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Anne Berest Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Anne Berest

Anne Berest

How to pronounce Anne Berest: burr-EST

An interview with Anne Berest

Anne Berest discusses the mysterious postcard which led her to explore her family's past, and their links to a dark period in Europe's history.

How did your journey to writing The Postcard begin?

On the morning of January 6, 2003, on a snowy day, my mother received an anonymous postcard in her mailbox. There were only four words written on it, that's all, nothing else, but four first names: Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques. My mother recognized them immediately—they were the first names of members of our family who had died at Auschwitz in 1942. In other words, these people died during the Holocaust because they were Jews, and sixty years later, someone sent a postcard with their first names, and this someone wanted to remain anonymous. Obviously the first question was: "Who?" And the second: "Why?"

Was there anything else about the postcard your mother received that made you think there was more to discover?

There were a lot of strange things on the postcard that caught my eye. For example, the stamp was upside down. While I was investigating, I learned that an upside-down stamp was used as a code between Resistances fighters during the war. For example, if they wrote, "Sunny weather, Dad is doing great," with an upside-down stamp, it meant the opposite. Another strange thing on the postcard was the picture of the Garnier Opéra House in Paris, which was the headquarters of the Nazis during the French occupation. So I asked myself, was it a coincidence that the Opéra House appeared on the postcard or was it a threat to my family?

Did you immediately know you wanted to document your investigation of the postcard?

One day my daughter asked my mother, "Grandma, are you Jewish?" My mother was a little surprised, but replied, "Yes, I am."

Then she asked, "Is mom also Jewish?"
"Yes. The child of a Jewish mother is Jewish."
And then my daughter made a kind of grimace, "So that means I'm Jewish too?"
"What is happening?"
"People don't like Jews at school."

That evening, my mother called me to tell me about this conversation, "You have to talk to the teacher and meet with the school principal, to understand what happened. It's a very serious matter."

I was shocked and too upset to talk to my daughter. Instead of asking her to explain what happened at school, I couldn't even speak. That same evening, I had a flash: the postcard came back to my mind. I hadn't thought about it for over fifteen years. Psychoanalysts call this an obstacle avoidance. My mind dwelt on the subject, and I turned all my attention to it. It became like an obsession. It overwhelmed me so abruptly and so persistently that I launched into this journey. I wanted to know who had sent this postcard fifteen years ago. I worked relentlessly for four years to find the mysterious sender.

Did you have much prior knowledge about your family's experience during the Holocaust before writing The Postcard?

Before I began to write this book, I didn't know anything about my family. I only knew that they were Jewish and that they died in the concentration camps. But nothing else. I didn't know their names, I didn't know their professions, I didn't know in which countries they had lived, I didn't know how old they were when they died. I didn't even know when they had the opportunity to come to France, or where they had settled in Paris.

Was there a reason you knew so little about your family's history?

I didn't know anything because my grandmother never spoke about them. She lived in silence, and there was a taboo around this story. All her memories were too painful. Her world had disappeared, in ashes, and this world was her whole family, her culture, her childhood. She was the sole survivor of her family. It's hard to understand, the silence of this generation, but after the war, Jews didn't want to speak. They were still afraid, that the denunciations or the arrests could start again. In fact, my mother was baptized in a church, after the war, because my grandmother wanted to protect her. But another reason for the silence of Jews, after the war was that they were afraid of not being listened to, and even worse: they were afraid of not being believed. This is why it took so much time for Holocaust witnesses to speak out in France. Jews were very fearful in France after the war.

What were some of the things that surprised you as you investigated your family history through the postcard investigation?

By working on my family tree, I found strange coincidences. For example, after my graduation, I wanted to get into a specific school. I wanted to study there so much that it became an obsession. Can you believe that my grandmother and my great-aunt studied for years in that same place? And I didn't even know about it. I discovered more incredible coincidences, but I don't want to spoil them because you're going to read it in the book.

These coincidences I call "invisible transmissions." This idea of invisible transmission is one of the main subjects of my book. I wondered about the survival of our ancestors, inside us, even when we didn't know anything about them, not even their first names. I read articles on cellular memory that fascinated me and discovered that our cells have a memory. A memory of emotions, over three previous generations. This kind of information is obviously a goldmine for a writer. For me it's a way to explain that our ancestors are still living within us, and a way to explain that we live and talk with our ghosts.

What do you most want readers to know about The Postcard?

This book is simultaneously a true detective story, the novel of my family over five generations of women, and a quest for the meaning of the word "Jew" in a secular life.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Anne Berest at BookBrowse
The Postcard jacket
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Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Anne Berest but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Dasa Drndic

    Dasa Drndic

    Dasa Drndic is a distinguished Croatian novelist, playwright, and literary critic. She spent some years teaching in Canada and gained an MA in Theatre and Communications as part of the Fulbright Program. She is an associate ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Postcard

    Try:
    Trieste
    by Dasa Drndic

  • Hubert Mingarelli

    Hubert Mingarelli

    Hubert Mingarelli's is the author of numerous novels, short story collections and fiction for young adults. His books include Quatre soldats (Four Soldiers), which won the Prix de Médicis. He lives in Grenoble. A Meal in... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Postcard

    Try:
    A Meal in Winter
    by Hubert Mingarelli

We recommend 4 similar authors

View all 4 Read-Alikes

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