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Idiss by Robert Badinter

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

2018, Librairie Arthème Fayard

Not available in English


Welcome to 2020. Here's my first post of the year.


Some of my readers wish I would say more about what I think personally of the books I read. But my aim is to post a few words about the book, including passages I want to remember. Then I can choose to give the book away and just keep the memories.

How useful is it for you to know what I thought, or how I was touched? I suppose it can be interesting, but I’m not a book critic. I’m just a book reader who wants to share the parts of books which move me. It’s up to you to decide if you’d like to read the book. And if you don’t want to read it, at least you’ll know a little bit about it. Or perhaps you've already read it and you can make a comment. You could share something about the book which touched you, or something you didn't like. Or you could comment that you'd like to know more about my personal thoughts...and I'll try to oblige.


Robert Badinter is the lawyer responsible for abolishing the death penalty in France, and was also president of the French equivalent to the Supreme Court of the United States. Idiss is a book about his grandmother, a Jewish immigrant to France. I didn't know that Badinter was Jewish, in spite of admiring his legal work for many years. I like the way he tells the story of his grandmother Idiss’s life and thereby gives us his picture of Paris during World War II. I'm impressed that Idiss adored her husband Schulim in spite of the fact he gambled away all their money before they emigrated from Russia. I wonder how she still admired him so unquestioningly whereas I would probably have had a fit! She had different standards. As a Jewish woman born in 1863 in Bessarabia, Yiddishland she was not allowed to learn to read, but only to marry and take care of a family. For information on Bessarabia click on link:

The story is simple and direct. What counts is love, family, community, traditions, but these are complicated by hatred, isolation, separation, death. Idiss and her family escaped persecution in Russia, but unexpectedly found it again in France. What breaks my heart is that a group of people, in this case Jews, be denied simple rights: to stay together as a family, to bury their dead without breaking a law, to profit from their own business.


Idiss is a story of Badinter’s love for his grandmother and his family, but inevitably the surrounding atmosphere is drenched in War.


Here are some excerpts (English translation mine, French texts at end of post):


Unsettlingly familiar (think populism, Brexit, Trump...):


During the years between the two World Wars, peace existed by treaty, but not in the hearts of people. The defeated countries dreamed of revenge. In the victorious nations, the hope of a revolution which would overturn the establishment order lived on. The far left dreamed of the communist model at work in the URSS. The nationalist ideologies of the far right were enflamed by the fascist model. The parlementary regimes appeared worn out and corrupt. Everything pointed to a future full of violence and confrontation.



A Grandmother’s faith:


In the days of the spring of 1940, (Idiss) pleaded with the all-powerful God to help her people and protect her family. But the sun shone from dawn to dusk on the triumph of the German army. And the silence of the Eternal was devastating.



Badinter as a young boy, watching the newly arrived Germans from behind a curtain in his apartment:


…there they were, in the height of youth, sleeves rolled up and collars open, they looked more like students on vacation than soldiers on a mission. The opposite of our haggard soldiers, marching under the leaden sun, that I’d seen go by the day before…In the morning light, the Germans incarnated War and Victory... The two of them were talking, a map lay open on the roof of the side-car, undoubtedly a map of the city. Suddently, one of them noticed a doe, the image of sweetness and peace, grazing on the grass in the moat of the castle. He pointed to it with his hand to show the other soldier. They exchanged a few words, and in the silence I heard the sound of loud laughter rising up. The laugh of the conqueror; I’ve never forgotten it.



Spoliation:


Once a week, my mother went to my father’s store to get from the hands of the Aryan administrator some funds which came from his spoils. He gave them to her as if he were being generous. So she had to thank the one who was taking from her by force while saying: “You’re lucky to have me. I’ve always liked the Jews, because they work hard."


An appendix includes laws passed in 1940-42 by the French Vichy government and by the Germans to control and discriminate against immigrants and Jews, reminding us of the horror of the Holocaust. These laws speak for themselves and offer hard proof of what happened.




Excerpts in original French:


“Dans ces années de l’entre-deux-guerres, la paix existait sur le parchemin des traités, non dans les esprits. Let Etats vaincus aspiraient à la revanche. Dans les nations victorieuses, l’espoir d’une révolution qui renverserait l’ordre établie persistait dans les esprits exaltés. A l’extrême gauche, on rêvait du modèle communiste à l’oeuvre en URSS. A l’extrême droite, le modèle fasciste enflammait les passions nationalistes. Les régimes parlementaires paraissaient usés et corrompus. Tout annonçait un avenir chargé de violences et d’affrontements."


“En ces jours du printemps 1940, elle suppliait l’Eternel tout-puissant de secourir son peuple et de protéger sa famille. Mais le soleil brillait de l’aube au coucher sur le triomphe de l’armée allemande. Et le silence de l’Eternel était accablant.”


“…tels quels, dans l’éclat de la jeunesse, avec leurs manches roulées et leurs cols ouverts, ils paraissaient plus des étudiants en vacances que des miliatires en campagne. Rien à voir avec nos soldates harassés, marchant sous le soleil de plomb, que j’avais vues passer la veille…Dans la lumière du matin, ces Allemands incarnaient la guerre et la victoire.

Tous deux discutaient, une carte déployée sur le capot du side-car, sans doute un plan de la ville. Soudain, l’un d’eux aperçut dans le fossé du château une biche broutant l’herbe, image de douceur et de paix. Il la désigna à l’autre de la main. Ils échangèrent quelques paroles, et j’entendis monter dans le silence un rire immense. Ce rire de vainqueur, je ne l’ai jamais oublié.”


“Ma mère se rendait une fois par semaine au magasin de mon père pour y recevoir des mains de l’administrateur aryen quelques fonds qui provenaient de sa spoliation. Il les lui remettait comme si c’était un geste généreux de sa part. Ainsi devait-elle remercier celui qui la dépouillait en lui répétant: “Vous avez de la chance de m’avoir. Moi, j’ai toujours aimé les juifs, parce qu’ils sont travailleurs.”

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