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Posts from the ‘Holocaust Literature’ Category

Talking to the Past—Part II: Edmund de Waal

At first, the letters are addressed to “Dear friend.” Then Edmund de Waal slips into the more formal “Cher Monsieur” and finally “Monsieur.” “I realise,” he writes, “that I’m not entirely sure how to address you, Monsieur le Comte.” How does one address a French count who died more than eighty years ago and whose only connection to you is that he was a cousin of your grandfather’s? And why would you choose to make a book in which you write letters to him rather than write a biography of the count or adopt some form of family memoir? These are just some of the questions that occurred as I read Edmund de Waal’s new book, Letters to Camondo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

In Letters to Camondo, de Waal writes fifty-eight letters to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), letters that ask questions which are never answered, that desperately seek conversation with the dead. For ceramicist and writer Edmund De Waal, the house of Count Moïse Camondo was but a few steps away from the house of his distant relative, Charles Ephrussi, who features prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), in which de Waal wrote about inheriting a collection of 264 netsuke, tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, from an uncle in Tokyo. The story of this collection of rare Japanese objects began in mid-nineteenth century Paris with de Waal’s relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), a wealthy, Jewish collector who is one of the men used by Marcel Proust as he developed his character Charles Swann for In Search of Lost Time. Charles Ephrussi gave the netsuke collection to a Viennese cousin for a wedding gift. That cousin was Victor Ephrussi, de Waal’s grandfather. But with the coming of the Anschluss, Victor and his four children scattered around the globe, their art collections and possessions all confiscated by the Nazis, except for the Netsuke collection, which was smuggled away by a maid, who was later able to return them to the family. The Hare is an extraordinary tale that follows the precious netsuke collection from the Paris of the Impressionists to the Vienna of Freud and its famous cafe society to postwar Tokyo to contemporary London where de Waal lives and works.

Here, in a nutshell, is the necessary backstory to Letters. Born in Istanbul, Moïse de Camondo came from a distinguished family of Sephardic Jews. He moved to Paris, where he became enamored with the art of late eighteenth century France and began to collect obsessively. de Waal’s relative, Charles Ephrussi, was his neighbor and a fellow banker, and he helped him acquire some of the pieces of art that are still in the Camondo museum today. Moïse had two children, Nissim and Béatrice. When his beloved son Nissim was killed in World War I, Moïse decided to donate his house and its collections to the nation so that it could become a museum in Nissim’s honor. Today, the Musée Nissim de Camondo is a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Moïse died in 1935, and then, during World War II, his daughter, Béatrice, her husband, and their two children were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished.

The Camondo house, built between 1911 and 1914, and designed, in part, to suggest the Petit Trianon of Versailles. GO69, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

de Waal begins Letters by informing the Count (and his readers) that “I have been spending time in the archives again.” He is studying in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo. He guides the reader through various parts of the Camondo residence, discussing some of the mind-blowing rooms, the ornate furniture, and important artwork of this extraordinary house. By the end of the book, we have learned a fair amount about Camondo and French decorative arts, as well as the role that antisemitism played in the lives and deaths of the Camondo family.

Ever the good detective, de Waal intuitively goes for the gaps, the areas where there is no documentation, no evidence. The Camondo archive contains mountains of paper: “inventories, carbon copies, auction catalogues, receipts and invoices, memoranda, wills and testaments, telegrams, newspaper announcements, cards of condolence, seating plans and menus, scores, opera programmes, sketches, bank records, hunting notebooks, photographs of artworks, photographs of the family, photographs of gravestones, account books, notebooks of acquisitions.” Amazed at Camondo’s instinct for documentation, de Waal says, “I want to ask if you ever threw anything away?” He looks “for those things that have not been catalogued and filed and photographed.” He investigates “the hidden circulation” of servant quarters, kitchens, attic and cellars, and the stairways and passageways that connected all of those non-public spaces of the house. This is the part of history that is rarely written down, documented, photographed. The evidence is there if one searches properly. But maybe it’s found only in a footnote here, a quickly jotted reference in pencil there, a hint that “seems to weigh nothing” that finally tells us the story of the servant’s quarters and their lives.

