neighbors to the Germans from the very start. "If we'd taken them all seriously, everyone in the region would be in prison," the German officer says.

 

Meanwhile, the officers are gentlemanly, polite, kind even and they live in these homes for months, and politeness in return is compulsory. Over months grudge melts into kindness, respect and even affection (thus the epigraph to this essay). We know what the Nazis (as a whole) stood for, what they perpetrated against Jews and other minorities, but one person can be complicated, a soldier, we are reminded several times, does not set the policies. As an abstraction, years later, Nazi's appear as pure evil, but as individuals, in the houses of the protagonists, the image is less clear. In fact, Germans in this town act much like American soldiers later in the war. They give sweets to the kids, offer to help carry groceries, and pay well at the local shops. In this way, Suite Française reveals our humanity both in the capacity to transcend, and our weakness to, the worst parts of ourselves, and in this book it is hard to even know which parts those are.

 

The tension in "Dolce" seems to pull tighter and tighter until you can't stop reading. The friendship between Lucile and a German officer seems to draw inexorably toward disaster. Némirovski writes at her best at these moments when her characters are torn between what they want and what they know is right and even possible. Quiet, impossible feelings spring up between people despite themselves. It's not a naughty affair, but a tragic affection expressed through a song on the piano, a look at a ring, blanched faces, or a startle when the real world reinserts itself into a quiet moment on the lawn.

 

Suite Française feels defined almost as much by what is included as by what is not. Hitler is not mentioned at all until very near the end. Jews and concentration camps aren't mentioned at all. This feels very strange if you do not read the appendix that is included with Némirovski's diary entries about the book. I have often skipped afterwords and appendices in recent years, but since this novel was so conspicuously unfinished I decided to read them. Now I wonder at what more this book could have become. Némirovski kept the horrors to the margins while she told us when it must have seem that way to citizens. She invites us to feel as conflicted as many may have felt at the time — and from her notes it appears she too was sympathetic to individual soldiers — before dropping hard truths in the next sections. The reality of the Nazi rule would intrude disastrously on our protagonists and they would find themselves colliding in different ways, trying to survive the new, even more insidious threat of occupation. The final two sections of the novel she never even outlined; they would depend on the outcome of the war.

 

Unfortunately, Némirovski, and her story, in Auschwitz on August 17, 1942. What remains is written with a rare heart and clarity, untainted by nostalgia, parades, or narratives of heroes and villains. It's a story of ordinary people living in turbulent, dangerous times, and Suite Française is especially charming, and haunting, for that reason. 

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review 2017-08-14 06:23
Auschwitz: A Short History by Ben Stevens
Auschwitz: A Short History - Ben Stevens

Auschwitz: A Short History by Ben Stevens is a documentary style story. I gave it four stars because it was a straightforward account of history.

 

It is sad to remember the atrocities that took place. There were the "Einsatzgruppen - paramilitary 'death squads' who followed the regular German army into occupied territory before 'cleansing' it of anyone deemed racially or politically 'undesirable'. Previously, this had consisted chiefly of Einsatzgruppen soldier shooting unarmed men, women and children in the back of the head, or machine-gunning them in large groups, before hurling their bodies into deep trenches." There were 33,771 people killed in a massacre in Kiev in September 1941.

 

I received a complimentary Kindle copy in an Amazon promotion. That did not change my opinion for this review.

 

Link to purchase: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MS53R46

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review 2016-09-20 11:37
This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held
This Place Holds No Fear - Anne Posten,Monika Held

This is a touching story about the life that came after Auschwitz; the way recovery happens, even when we won't forget or let go, even when we hold on to our pain with both hands. Recovery happens, but it's different. It brought a whole new understanding of Auschwitz and what it meant to have been there. Most of what I've seen about Auschwitz and the concentration camps focus on those perpetrating the horrors and shows the prisoners as others. Here, the Nazi's are the other and the US is not even involved. It's not about liberation or war, it's about marriage and dealing with what comes later.

