Not the Germans Alone: A Son’s Search for the Truth of Vichy, by Isaac Levendel, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill., 1999, $25.95.
Isaac Levendel’s memoir of his early childhood in Vichy France and the tragic story of the deportation of his mother, Sarah, to Auschwitz is another horror-filled Holocaust tale that has been added to the voluminous list of published memoirs.
Levendel joins notable authors such as Eli Wiesel, Primo Levi and Fania Fenelon in the retelling of their personal experiences during Nazi Germany’s extermination program. The author’s often-painful memoir describes how he retraced his mother’s footsteps to the gas chambers and ovens at Auschwitz. What is different about Levendel’s story is that it focuses on the mindless indifference of French bureaucrats under the control of the Vichy government and the willingness to collaborate with their German occupiers.
Levendel’s description of his early life does not encourage the reader to feel much sympathy for this precocious, often-spoiled child. But the awful experiences that follow–including the loss of an affectionate, doting mother–forces the reader to confront the reality of the Holocaust and the trauma of separation, loss, pain and death that it produced.
The Levendel family were emigrants from Prezeml, Poland, to Le Pontet, in the prefecture of Avignon, France. Sarah Levendel and her husband, Max, owned a small but prosperous haberdashery shop in Le Pontet, where their son Isaac was born on September 9, 1936. With the international situation worsening, Max Levendel joined the French army in April 1939, and was eventually mobilized into the army’s Polish Legion in 1940.
After the fall of France, Max spent the remainder of the war interned in a labor camp by the Swiss government, while young Isaac survived the war with the help of his neighbors and a few courageous French families. Levendel’s mother, however, was not so fortunate. While spending a few days with friends away from Le Pontet, Levendel’s mother was arrested on June 6, 1944, and transported to the notorious French concentration camp at Drancy. The camp was commanded by the infamous Alois Bruner, still at large today and rumored to be somewhere in Syria. Sarah Levendel was assigned the classification code “B,” which stood for Volljude (complete Jew). After being classified, the young mother left Drancy on one of the last trains headed for the concentration camps in the east.
Isaac Levendel’s bitterness and often vitriolic accusations and condemnation of the local populace and officials implicate the French with complicity in working with their German overseers. His memoir reads like a real-life mystery as Levendel, now an adult, retraces his mother’s painful footsteps at Auschwitz.
Not long after Sarah arrived at Auschwitz, on July 4, 1944, she became victim number 23925. The author carefully documents the officials and citizens who had a part in the last month of Sarah’s life. French archival records were often difficult for him to access, but through Levendel’s diligence, a record of what transpired has been constructed.
If there is anything positive that emerges in Levendel’s portrayal of his countrymen, it is his description of the good-natured French peasant families who courageously hid the young boy from the Germans, sharing food and shelter with him at the risk of their own lives. They are shown as humane, brave and positive in contrast to the cowardly Nazi collaborators.
Gerald R. Costa