By opting to write his book in the form of letters to Moïse Camondo, de Waal is forced into the curious position of telling Camondo the story of Camondo’s own life and the very details of his own magnificent house. For example, de Waal must tell Camondo “You were born in a ‘stone house’ at 6 Camondo Street in Galatea in Constantinople and spent the first nine years of your life looking out over the Bosphorus.” as well as all of the other biographical facts that Moïse Camondo would know perfectly well. This awkward narrative structure is apparent throughout the book, but most readers will manage to overlook it as soon as they realize that they are the really de Waal’s addressee, not a dead French Count.

As de Waal researches in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo and wanders the rooms of the house, asking questions of Moïse Camondo that never receive answers, what becomes apparent is that he is making the point to us that history is derived from things—from the mute objects and the documents that survive—and that the people who actually made history are forever silent, unable to answer our questions. History is limited not only because the dead can’t speak, but also because we have only those few objects and documents that have survived.

Staircase, Musée Nissim de Camondo

Letters to Camondo is a hard-bound book with pages of thick, coated paper stock, and its numerous illustrations are beautifully reproduced, all for the publisher’s retail price of $28. Well worth the price. For a little more about the Camondo family and their house, I recommend an article over at Town and Country by James McAuley, whose new book is The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).

New Podcast About Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

The podcast About Buildings & Cities has recently done a two-part broadcast on W.G. Sebald’s final work of prose fiction, Austerlitz. You can track down episode numbers 77 & 78 through the website here.

Sebald’s novel is a natural for this podcast since Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian and a number of architectural spaces figure prominently in the book’s story, including London’s Liverpool Street Station, the Palace of Justice (Brussels), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). The podcast’s hosts, Luke Jones and George Gingell, read from Sebald’s book, give an overview of the plot, and discuss some of the key themes, including the kindertransport, the uses of photography in the novel, and, of course, some of the buildings referred to in Austerlitz. The two have a terrific conversation about the way in which Sebald continually hints at the Holocaust in Austerlitz, without quite discussing it overtly, and they ask if Sebald might have been too coy at times. Did Sebald see the Holocaust as a single aberrant event or part of a long-standing pattern of imperial genocides in Western history?

A long-time reader of Vertigo turned me on to the About Cities & Buildings podcast and now I’m a dedicated fan. Earlier episodes include subjects such as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, New York’s Robert Moses, urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a four-part series on architect Zaha Hadid. Take a listen.

Modiano’s Dora Bruder- With & Without Images


It takes time for what has been erased to resurface. Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not these custodians are willing to let you see them. Or perhaps they have quite simply forgotten that these registers exist.

All it takes is a little patience.

…But I am a patient man. I can wait for hours in the rain…

That last little touch – “I can wait for hours in the rain” – is so typically Modiano. Here, in Dora Bruder, Modiano’s narrator is trying to assure us that he is persistent in the face of obstacles, that he is patient. And the proof he offers? “I can wait hours in the rain…” Quirky and understated.

The interrelationship between memory, time, and place is central to the books of Patrick Modiano. In the opening sentence of Dora Bruder, he quickly alludes to three separate time periods.

Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading on page 3 caught my eye: “From Day to Day.”

