Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.
Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.
Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’
Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.
Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’
Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.
Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’
Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.
I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.