Book Review: War, Peace and Immigration

Dec 11, 2020

Here are two books that offer unique voices on surviving Nazi occupied Europe and have several key plot points in common. Both feature women as the main characters and neither is Jewish. Both works also explore the immigrant experience in the U.S. after the war. But that’s where the similarities end.

The first is a memoir. Immigrant Dreams, by Barbara Goldowski, in which the author reflects on when she was a fatherless child living with her small, impoverished family in the medieval town of Dachau. The heart of the memoir focuses on the realization of, Immigrant Dreams, after she arrives in the U.S. as a teenager.

The other, a haunting novel called Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman, follows a young widow and mother of an infant daughter during the occupation. The protagonists of both narratives give thanks to their being able to immigrate to this country after the war where each succeeds in finding personal and professional satisfaction, but it’s the novel that most movingly engages as a dark, psychologically nuanced look at how some non-Jews, particularly young women, were forever haunted by what they saw during that hideous time: the round ups, the beatings and killings, the sadism, the poverty, the violent pay back once Paris was liberated.

In an afterword, Feldman notes that she read many books about women who had fought in the Resistance or spied for the Allies, but she began to wonder about the legions of more ordinary women, especially in Vichy France, who did not or could not exercise risk or courage.

What would SHE have done had she been one of them? The novel opens with a prologue set in 1944 in Paris. Charlotte Feret, standing with others outside  Drancy prison, is tearing off the yellow star sewn into her daughter’s blouse. Nearby, a Perisian mob bent on “freelance revenge” is violently attacking a collabo horizontale, a shaved-head French woman who slept with the enemy.

Chapter one is set 10 years later in 1954 in New York where Charlotte is working as a senior editor at a prestigious publishing house owned by a Jewish friend of her father whom she vaguely remembers from former Paris days. He and his psychotherapist wife sponsored Charlotte and her daughter Vivi, who now live on a floor of their elegant brownstone. All’s well except that Charlotte cannot shake a shameful secret she has told no one, and she’s uneasy because of questions from her now rebellious adolescent daughter about her father, who had died at the front, and about being Jewish.

The main reason Paris never leaves Charlotte is that she had an affair during the occupation with a high-ranking member of the Wehrmacht, a frequent visitor to the bookstore where she was working. He let on that he was a doctor and brought food for her and her daughter. In a way, then Paris Never Leaves You is a cynical spin on Nick’s famous remark to Ilsa in  “Casablanca” — Bogey to Bergman — “we’ll always have Paris.” 

Indeed. Charlotte will always have Paris, will always have survivor guilt. And shame. I did say that Feldman’s novel was about a heroine who wasn’t Jewish. No spoiler alert, except to say that a number of people in Feldman’s novel, real and fictional, knew how to play sides for salvation. That’s the subtlety in this well written book. Metaphorically compressed, filled with dramatic scenes, and sarcasm and passion, it’s an unusual take on the  theme of redemption  and of the force of love.