The first two time periods are not specified. Implicitly we have the “now,” the day on which the narrator begins writing this story, followed by his reference to a time eight years earlier when he happened to read a old newspaper. The third date is concrete: 31 December 1941, the actual date of the newspaper in which he read an announcement about a missing 15-year old girl named Dora Bruder. For the remaining pages of this opening chapter, the narrator spins out a series of highly personal memories from different years and different seasons, all of which are related only because they represent his very personal associations with the street where Dora Bruder lived when she went missing. None of these memories are particularly important; rather, they are exactly the kind of irrelevant moments that most memories consist of: stepping off a bus, passing a street photographer, witnessing protestors during the Algerian War, visiting a girlfriend. The narrator recalls two cafes, a jukebox, a Jaguar automobile, and a cinema. Only at the very end of the chapter does the narrator subtly return to the subject of the missing girl. The utter ordinariness of the narrator’s memories underscores the deliberately quiet tragedy of a young girl gone missing at the height of the German occupation of Paris in the midst of World War II. Terrible things happen and we remember trivial details. And yet, these mundane personal memories serve as the bridges that allow the narrator’s imagination to cross over the chasm that separates him from other people, especially someone like Dora Bruder, a woman he never met.

Dora Bruder was originally published in French in 1997.When it was first translated into English it came out under the somewhat misleading title of Search Warrant, but it has now been reissued in the same translation (by Joanna Kilmartin) under its original title. Dora Bruder was born to a pair of Jewish refugees who had independently fled their homelands for Paris in the 1920s – the father came from Vienna, the mother from Budapest. On the final day of 1941, Dora Bruder failed to return to her boarding school after a brief visit to the shabby hotel room where her parents lived nearby. Something in the old newspaper article about her disappearance spikes the interest of the narrator and he sets out to discover everything he can about the girl and her parents. The narrator goes so far as to suggest that, even long before he had ever heard of Doris Bruder, “perhaps, though not fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Doris Bruder and her parents.  Already, below the surface, they were there.” Eventually, the narrator discovers Dora’s name in the register of the Drancy internment camp eight months after her disappearance. He eventually learns that Dora Bruder most likely perished in Auschwitz, as did both of her parents.

Modiano Search Warrant

One day, the narrator of Dora Bruder goes to the movies and watches a “harmless” film called Premier rendez-vous, which was produced under the Occupation. “Suddenly,” he says:

I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation – people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war. They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of the cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And, by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. That is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostensibly trivial images of “Premier rendez-vous.”

Modiano is drawn to “the sort of people who leave few traces.” In part it’s a way of honoring and eulogizing ordinary lives (which often turn out to be not so ordinary upon closer inspection). His narrators love the detective work involved in tracing lives from the past by studying old directories or ferreting through bureaucracies for forgotten pieces of paper, birth certificates, internment camp registers. These “people who leave few traces” are also the kind of people who are constantly labelled by others:

He was used to being put into this or that category by the authorities and accepted it without question. Unskilled laborer. Ex-Austrian. French Legionnaire. Non-suspect. Ex-serviceman. 100% disabled. Foreign statue laborer. Jew.

But just as important, I think, is the fact that these incompletely mappable lives leave plenty of room for Modiano the novelist to fill in blank spaces. When his narrators run out of facts they speculate or they turn to history. For example, in trying to discover more about the life of Dora’s father Ernest Bruder, the narrator fails to discover what happened in the five-year gap between the day he signed up for Foreign Legion duty and his eventual discharge from service in Morocco due to disability. Modiano pours into this gap a telegraphic history of France’s military activities during the Berber uprising in its colony of Morocco in the early 1920s.

The new 2015 edition of Dora Bruder from the University of California Press contains three photographs that apparently show Dora and members of her family, along with two maps of Paris neighborhoods. These images do not appear in the earlier English-language edition, nor are they in the original French publication. (Apparently the photographs also appear in Japanese translations.) What led Modiano to add the photographs and maps, which he seems to have had in his possession at the time when the book was written? There are a handful of scholarly essays online that address the question of photographs in Dora Bruder; unfortunately, most are behind paywalls. But in a 2006 lecture on Modiano given by  Harvard’s Susan Rubin Suleiman that once was (but no longer is) available online, Suleiman tells us that during the writing of Dora Bruder, Modiano was in correspondence with the scholar Serge Klarsfield, whose 1995 book Le Mémorial des enfants juifs déportés de France documented the transportation of children to internment camps. “Klarsfeld,” she says,  “provided [Modiano] with photographs of Dora and her parents as well as other information.”

