They are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes …
Hearing the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought it was about time that I investigated last year’s winner, Patrick Modiano. Like many on this side of the Channel, the French novelist’s name was unknown to me. Now my literary friend Dave reckoned I should read his 1997 novella Dora Bruder, published here as The Search Warrant. It proved to be an excellent recommendation: Modiano’s spare and finely-written excavation of memory is a haunting addition to the literature of the Holocaust and one that is unique, being neither Holocaust memoir nor historical fiction but a skilful reconstruction of a life and a moving reflection on his country’s amnesia surrounding collaboration and the fate of French Jews during the Occupation.
When the award of the Nobel was announced, all twenty-eight of Modiano’s books had been published in Spanish, twenty-one of them in German, and twelve in Swedish, but there were only five British editions of his work, all out of print. Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’Etoile, had been published in 1968 (finally appearing as part of an American edition, The Occupation Trilogy, in 2015), and he had won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for Rue des Boutiques Obscures (English edition, Missing Person). Modiano writes sparely in the flat, inexpressive manner known as ‘style blanc’ that will be familiar if you have read anything by Michel Houellebecq or seen Last Year in Marienbad, the1961 film scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet. That may be the reason why so few of his books have been translated into English.
But, as I read The Search Warrant, the allusive, dreamlike mood which envelops the author’s dogged quest for the empirical truth of an event in the past reminded me more of WG Sebald, and in particular of his final novel in which the narrator gradually discovers the history of Jacques Austerlitz, the infant kindertransport refugee saved from a Czechoslovakia threatened by Hitler’s Nazis.
Given that Sebald’s works are primarily concerned with memory and loss of memory (both personal and collective), this is not surprising. The Nobel committee’s citation singled out Modiano’s works for ‘the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies’:
Modiano’s works centre on topics such as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt. The city of Paris is often present in the text and can almost be considered a creative participant in the works. Rather often his tales are built on an autobiographical foundation, or on events that took place during the German occupation. He sometimes draws material for his works from interviews, newspaper articles or his own notes accumulated over the years. His novels show an affinity with one another, and it happens that earlier episodes are extended or that persons recur in different tales. The author’s hometown and its history often serve to link the tales together. A work of documentary character, with World War II as background, is Dora Bruder which builds on the true tale of a fifteen-year old girl in Paris who became one of the victims of the Holocaust.
Given that the citation records that his work is often ‘built on an autobiographical foundation’ and that when reading The Search Warrant it is often difficult to determine whether the voice of the narrator is actually that of Modiano himself, it’s worth noting that he was born, near Paris, on 30 July 1945; had he been born a year earlier, his life would have begun under the Occupation. He wasn’t, but seems from the evidence of The Search Warrant and the evidence of many of his other novels to have sought out subjects who experienced those years – people like the subject of the old newspaper advertisement with which the novel begins:
Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris Soir dated December 31 1941, a headline on page three caught my eye:
Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy-blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”
I had long been familar with the area around the Boulevard Ornano. As a child, I would accompany my mother to the Saint-Ouen flea markets. We would get off the bus either at the Porte de Clignancourt or, occasionally, outside the 18th arrondissement Town Hall. Always, it was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Already, within a few sentences of the novel’s opening, we have encountered one of its characteristic aspects: the naming of specific Paris streets and addresses. The narrator remembers this northern boulevard from his childhood when he used to go the Saint-Ouen flea market with his mother. He remembers the neighbourhood as it was in 1965, when he had a girlfriend who lived there. He recalls that the nearest Metro stop is Simplon, and that there used to be a cinema at 43 Boulevard Ornano. In a conversation with Euan Cameron, translator of two of his recent works, published in the Guardian last year, Modiano stated:
I use them to try to obtain reference points. Buildings bring back memories and the more precise the setting the better it suits the imagination. As a child and a teenager I was very impressionable … So forceful are these impressions that one becomes a prisoner of one’s memories. There are images that pursue you all your life … As a child, my family life was fairly unsettled and I was often left to my own devices. I began to wander through the streets of the city and would feel a mixture of fear and fascination as I forced myself to go further from home each time.
One of the puzzles that lies beneath the narrative of The Search Warrant is is the extent to which the book’s narrator has been given bits of Modiano’s own identity – his age, his parents, his incomplete schooling, the streets and buildings that haunt his memory, the ceaseless listing of addresses and consulting of old street directories, and the obsession with collecting shreds of evidence of the past from handwritten notes, photographs, police files, and newspaper cuttings.
It takes time for what has been erased to resurface. Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not their custodians are willing to let you see them. Or perhaps they have simply forgotten that such registers exist.
