Moving on from the past — an appreciation of Sarah Kofman’s “Rue Ordener, Rue Labat”

I’d read about the “Grand Raflé” in books of course. One night — July 16th 1942, when thousands of Parisian Jews were rounded up and taken to the winter cycling arena, the Velodrome d’Hiver, left in squalid conditions for many days before being moved to the transit camp at Drancy and then on to the death camps. French organisations were complicit in all of this. Those knocking on doors to take the Jews away weren’t stormtroopers or the Gestapo, they were French policemen. The distinctive liveried buses of the Parisian transport authority were commandeered to ferry the captives across the city and the trains, each taking their load of precisely one thousand prisoners, were made up of SNCF engines and wagons. The French seem to have been convinced that some of their number were no longer French. They were just Jews; Jews to be disposed of according to the doctrine of the occupying Nazis. Recounting the events is shocking. It shocked me when I read about it, decades later, but I don’t think that I truly understood what it meant until I had read a first hand account of it. The horror becomes more profound because that account is written from the point of view of a child.

Sarah Kofman’s father was a Rabbi. When the police came to take him to the infamous Velodrome d’Hiver he calmly agreed to go with them. Her mother protested and shocked her young daughter by lying in a bid to save the man, but ultimately he was taken. Sarah was young, in elementary school, but she witnessed her father being taken away to Drancy and she never saw him again. He was to die in Auschwitz. Her mother was left alone with six children in a world where fear prevailed. Every knock at the door could be the start of a journey to oblivion. Any neighbour could be a collaborator or an informant. It was commonplace to be afraid and to suspect. It was now normal to speak of Jews as being a different, inferior race and to want to eradicate them.

The stark reality of this wartime world is further emphasized by Sarah Kofman’s pre-war memories, especially those of her father in happier times. The Jewish festivals that she describes with such vitality, especially the image of her father dancing in the Synagogue, have such lightness to them, contrasting with the descriptions of wartime as a place of darkness, containment and hiding. Her memories are vibrant, alive and colourful. They leap off the page. Her wartime world is often tense. One can sense the stress, the overbearing shadow that the occupation casts over her existence. The confusion, the not knowing quite how to behave and the desire not to attract attention. Young Sarah has such a strong link to her father that she refuses to eat pork, a thing that threatens to give away her Jewishness when she is in hiding. She clings to Kosher. This is her father’s law and she will not give it up for a very long time. It is her connection to him and the old ways, the pre-war life, the pre-fear life. That link is gradually eroded by her experiences. She abandons Kosher and eventually religion altogether. It becomes something else that has been taken away from her by external forces, a rending of the past from present and future.

“Rue Ordener, Rue Labat” is essentially the story of that transition from the past through the present to the future. It is the story of a girl growing up, but also growing away from all that she has previously found comfort in. Like a seedling in search of the light, Kofman leaves the earthy comfort and safety of her early childhood behind. A young plant, grown tall and fragile in harsh conditions, she is shaped into a fully fledged adult by her circumstances. As a very young child she writes of finding separation from her family unbearable. At the start of the war her mother has to go to extraordinary lengths to keep her close as, unlike her siblings, she cannot bear to be sent away. By the end of the occupation, the growing child is actually choosing separation and distance. She has seen another world and things may be better there. More to the point, it is completely different to the world she has previously known, that pre-war Jewish family with the Rabbi at its head which can never be the same again.

The business of coming to terms with wartime events is painful to Kofman. She has developed a complex bond with the gentile woman who hid her and her mother from the Nazis. Whilst the relationship is not always comfortable and is certainly not straightforward, when the time comes Kofman chooses this woman over her natural parent. When asked in front of an official tribunal, she does everything she can to remain with “Mémé”, her protector, rather than returning to her family. She admits to feeling guilt at this, as well as a kind of relief when her real mother takes her back by force, but she cannot help wanting to maintain contact with the woman who effectively saved her. This woman represents a new, safer, different place, the place “over there” on Rue Labat, not the “ordinary” Rue Ordener world, where privations are many and, crucially, where her father is not. We can if we wish read the story of the whole of occupied France into this, the tale of a nation coming to terms with what it did (or did not do) in the war. There is definitely more power, though, if we consider the story in the simple terms in which it is presented. The spare nature of the writing does justice to that which is at the heart of the proceedings: the pain and confusion of a girl.

Sarah Kofman succeeds in opening a door into what it feels like to survive something vast and earth shattering by telling her story very plainly. There is heartbreak, there are tears, there are a lot of violent physical reactions to her circumstances, but there is no melodrama or pathos. This is her own, very personal tale and she acknowledges that others may have different points of view. The girl who stood up for her when she was called a “dirty yid” in the school playground, for example, did not think this was a significant act and soon forgot it, whilst it was something that Kofman remembered lovingly for years. She finds this extraordinary, but does not dwell or elaborate upon it. This and all other aspects of her account, the highs and the lows, require no embellishment. Quiet descriptions of events suffice. These things, after all, were once the everyday. They just happened and had to be dealt with. They were lived through. Only with hindsight do we come to realise that this was a time that had to be survived as well as lived.

For years in France it was normal for Jews to be persecuted, for families to be broken up, for people to disappear and never be seen again, for lives to be changed by a knock at the door. The unfortunate facts speak for themselves. They need no complex language to give them further impact. Their innate force speaks eloquently in the simple report of one who was there.

“Rue Ordener, Rue Labat” is a slim volume that nonetheless has a profound power in it. It contains things that its author needed to say and that profoundly need to be read and understood by others who did not share her experiences. We are all familiar with the history but we do not know what those days were truly like. We must be told. This book quietly demands to be read. It insists that we pay it deserved attention. The insight comes, as it does so often, from the smallest voice speaking in the most quiet tones.

Further Reading:
“Rue Ordener, Rue Labat” by Sarah Kofman, translated by Ann Smock.