In the book, Modiano’s narrator describes at some length a number of photographs of Dora and her family, several of which are not reproduced. He sticks to the visual facts – or the questions raised by the visual evidence – and never interprets or analyzes the individuals depicted. Modiano seems to repeatedly draw a clear line between facts and speculation.

A photograph of Dora, surely taken after a special school assembly. She is aged twelve or thereabouts and wears a white dress and ankle socks. She holds a book in her right hand. Her hair is crowned by a circlet of what appear to be white flowers. Her left hand rests on the edge of an enormous white cube patterned with rows of black geometric motifs, clearly a studio prop. Another photograph, taken in the same place at the same period, perhaps on the same day: the floor tiles are recognizable, as is the big white cube with black geometric motifs on which Cécile Bruder is perched. Dora stands on her left, in a high-necked dress, her left arm bent across her body so as to place her hand on her mother’s shoulder.

Dora Bruder photojpg-001

Eye to Eye with Horror

In a recent post about the book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, I drifted briefly into the topic of “reading” photographs, a practice I usually think leads to misreading.  In conjunction with this I recommend taking a look at an important article in the February/March 2009 issue of Bookforum by writer and photographer William T. Vollmann.  In reviewing three books that deal with Nazi- or Holocaust-related photographs, Vollmann poses the question:

How should we parse a documentary image that directly or indirectly portrays evil, injustice, anguish? What rights and duties, if any, does our understanding engender?

One of the most intense sections of Vollmann’s article centers on four extraordinary images from Auschwitz.  “Smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste, they constitute, so we are told, the only known photographs of mass killing in the gas chambers”.  As he notes, these images, made by a prisoner,  can be viewed as a “brave affirmation” of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. Still, there exists a substantial discourse on the ethical uses and legitimate interpretations of any and all Holocaust imagery.  What Vollmann does well is to tackle some terribly thorny and emotion-laden ethical questions with great level-headedness, respect and clarity.

Speaking primarily about documentary or archival photographs, Vollmann ultimately concludes

No one can own a photograph, least of all the photographer, because his photograph came about as a result of three mutually independent parties—photographer, camera, and subject—and, moreover, because the photograph, manifesting reality, which cannot be owned, can affect us in ways that the photographer might never have foreseen or desired.

His article Seeing Eye to Eye can be read online although unfortunately without any of the illustrations that appear in the magazine.  He also recommends two of the books under his review: Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All and Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography.

How German Is It


“What is it about Germany and the travel book that puts them seemingly at odds?” queries the front flap of Michael Gorra’s The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany (Princeton, 2004). Not far into his book Gorra, a professor of English literature at Smith College, answers by quoting a headline from the International Herald Tribune: “Germany Wants To Be Normal, but History Keeps Getting in the Way.” And, indeed, the years of National Socialism and the Holocaust cast indelible shadows across the Germany of today and even across Germany’s past. Visiting Weimar and vicinity, Gorra muses on the profound irony that the site of Goethe’s famous oak (which no longer survives) lies “halfway between the disinfection chambers and the crematorium” of Buchenwald.

Germany “is a land in which no behavior can be, not so much innocent, as innocently seen.” Gorra, ever conscientious, struggles with the Germany he finds and with himself. He feels guilty when he enjoys himself. When he starts to feel “at home” in Germany he wonders if he is in some way “normalizing” the horror. Dining out in Berlin, he eyes the crowd of “expensive, skinny people” and worries: “Germans enjoying themselves over tagliatelle al salmone and a glass of Pinot Grigio – a frightening idea, perhaps, but I was used to it by now.” On the other hand, perhaps there is a way to cope: “in Germany the practice of everyday life is not today a matter of accepting the presence of horror but rather of accepting its pastness…” Throughout The Bells in Their Silence, Gorra keeps turning this conundrum around and around, peering at it from different vantage points. Much to his credit, he does not turn his magnifying glass solely on Germany and the German psyche; he pays equal attention to his own contradictory responses to the German “problem.”