All it takes is a little patience.
Modiano once wrote: ‘My memory precedes my birth. I am convinced, for example, that I have first-hand experience of Paris during the Occupation since I can recall certain characters from this time, together with some intimate and disturbing details, which go unmentioned in the history books.’ In The Seach Warrant, the narrator (or Modiano) returns repeatedly to strange parallels between his life and Dora Bruder’s, reflected in the Parisian streets and neighbourhoods they both knew.
From day to day, with the passage of time, I find, perspectives become blurred, one winter merging into another. That of 1965 and that of 1942.
In 1965, I knew nothing of Dora Bruder. But now, thirty years on, it seems to me that those long waits in the cafés at the Ornano crossroads, those unvarying itineraries – the Rue du Mont-Cenis took me back to some hotel on the Butte Montmartre: the Roma or the Alsina or the Terrass, Rue Caulaincourt
– and the fleeting impressions I have retained: snatches of conversation heard on a spring evening, beneath the trees in the Square Clignancourt, and again, in winter, on the way down to Simplon and the Boulevard Ornano, all that was not simply due to chance. Perhaps, though not yet fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there.
During the 1970s Modiano’s reputation in France grew as one of those novelists who dared to confront long-suppressed questions arising out of the Occupation and, in particular, about the operations of the Carlingue, the French Gestapo. Based at 93, rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, and active between 1941 and 1944, the group was recruited from corrupt elements of the police and professional criminals. Questioning the role of the French Gestapo and exposing the extent of collaboration directly challenged post-war myths about the resistance, illustrated by the changing fortunes of the commemorative plaque at 93, rue Lauriston which for a short period read simply, ‘Hommage aux héros de la Résistance 1940-1944’, though now adds the important words, ‘torturé dans cette maison durant l’occupation 1940-44 par des Francais, agents auxiliares de la Gestapo du group dit ‘
Questioning the role of the French Gestapo and exposing the extent of collaboration directly challenged post-war myths about the resistance, as illustrated by the changing fortunes of the commemorative plaque at 93, rue Lauriston which for a short period read simply, ‘Hommage aux héros de la Résistance 1940-1944’, though now adds the important words, ‘torturé dans cette maison durant l’occupation 1940-44 par des Francais, agents auxiliares de la Gestapo du group dit ‘Bonny–Lafont”.
Those who, like Modiano, confronted the role of collaborators during the Occupation were part of a wider engagement in France with the role of the Vichy in the Holocaust. A series of archival revelations and trials led to an intense confrontation with France’s ambiguous past. These included the discovery in 1991 at the Ministry of Veteran’s Affairs of a file of some 150,000 names and addresses compiled during the occupation and used by Parisian police to round up Jews; the projected trial and then, in June 1993, the murder of René Bousquet, the head of French police during the peak years of deportation in 1942-43; and the 1994 trial for crimes against humanity of Paul Touvier, an intelligence officer under Klaus Barbie in the pro-Nazi paramilitary Vichy police force, the Milice.
Modiano had played an early part in this process in 1974 when he scripted Louis Malle’s film, Lacombe Lucien, the story of a young man living in rural France who seeks to join the Resistance. When he is rejected due, the resentful Lucien allies himself with the Nazis and joins the French arm of the Gestapo.
Modiano’s fascination with the Occupation almost certainly stems from his discovery of his father’s conduct during the Occupation, in particular, his involvement with the Gestapo. Modiano’s father was a businessman who was arrested as a Jew, though later released and spent the war years as a black marketeer associated with the French Gestapo operating out of 93, Rue Lauriston. Since his father revealed nothing before his death in 1977, refusing to explain how he came to be released from a Jewish detention centre in Paris in 1943, Modiano became obsessed with knowing more.
Eventually, he discovered that his father avoided wearing the obligatory yellow badge for Jews, did not register himself as one of them, and narrowly escaped deportation when an unknown person intervened after his arrest in 1943.
This family detail is echoed in the story of Dora Bruder which the narrator of The Search Warrant begins to piece together. The missing girl in the 1941 Paris Soir ad is fifteen and the daughter of a Jewish couple who had come west from Budapest in the turbulent years following the First World War. On 9 May 1940, at the age of fourteen, Dora had been enrolled by her parents at a Catholic boarding school for working-class children run by the Sisters of Divine Mercy and situated a block away from the nondescript hotel where her parents lived.
Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in September 2016, comments:
Modiano says that when he first heard of Dora, he remembered a story Alberto had told him about riding in a police van in 1942 with a Jewish girl her age. It couldn’t have been Dora, but Dora Bruder is very much a story of parallel lives – Dora’s, Alberto’s and Patrick’s. He imagines her taking the métro, going to the movies, and relates her experience to his own adolescence. Modiano, who ran away from home in the early 1960s, is intrigued that Dora would have taken the risk of leaving the school that protected her. ‘I tell myself her flight was not as simple as mine twenty years later … That city of December 1941, the curfew, the soldiers, the police, everything was against her.’
Then, on 2 October 1940, with Dora secreted in the boarding school, a decree was published ordering all Jews to register at police stations for a census. Ernest Bruder registered himself and his wife but failed to register his daughter. Perhaps he hoped that, as in the case of Modiano’s father, this act might save his daughter from deportation.
Who knows, she might have escaped to the end. She had only to remain within the dark walls of the convent, merging into their shadows; and to avoid drawing attention to herslf by scrupulously observin the daily and nightly routine. Dormitory. Chapel. Refectory. Playground. Classroom. Chapel. Dormitory.
Then again, ponders the narrator, what exactly did Bruder understand by the term ‘Jew’?
For himself, he never gave it a thought. He was used to being put into this or that category by the authorities, accepting it without question. Unskilled labourer. Ex-Austrian. French legionnaire. Non-suspect. Ex-serviceman 100% disabled. Foreign statute labourer. Jew.
In Occupied France, Jews are people who cannot give the correct answers to the questions asked by the police. For Dora’s father, Ernest Bruder, to be a Jew was to be a foreigner without a country. Two years later, in the list of those leaving Drancy for Auschwitz, he is registered as stateless, despite his service to France in the Foreign Legion. But then, Dora’s mother Cecile, born in Budapest, gives a fateful answer to the ‘place of birth’ question: separated forever from her husband and daughter, she undertakes the trip to Auschwitz months later, now classified as a Hungarian Jew.
These bare facts about her parents the narrator discovers. But, he is left with the puzzle: why, at the height of German roundups and reprisals, did Dora Bruder run away from her hidden life in the boarding school? That was when – in December 1941 – her parents had placed the notice in Paris Soir. The narrator finds only one other official mention of her name: on a list of Jews deported from Paris to Auschwitz in September 1942.
I am writing these pages in November 1996. It seldom stops raining. Tomorrow we shall be in December, and fifty-five years will have passed since Dora ran away. It gets dark early, and it is just as well: night obliterates the greyness and monotony of these rainy days when one wonders if it really is daytime, or if we are not going through some intermediary stage, a sort of gloomy eclipse lasting till dusk. Then the street-lamps and shop windows and cafés light up, the evening air freshens, contours sharpen, there are traffic jams at the crossroads and hurrying crowds in the streets. And in the midst of all these lights, all this hubbub, I can barely believe that this is the city where Dora lived with her parents, where my father lived when he was twenty years younger than I am now. I feel as if I am alone in making the link between Paris then and Paris now, alone in remembering all these details. There are moments when the link is stretched to breaking-point, and other evenings when the city of yesterday appears to me in fugitive gleams behind that of today.
What little the narrator discovers about Dora in official records becomes a meditation on the immense losses of the period – lost people, lost stories, and lost history.
Ever since, the Paris wherein I have tried to retrace her steps has remained as silent and deserted as it was on that day. I walk through empty streets. For me, they are always empty, even at dusk, during the rush hour, when the crowds are hurrying towards the mouths of the métro. I think of her in spite of myself, sensing an echo of her presence in this neighborhood or that.
Dora returned briefly to her home in April 1942 and then ran away again for a few weeks; finally, she was arrested and interned, first in the Tourelles prison (now the headquarters of the DGSE, France’s MI6), and subsequently at the deportation camp Drancy. There she was reunited with her father Ernest Bruder. From Drancy, father and daughter were deported together to Auschwitz on September 18, 1942. Five months later, Dora’s mother Cécile Bruder was likewise put on a convoy to Auschwitz.
At no point in this brief, tragic story did Dora Bruder come into contact with Germans. Not until the doors of the waggon in which she was transported were flung open at Auschwitz.
The very people whose job it is to search for you are themselves compiling
dossiers, the better to ensure that, once found, you will disappear again-this time for good.
I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you – will have been able to take away from her.
The narrator writes in a style that varies from the matter of factness of the archivist (many passages consist entirely of extracts from documents the narrator has retrieved) to an elegiac tone that recalls WG Sebald (such as the passage quoted above in which the writer’s consciousness slips between Paris in the December evenings of 1996 and those of 1941 when Dora wandered the darkened streets.
