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Holocaust Victim's Lost Novels Help Daughter Heal

Denise Epstein, 77, at home in Toulouse, France, with a portrait of her mother, Irene Nemirovsky.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR /
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Denise Epstein, 77, at home in Toulouse, France, with a portrait of her mother, Irene Nemirovsky.

Before Denise Epstein went into hiding during World War II, her father put her in charge of two valuables: a suitcase filled with her mother's notes and her little sister.

Epstein's mother, Irene Nemirovsky, was an accomplished writer who died at Auschwitz in 1942. Epstein never parted with the suitcase, but never opened it either. In the late 1980s, Epstein decided to give its contents to the French literary archives, but before she handed them over, she opened the bag.

What she found is making literary magic.

Inside were two novels written on cheap, wartime paper: Suite Francaise and Fire in the Blood. Suite Francaise is often compared to the works of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, and it put Nemirovsky on bestseller lists in England and the United States. The novel depicts the mass exodus from the French capital after the Nazi victory in June 1940. The book continues through 1942 with a portrait of a small village at the beginning of the occupation.

Fire in the Blood, set for release next week in the United States, takes place in the small village where Nemirovsky took shelter in 1941 and where she was arrested in 1942. It's a tale of love, murder and betrayal in rural France in the years leading up to the war.

Nemirovsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. The family fled the Russian revolution for France and a privileged, emigre life of balls and banquets. In 1926 Nemirovsky married fellow Russian emigre and businessman Michel Epstein and the couple had two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth.

By the 1930s, Nemirovsky was a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government's anti-Jewish laws. Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name. She was arrested by French police in July 1942 and deported to Auschwitz where she died one month later of typhoid at age 39.

Today, Epstein sits in her sun-filled apartment in the French city of Toulouse surrounded by reminders of her mother. The trim and active 77-year-old is astounded by the success of her mother's long-lost works. It took Epstein two and half years to transcribe the manuscripts using a large magnifying glass. Thirteen of Nemirovsky's novels from the 1930s are now back in print, and Epstein says the renewed interest in her mother makes her own long struggle seem worthwhile.

"My life is just now starting to justify itself with Suite Francaise, Epstein says. "Because I always found it so unfair that I've lived to be so old and my mother died so young ... Suite Francaise somehow brought her back and let her live again. And somewhere I tell myself that if I've lived so long it's to have had the time, at the end of my life, to bring her back again."

Olivier Philipponnat, the co-author of Nemirovsky's biography, says Suite Francaise is the first work of fiction on the occupation and the exodus from Paris. Nemirovsky's works are now considered classics in France and are part of school curriculums. Philipponnat says there is justice in her revival.

"I think the success of Irene Nemirovsky in France is in some part due to the remorse of the French people for having forgotten her as a great author, and also because she was deported," he says. "So there is a certain joy and enthusiasm among the French public to rehabilitate her."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.