Our monthly series of book reviews centering around letter stories is back. For new and past readers, one of the most affecting books previously featured was 'Address Unknown'. Today, we're adding Anne Berest's (translated from the French to English by Tina Kolver) haunting 'The Postcard' to our 'required reading' list.
It's 2003 when a postcard arrives at the home of Anne Berest's mother. It says nothing but the four names of her grandfather, grandmother, aunt and uncle who all were murdered at Auschwitz decades before. It is unsigned. And so begins 'The Postcard', a truly profound look at Judaism, history, family bonds, trauma, and so much more.
For this series we ask one question: Is this a book about letters? 'The Postcard' is not only the story of a literal postcard, and Berest's hunt with her mother to find the anonymous author, but many letter snippets which carry the story in the nearly 500 pages. Almost spell-like, Berest weaves research and humanity in this superb and spine-chilling story.
Whilst reading I was struck by so many parts that I find it difficult to put my thoughts in order about where and why I would point the reader to this book. I had never before heard about the days and weeks where concentration camp 'survivors', or the French jews deported under Hitler, were returned to Paris. Berest writes of her grandmother searching for her family in the late 1940s, unaware and unable perhaps to process that they were part of the millions murdered in the gas chambers.
Berest, already an author when she began her story, carries on her aunt's -- the one named on the postcard, Noemie -- legacy in telling a profound story in nuance and with sustained emotion throughout. In stories from this period it can -- and should be -- upsetting to read the details of the horrors, but it is nonetheless important to face. So much so that it is Noemie who's photograph makes up the cover, looking out on to the reader and from the shelves of the bookshops and homes and libraries where this story will reside.
There is one passage in the book where Berest writes about her aunt, Noemie, after she has been arrested and sent to a work camp before she will be ultimately sent to Auschwitz. Noemie desires to write her parents and despite the disease riddled, lice crawling horrors of her circumstances -- lies. She tells her parents she is alright. We've talked before in the archive how letters were a link home and abroad for those in wartime and how, while they are primary resources, they can oftentimes be censored or fabricated by the author for the purpose of comforting the original reader. It is yet another way that Berest plays with the letter in 'The Postcard' as a primary source and a fictional one.
Long time readers of the Flea Market Love Letters blog may recall another favorite in the Books About Letters series, 'Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate' by Carolyn Porter. While reading the 'The Postcard', I felt a similar pull from the story as 'Marcel's Letters'. For those interested in the 'real' stories of this period, the two are companion reads for their spinning of a such a truly memorable story from such thin air.