In a beuatiful and significant passage he imagines he can hear Dora’s voice. He recalls how, as a teenager, he had read Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose. At the back of the book, Genet lists the places where the book was written; one of them was the Tourelles prison where, in 1943, he had been imprisoned as a common criminal, shortly after Dora Bruder had been moved on from there to Drancy, and ultimately Auschwitz. Coincidences like this pepper Modiano’s book. But there is something else which he remembers from Genet’s book:
I know sentences from this book by heart. I remember one in particular: ‘What that child taught me is that the true roots of Parisian slang lie in its sad tenderness.’ This phrase evokes Dora Bruder for me so well that I feel I knew her. The children with Polish or Russian or Romanian names who were forced to wear the yellow star were so Parisian that they merged effortlessly into the facades, the apartment blocks, the pavements, the infinite shades of grey which belong to Paris alone. Like Dora Bruder, they all spoke with the Parisian accent, using a slang whose sad tenderness Jean Genet had recognised.
In another striking passage, he describes the epiphany he experiences while watching a film made and circulated during the Occupation, namely that the gazes of its original viewers, including perhaps that of Dora Bruder, had somehow, as if chemically, left their imprint on the film stock and were now looking back at him.
In the summer of 1941, a film made under the Occupation which had opened in Normandy came to the local Paris cinemas. It was a harmless comedy: Premier Rendezvous. The last time I saw it, I had a strange feeling that was out of keeping with the thin plot and the sprightly tones of the actors. I told myself that perhaps, one Sunday, Dora Bruder had been to see this film, the subject of which was a girl of her age who runs away. She escapes from a boarding school, like the SHoly Heart of Mary. During her flight, as in fairy tales and romances, she meets her Prince Charming.
This film paints a rosy, anodyne picture of what had happened to Dora in real life. Did it give her the idea of running away? I concentrated on details: the dormitory, the school corridors, the boarders’ uniforms, the café where the heroine waits after dark . . . .I could find nothing that might correspond to the reality, and in any case most of the scenes were shot in the studio. And yet, I had a sense of unease. It stemmed from the film’s peculiar luminosity, from the grain of the actual film-stock. Every image seemed veiled in an arctic whiteness which accentuated the contrasts and sometimes obliterated them. The lighting was at once too bright and too dim, either stifling the voices or giving them a louder, more disturbing. timbre.
Suddenly, I realised that this film was impregnated with the gaze of cinema goers from the time of the Occupation-people from all walks of life, most of
whom would not have survived the war. They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of a cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And, by some chemical process, this combined gaze had altered the very substance of the film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. That is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and watching the ostensibly trivial images of Premier Rendezvous.
It is as if time is not linear, but that all moments exist at the same time. (In another passage the narrator states that ‘like all writers’, he believes in coincidence.) Consider, for instance, this passage:
So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born.
As a child, in the apartment at 15 Quai de Conti where my father had lived since 1942 – the same apartment which Maurice Sachs had rented the year before – my room overlooked the courtyard. Maurice Sachs relates that he lent these rooms to a man called Albert, nicknamed ‘Zebu’. […] This ‘Zebu’, Albert Schaky, had the same forename as my father, and like him, came from a family of Italian Jews in Salonika. And, like me exactly thirty years later, at the same age, he had published his first novel with Gallimard, in 1938, at the age of twenty-one, under the name Francois Vernet. He later joined the Resistance. The Germans arrested him. On the wall of Cell 218, Fresnes, second division, he wrote: ‘Zebu arrested 10.2.44. Three months on bread and water, interrogated 9-28 May, visited by doctor 8 June, two days after Allied landing.’
He was deported from Compeigne camp on the transport of 2 July 1944, and died in Dachau in March 1945.
Thus, in the apartment where Sachs had carried on his gold trafficking and where, later on, under a false name, my father had hidden, ‘Zebu’ had occupied my childhood bedroom.Just before I was born, he and others like him had accepted all the punishments meted out to them in order that we should suffer no more than pinpricks.
The Search Warrant is a remarkable book; at its conclusion I was deeply moved by the narrator’s ghostly evocation of Dora Bruder and her fate, her tragic presence conjured out of the tiniest slivers of historical evidence. But then, pedant that I am, I wanted to know this: was Dora Bruder a real, historically-existing person? And if she was, did that mean that the book’s narrator was Modiano himself? To be honest, the questions are an irrelevance. As one critic emphasised: ‘the reader of this work can have no doubt, at the text’s end, about the real, historical existence of Dora Bruder or about the terrifying simplicity of the world that sent her to her death.’
Nevertheless, I turned to Google for answers and found confirmation that Modiano himself had, like the narrator of his book, come upon a small newspaper ad in a 1941 copy of Paris-Soir in which Dora Bruder’s parents sought help in finding their runaway daughter.
