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Anne Berest's novel traces her family history and leads back to the Holocaust


An unsigned postcard arrives at the Berest home in Paris in January of 2003. A photo of the Opera Garnier is on the front - on the back, no message, just four names written in ballpoint pen - Ephraim, Emma, Noemie and Jacques. The names were of writer Anne Berest's maternal great-grandparents and their children who had died in Auschwitz. But it takes 16 more years for her to try to find out who sent that postcard and why, and what that story discloses about her family. Anne Berest's "The Postcard" was a huge bestseller in France and has now been published in the United States. And Anne Berest joins us now from New York.

Thank you so much for being with us.

ANNE BEREST: Thank you.

SIMON: Why is this a novel? It's also a real story.

BEREST: It's a novel, but I often say it's a true novel because all the events are true. But I wanted to write it in a novelistic way. For example, I changed the name of the village where my family were arrested because I didn't want that the inhabitants of this village now have trouble because of my book. I changed the name of people who bad behaviored during the war because I didn't want the grandchildren of these people had the trouble now and that people say, OK, I know that your grandfather, grandmother denounced Jewish during the war. So that's why I call it a novel, because I took the liberty as a writer to change little things.

SIMON: That's very generous of you. You didn't want the grandchildren of people who did harm to your family to suffer today?

BEREST: Yes, exactly.

SIMON: The story traces back to Emma and Ephraim Rabinovich. Does their experience remind us that the Holocaust didn't stand out alone? It was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism all over Europe.

BEREST: You have to understand the silence of the Jews in France after the Second World War, because after the war, they were afraid to speak out, because one must bear in mind that they were still living in fear because that fear was so ancient in Europe. They thought that the denunciations could start again. My grandmother, after the war, baptized my mother in a church to protect her. And many Jews did the same in France after the war. So in the book, I give the example of one of my friends whose parents changed their Jewish names to French names in the mid-'60s. It's incredible to think about it. It was the mid-'60s in France, and Jews wanted to change their names because they'd always say it can happen again.

SIMON: There are sections of the book, especially about life and death in Auschwitz, that are very detailed and difficult to read. You talk about the ways in which prisoners were humiliated and brutalized and lied to up until the moment they were in the gas chambers. Was it especially important to you to tell people about those details?

BEREST: Yes, because this book for me is a book of transmission. If a teenager today read a novel and he loves the novel, it means that one day he will open an historical book. The historical passages were particularly difficult to narrate in the book. I'm not an historian, but I worked as an historian. I read all the books I could. I watched all the documentaries I could. I want to say that there is not a single sentence in these passages that is invented. I simply wanted to be the link between yesterday's witnesses and today's readers.

SIMON: According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents are on the rise in the United States. They're on the rise in Europe. This is 80 years after the Holocaust, where the world saw where that could lead. Why do you think antisemitism is on the rise again?

BEREST: It's a big question. And, you know, I'm not an historian. As a writer, I can say that now I'm still afraid when I see all the signals in our society.

SIMON: What signals do you see in French society or America?

BEREST: I can't speak about America because I never speak about things I don't really know. In France, yes, I can say that I hear and I see people becoming paranoiac against Jews, even in part of society that you couldn't imagine. Even, for example, in my literary world, I can see and hear things that I couldn't imagine before and that they are very, very dangerous. And when I was a child and I heard all Jews says, OK, be careful; antisemitism will come back again, I thought it was wrong. But now I know that they were true.

SIMON: What do the discoveries that Anne, in your novel and in your life, makes about her past and her Judaism put into her life today?

BEREST: Before I wrote this book, I knew nothing about my ancestors. And while working on my family tree, I discovered a lot of things, a lot of some strange coincidences that I explain in the book. And I will not spoil it, but these coincidences are, for me, invisible transmissions. You see the things that your ancestors give to you and you don't know. And this idea of invisible transmission is one of the main theme of my book. And I have read articles on cellular memory - you see, how our cells have a memory of the emotions. It's a scientific way to explain that our ancestors still live within us and that we still communicate and connect with our ghosts. It seems that in my case and with my Jewish family, they are not totally dead. They were not totally murdered because something still live in me.

SIMON: Anne Berest. Her novel, "The Postcard," translated by Tina Kover, has now been published in America. Thank you so much for being with us.

BEREST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.