The effect that the experience at Auschwitz has on the characters in this book and those who meet them after is an entirely different narrative than we're used to in the US. Sort of. It's a narrative of PTSD, which we generally reserve for veterans. The difference makes this book about the way people keep their pain close to them, how they learn to depend on it. It's the way they commiserate amongst themselves and remember together and the way that is its own sort of healing.  It's in the way they know things about themselves and each other that you only learn in those kinds of circumstances and surprises that happen when everyone attempts to return to "normal life".

Lena is our window into Heiner's world. She's the every woman who had nothing to do with Auschwitz and doesn't understand how such horrible things could happen. She doesn't appreciate the strange humor of the survivors but she loves them anyway. She also serves as the reason Heiner and his friends get to tell stories and reminisce about when they met. Her reaction is our reaction.

But the book isn't just about Heiner or Lena or some survivors of Auschwitz alone. Their lives are littered with more people than that, some of which were around before the war and others who they only knew after. Even those who don't seem that closely related at first lend depth and history to the story.

The character progression of both Heiner and Lena is remarkable. Each finds their way of dealing with everything. Their growth and the way they eventually ease into each other felt natural, like it would just happen that way. There was a force of will to help it along, but it wasn't made out to be so hard that it was not believable. Marriage sometimes takes a force of will, especially if it lasts as long as theirs. But the growth isn't just about their marriage, there's the way they deal with others as life goes on and Lena getting to know his friends. The tone of the book is beautifully nostalgic, even when they speak of horrible days. The nostalgia is because of each other, it's for each other.

I have to admit that I highlighted this book like I was going to be tested on it. There were so many lines that blew my mind, that changed the way I thought about everything involved with Auschwitz and it's few survivors. For me, it changed everything I thought I knew about Auschwitz. Since I read it on Scribd, the highlights aren't readily available but here are two quotes that were among my favorites:

They wrote down what they remembered, they spoke into microphones, yet what they'd experienced was not the same as what could be read or heard later. Their memories ought to be made into vaccines, to prevent the illnesses that had caused them.

and

They were silent, abandoned the subject, and then the fight would start all over again. She'd said just. It was that word that troubled him. Just because he was at Auschwitz. After endless debates, Lena lost her patience. Heiner, my dear, she said sharply, let me enlighten you on the word that's bothering you so much. Just is a small, embittered word with a difficult life. It has to push its way into sentences, even those where it isn't absolutely necessary, and imbue them with new meaning. First: The just in my sentence is meant in the sense of "although," and does not diminish your friend's suffering. What I wanted to say was: Although he was at Auschwitz back then, I don't have to accept it when he talks nonsense today.

And then she goes on to explain all the other ways that "just" is used because the book is every bit as much about marriage as being a survivor.

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review 2016-08-26 00:00
The Auschwitz Escape
The Auschwitz Escape - Joel C. Rosenberg Even though I know the book was fictional, I know countless true stories really happened like this, and the people who endured such inhumane evil still found the courage to try to do what they could to undermine the Nazi government-- that is truly inspiring. Mr. Rosenburg has again created a masterpiece. I always enjoy his writing, and this is destined to be a classic. He crafted a thrill ride of a read, that makes you feel as if you are there-- a silent witness to the characters' heroism and persistence. This a definite read again for me.
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review 2016-07-04 17:33
Auschwitz (Review)
Auschwitz - Laurence Rees

I think this book does show a side of the holocaust even more horrific than what is already common knowledge. It shows how human nature can change drastically depending on the situation a person is placed in. And how small things, such as sneezing during a selection could seal your fate.

 

I think the books only failure is that it doesn't always flow very well. It often references different times and periods that don't seem to help the narrative. I would've liked things to have been presented in a more chronological fashion so I wasn't constantly having to place where the incidents fell in the timeline of the war and of what was happening at particular camps at the different times.

 

In the end I think the scariest realization I gained from the book is that it is not only possible for something like this to happen again, it almost seems likely.

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