So began an obsessive quest by Modiano for information on Dora Bruder. In fact, he had first noticed her name in Serge Klarsfeld’s book, Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1942-1944, published in 1978. In an article in the London Review of Books in September 2016, Adam Shatz wrote:
Klarsfeld’s book, a list of the names and addresses of the nearly 80,000 victims of the genocide in France, resembled a telephone directory – Modiano’s favourite genre, the foundation of his imaginings. Modiano was overwhelmed by this act of historical recovery: the Memorial, he said, caused him to ‘doubt literature’.
So, although the cover of Modiano’s book bears no indication of its status as either fiction or non-fiction, the evidence provided by Klarsfeld confirms that the subject of The Search Warrant can be identified with a real person, existing outside Modiano’s text.
Ten years after finding the names of the Bruder family in Klarsfeld’s Memorial, Modiano stumbled upon the missing persons advertisement in a 1941 edition of Paris-Soir. His further investigations revealed that she had run away from the Catholic boarding school where she had been in hiding, and that her Viennese-Jewish father and Russian-Jewish mother, who posted the ad, had lived next door to a cinema Modiano knew well. He spent another eight years researching the Bruders’ history. He made no great discoveries, since the Bruders were:
The sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes where, by chance, I discovered that they had lived. Often what I know about them amounts to no more than a simple address. And such topographical precision contrasts with what we shall never know about their life – this blank, this mute block of the unknown.
But what of the photographs of Dora about which Modiano (such I can call the narrator now) writes of having discovered?
A photograph of Dora, surely taken after a special school assembly. She is aged twelve or thereabouts and wears a white dress and ankle socks. She holds a book in her right hand. Her hair is crowned by a circlet of what appear to be white flowers. Her left hand rests on the edge of an enormous white cube patterned with rows of black geometric motifs, clearly a studio prop. Another photograph, taken in the same place at the same period, perhaps on the same day: the floor tiles are recognizable, as is the big white cube with black geometric motifs on which Cécile Bruder is perched. Dora stands on her left, in a high-necked dress, her left arm bent across her body so as to place her hand on her mother’s shoulder.
The English edition which I read contains no photographs. Indeed, Modiano’s descriptions of the images which have come into his possession are so evocative and so precise that there seems no need for them. Moreover, some have argued that the absence of photographs from the text reinforces the irrevocable absence of the missing girl.
Surprising then, to discover that a 2015 American edition of Dora Bruder contains three photographs that show Dora and members of her family, along with two maps of Paris neighbourhoods. These images do not appear in the earlier English-language edition, nor are they in the original French publication. What made Modiano add the photographs and maps, which he seems to have had in his possession at the time when the book was written?
There is one more point to add concerning the reality of Dora Bruder and her parents. Mary Jean Green, in a paper published online by Dartmouth University, notes that:
The French Archives Nationales, despite the French passion for documentation,
contain little or nothing about Dora Bruder or others like her. Only recently, in January 2005, has she been memorialised on the Wall of Names in the nearby Jewish Museum, which has inscribed in stone the names of 76,000 French Jews deported to the death camps. Even here, the name Dora Bruder, unlike most others, lacks an accompanying date of birth, as it did on the original record of her departure from Drancy in Convoy Number 34 in 1942, this despite Modiano’s
lengthy but ultimately successful quest to extricate a copy of her 1926 birth certificate from the contemporary French bureaucracy.
In his article for the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz adds this:
The situation of Jews in France is still fraught and complex: the emigration of thousands to Israel is an indication of their growing fears about security as much as any enthusiasm for the Jewish state. But they have never received stronger recognition of their Frenchness, or a more honest acknowledgment of their persecution under Vichy. The commemoration of the Holocaust is so firmly embedded in France’s civic culture that it is a crime to deny it. One of its physical expressions – thanks to Modiano – is the Promenade Dora-Bruder in the 18th arrondissement, between rue Leibniz and rue Belliard.
In writing this book, I send out signals, like a lighthouse beacon in whose power to illuminate the darkness, alas, I have no faith. But I live in hope.
- The Oddly Bewitching Novels of Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano (Huffington Post)
- Patrick Modiano’s ‘Suspended Sentences’ (New York Times)
- Why nobody knows what to think about Patrick Modiano winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (New Statesman)
- J. xx Drancy. 13/8/42 (Review of Dora Bruder, London Review of Books, paywall)
- In the footsteps of Dora Bruder: 1 (French blog)
- In the footsteps of Dora Bruder: 2 (French blog)
- People Who Leave No Trace: Dora Bruder and the French Immigrant Community: a paper by Mary Jean Green, Dartmouth University (pdf)