Here, it seems to me, is the real subject of Gorra’s book: how is a conscientious outsider supposed to feel about Germany? The fraught nature of Gorra’s inner struggle is embodied in the bells of his book’s title. The church bells of the Marienkirche in Thomas Mann’s city of Lubeck remain embedded in the floor exactly where they fell during an Allied raid in 1942. The bells have been left as a memorial – but to what? To German guilt? To Allied bombing of civilian populations? To all the war dead? To suffering in general? “The bells remember, but what they remember remains unsaid. Or rather, these found objects say many things, in different measure to different people, and their enigmatic power depends on saying no one of them exclusively.”

Gorra Bells Silence

Even as the Holocaust manifests itself everywhere Gorra looks, The Bells in Their Silence is otherwise a very discrete view of contemporary Germany. Gorra obliquely refers to “some curious cable channels” and he walks past – but does not enter – a street of prostitution in Hamburg’s red light district. Otherwise he views Germany through the twin lenses of literature and history. He writes wonderfully about Goethe, George Eliot, Stendhal, Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald, Bruce Chatwin, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, and Theodor Fontane, among others. He writes considerably less about a handful of places in Germany: Berlin, Hamburg, Lubeck, Weimar, Buchenwald. But, like the best of travel literature (a term that seems to belittle the book’s seriousness and scope no matter how deliberately Gorra himself uses it), The Bells in Their Silence finds a balance between the inner travels prompted by our travels to confront the unfamiliar.

References to Sebald’s books – especially The Rings of Saturn and On the Natural History of Destruction, are scattered throughout Gorra’s book.

Sebald’s departures bring him back always to the same place, the same set of facts: to the industrial killing of the Holocaust….no matter how far he digresses, he is always drawn back, never closer to that history than when he seems farthest away. And it is dazzling, this failure to escape, failure and success at once…

[How German Is It is borrowed from the title of Walter Abish’s 1979 novel; an essential read, I think. The lead image is: Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca 1818 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).]

Remembering and Imagining Sebald

Bigbsy Remembering Holocaust

The chapter called W.G. Sebald: An Act of Restitution in Christopher Bigsby’s recent book ought to be required reading for anyone interested in Sebald. I’m not sure how often one can say that a book related to the Holocaust can be a “good read,” but that’s how I found his well-written book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Bigsby’s fluid style is in keeping with his determination to strike a balance between biography and textual interpretation and, furthermore, to understand the inter-relationships between writers’ lives and their works. The longest and, in my opinion, best chapter is devoted to Sebald, with other chapters on Rolf Hochhuth, Peter Weiss, Arthur Miller, Anne Frank, Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. Bigsby ends the book with a chapter called Memory Theft, about several writers whose claimed Holocaust experiences have been disproved, including Binjamin Wilkomirski and Jerzy Kosinski.

“This book began with a desire to celebrate the work of W.G. Sebald, a friend and colleague,” Bigsby declares on the first page, and the dual perspective of friend and colleague sets the pattern for an engaging exploration of nearly all of Sebald’s books. Bigsby traces the parallel course of Sebald’s growing awareness of Germany’s unspoken past with his increasing focus as a writer on that same past and on the terrible damage that German silence has inflicted on both war- and post-war generations. Bigsby’s reading of Sebald’s books is nicely nuanced by his friendship with Sebald and their conversations. (Sebald is one of the writers included in Bigsby’s earlier book Writers in Conversation vol. 2, which I have just ordered.) Bigsby, more than any other writer I have read, has really permitted me to better imagine W.G. Sebald as both a man and a writer.

Christopher Bigsby is a Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia.