“If the drowned have no story, and single and broad are the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable.”
Marguerite Lévy Feibelman’s, Whisper Your Name into My Ear is more modest than a story of salvation, but it is a difficult and improbable story of survival. Written with charm and grace, it tells of her family’s journey through the years of darkness. Her father Albert Lévy was a prominent and enormously successful German businessman who understood early on that the rise of Adolf Hitler meant danger if not doom to the Jews of Germany. Unlike many of his peers, well rooted, accomplished and moderately powerful titans of industry, who presumed that they would be insulated from what might follow, Lévy understood the danger of Hitler and acted accordingly. He liquidated his holding and resettled in France precisely because he had internalized the dangers that faced his people. Accustomed from his business experience to taking swift and decisive action to protect against danger, he moved his family to France, which he assumed was far enough away from the Nazi menace to provide a safety net. There he rebuilt his business career by establishing the second largest paint company in France.
Born Margot Lévy, the child was forced to change her name from German to French and became Marguerite; so too, she changed her culture and her language. The pattern would repeat itself again and again. The Lévy family lived comfortably in an elegant apartment in a plush section of Paris where they enjoyed the cultural activities of a splendid city. Cosmopolitans, the cultural adjustment was not difficult. Successful, their transition was eased by the comforts that money can buy. Albert Lévy prepared for the difficulties that were on the horizon. As Marguerite makes clear, he stored gasoline and the raw material for ongoing manufacturing activities knowing that war would bring scarcity, and he who prepares for scarcity wisely cannot only endure, but prosper.
The Lévy family was cautious not clairvoyant.
They believed in the French conceit that the Maginot Line would hold, that the French Army was prepared and well equipped and they were persuaded that Hitler’s Germany would expand in the East and not in the West. Once the Germans invaded, the Lévys again took flight, moving to the Loire department, an area that seemed to be within the zone of quasi-independent Vichy France. There as Frenchmen with the great tradition of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they felt they would be protected. And then the reality of French acquiescence to Nazi Germany set in and once again the Lévy family took flight.
As I read Feibelman’s memoir, I was struck by two insights from another work. In his introduction to Daring to Resist, the catalogue of an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, David Marwell wrote: “just because Jews were powerless does not mean that they were passive.” The Lévy family was anything but passive. False identity cards were prepared, possessions were hidden, all evidence of their Jewishness was concealed and when Albert Lévy was not able to provide a way out for his family, young Marguerite stepped into the breech and took over the leadership of this effort.
David Engel has written of Jewish time. Though we tend to think of the Holocaust within the context of time as set forth by the perpetrators moving from persecution to systematic annihilation, from mobile killers to gassing, Jews experienced time differently. Ruth Bondy has argued that a gigantic gap exists that is more than chronological between the German schedule and the Jewish one. The Lévys intuited that they had to respond to the German schedule actively. On December 12, 1942 Pierre Laval, the Vichy Prime Minister published his infamous edict 108. “All Jews in the former Free Zone must get their IDs stamped ‘J’ by January 12, 1942.” Marguerite recalled: “J” stamped on my identity card means one thing: we, the French Jews are being assembled for deportation. Her response was immediate. “Cannot be! “ Angry, she fumed. Wrath eliminated all ambivalence… “We shall not get our IDs stamped ‘J’. We shall not be shipped east.”
Thus, they took bold action just before all Jews had to register with Vichy authorities. It was then that they changed their names and places of birth, Lévy became Lengel. With their falsified documents they sought a place of refuge in a small town in the French Alps, remote enough to attract little German attention but still in a situation that provided more than its share of danger. The Lévy/Lengels escaped in part because they internalized the danger and acted accordingly. They had the energy and the spiritual resources to act. They were not, as so many around them, paralyzed by the danger. To procrastinate was to invite impending doom.
Whisper Your Name into My Ear is the story of a girl coming of age, moving away from her parents, setting off on her own and even going through the ordinary rebellions of teenage years under the most extraordinary, the most precarious of circumstances. All that is missing is a sexual awakening but as Marguerite was well aware, intimacy was exceedingly dangerous when one is living on false papers, when one’s true self must be hidden even from one’s own self. Still one marvels at Marguerite’s bold decision to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, a brave decision even in the best of times and one made all the more bold by the times.
I read with appreciation her description of her mother’s anguish when her hosts offer her Ham – the daughter of pious Jews she had never eaten Pork – but any gesture of discomfort could have blown their cover. One also admires her mother for hiding a Jewish calendar in her shoe. A Jewish woman should know when Rosh Hashanah occurs. She struggled to retain the last scaffold of her former life.
Marguerite came of age during the war and could strike out on her own. She is recruited into the French Resistance and suddenly discovers that others around her are living double lives, concealing far more than they are revealing. All the while she offers us a glimpse of life within France during this turbulent era. One senses the joy of her participation and the reader celebrates with her the liberation of France and the end of so great a jeopardy.
Were this a fable and not an autobiography one would have anticipated the return, the restoration. Job, who had lost his ten children and his wealth, recovers his wealth and has ten new children. The Bible remains mute about the scars from his earlier loss. But the Lévys return is far from complete. Her father returns to his factory Géo Gignoux and resumes earning his livelihood, but a hernia operation costs him his life before the family fortune could be restored. The strains between the Lévy brothers exacerbated by the dangers of the war are never healed and Marguerite must live in tension with her uncle who becomes CEO. Life is messy, endings are not necessarily endings and new beginnings are difficult. One does not return to the same place because circumstances have changed and one has changed.
One senses that Marguerite’s effort at gaining compensation for the family’s losses prolonged the unsettled past and only magnified the sense that something precious had been taken from this young woman, something that even a lifetime in the United States married to a man she loved could not restore. There is no happy ending to this memoir, but many happy moments and an exuberance of spirit and an exhilaration of the soul that come through page after page, chapter after chapter.
Los Angeles, California