Maman, What Are We Called Now?

By Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. Translated by Francine Yorke. Preface by Caroline Moorehead

Available from Persephone Books
 

Maman, What Are We Called Now? was the question nine year-old Sylvie asked her mother in a crowded French railway station one day during the war. But why was this such an important if not disastrous thing to ask? It was because she and her mother were Jewish, living under assumed names and with forged papers, and therefore if anyone had overheard her hesitation about her real name they would have been immediately suspicious.

Sylvie’s father, André Amar, was arrested in July 1944 and for the next five weeks, until, miraculously, he came home, his wife Jacqueline (who wrote under the name Mesnil-Amar) kept a diary about her everyday life in Paris, as well as looking back at their life before the war and being in hiding over the previous four years. This is a moving and extraordinarily immediate description of life in France during the Occupation and of life in Paris during the Germans’ departure. The writing is in some ways very like that in Few Eggs and No Oranges, Persephone Book No. 9: raw, unaffected, telling it as it was about the reality of living in a country at war.

The book is also extremely interesting about being Jewish. The Amars felt completely French. Like Irène Némirovsky and like so many thousands of other French Jews they could not imagine that their countrymen, as they thought of them, would turn against them. But it is alas true that thousands of French men and women collaborated with the Germans in sending Jews to their death. And so Jacqueline wrote meditatively in her diary about the blindness and arrogance of upper middle-class Paris life in Passy and the Seizième when the men had secure jobs and the children were looked after by an English governess; and no one in the Jewish bourgeoisie could imagine that very soon it would be their their fellow citizens who would turn against them. 

However, the strongest leitmotif in the book is that of children – not just Sylvie, the Amars’ daughter, but her French contemporaries (many of whom perished) and her contemporaries in Europe. Hence we have used several 1943 photographs by the great American photographer Thérèse Bonney (1894–1978) in the book. And we see Maman, What Are We Called Now? as being in some ways a companion piece to that great Persephone favourite, Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, Persephone Book No. 28: the second part of the book, the non-fiction essays written in 1945–6, asks many uncomfortable questions, the gist of which is – what was going to happen to Europe’s children? And what was going to happen to the little boy lost?

These crucial questions are addressed by Caroline Moorehead in her Persephone Preface. She writes about Jacqueline: ‘Looking back over her life, she felt a mixture of regret and contempt for the way that the Jewish families she had grown up among had believed so passionately in their own assimilation, had been so willing to adopt the customs and ape the behaviour of the Catholic and Protestant French, and had thus failed to see how profound the differences were between them, “by reason of suffering and blood”. They had felt so good and so safe in this “golden age”, even after the advent of Hitler.’ Caroline Moorehead continues: ‘But nothing made her angrier than the fate of Europe’s children. They became for her the symbol of European culture and humanity in disarray.’ And as Jacqueline asks, and concludes: ‘What do our children really know about our fear? So close to it and yet so removed, often they seem to leave us, to abandon the adult world in which time moves on, to live in their own eternal present.’

Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (1909-87), the daughter of Jules Perquel, a financier and newspaper editor, and Ellen Allatini, was brought up in the Paris suburb of Passy. In 1928 she went to the Sorbonne and in 1930 married André Amar (1908-90), who was at the École Normale Supérieure; he was the son of a banker who had come to Paris from Salonika. The Amars' daughter Sylvie was born in 1934; meanwhile Jacqueline wrote magazine articles. When war broke out the family lived in Bordeaux, Marseille, Nice and nine different places in Paris, often separately because André was first in the French army and then joined a Jewish resistance network. After 1945 the Amars largely devoted their lives to Jewish causes. In 1957 Jacqueline's diary for 18th July-25th August 1944, together with some of her post-war articles, was published as Ceux qui ne dormaient pas, translated by Persephone Books as Maman, What Are We Called Now?