Sunday, April 7, 2013

Existential Ennui

Colette and Maurice: This is an essay ... just right for Yom HaShoah ... by Abq Jew's good friend Tovah Miriam (see Making Amends). Tovah Miriam's got the copyright; all rights reserved.

Existential Ennui
Colette and Maurice
by Tovah Miriam

The most useful knowledge that I took from college was how to navigate the Dewey Decimal System. By this admission, you can calculate my age. As soon as I graduated, I started going to my little local library, a picturesque storybook brick building under rustling sycamores. Finally, I would read outside of the syllabus!

It was under the eaves of this sturdy little gnome’s library where I first discovered the French author Colette. I read several of her books that warm slow interim summer of 1967.

Later I purchased her books, one by one over the years, as and when I could afford them. And still later, and at intervals over the decades, I read Colette again and again.

Raggedy paperbacks have been replaced by used hard-bound editions and my library at home now includes a couple of shelves of her works as well volumes by several of her biographers.

What I have discovered is that when I re-read one of her books after, say, five years have gone by since my last reading it, that I feel as if the book is a completely new book, that it is, in fact, a book which I had never really read before. This also happens with other books that I read again and again. It just recently happened when I rediscovered Colette’s account of the night the Nazis arrested her husband Maurice Goudeket.

He was Jewish. Colette was not. On this occasion, I read her sparse words about the event and I also re-read the words of several of her biographers which expand on the event. Here is what happened.

In the wee hours of December 1941 Nazi boots crashed up the staircase of their home in the Palais Royale in Paris and with a ring and a shock Maurice was yanked from bed and hauled to the internment camp at Compiegne. With a hurried little pat on his shoulder, Colette smiled goodbye as Maurice was taken away. He was gone.

It is a mitzvah to ignore all of the other mitzvot in order to save the life of another human being. And so was it to save Maurice’s life that Colette would stop at nothing? Was there no humiliation she would not endure to save his life? Would she consider collaborating with the enemy? Did she collaborate? It is said that she spoke to a collaborator. The deal was this: Maurice would get light duty and ample food if he would inform on the other prisoners to the Nazi guards.
“I refuse,” said Colette. 

“…The alternative is death. Death, do you understand, death!”

“Very well then, I choose death.”

“Not without consulting your husband, I imagine?”

“We choose death.”
Maurice was returned to Colette in February, 1942.  With no explanation he was returned. He had to hide for the remainder of the war. Horror vied with farce to keep him safe. He hid in the dark little shops after hours. He hid under a pretty lady’s bedclothes. And the sounds of the boots and the thugs at the doors and screams of stolen Jewish children haunted his neighborhood hiding places and haunted the rest of his and Colette’s lives. The war ended with the Liberation of Paris in 1945.

At this distance, in this era, I sit in my warm little library and dip into Jewish lives. From the luxury of safety, I read about evil. The Dewey Decimal System is replaced by Google. At a tap I scan “Paris dans la collaboration”. My life, here between other wars, has skimmed along unhurt except by ordinary griefs.

So, did Colette collaborate to save Maurice? Or did she simply do the right thing? Did Colette simply and instinctively do whatever she had to do to keep the mitzvah of her husband’s tribe by breaking all other mitzvot to save a life? Did Colette break other secular and ethical mitzvot, in order to save his life?  Did she break the secular mitzvot of propriety, of wartime loyalties, of French resistance, of silence ­to save his life?

She was not Jewish. He was. One way or another, he came home. He lived.

Was she allowed his life because of her fame? Did the Nazis play favorites with her, Colette, the icon of French literature and l’ecrivain de l’amour? Did she use her fame to collaborate with the Nazis to save Maurice’s life? Or did she collaborate with a stronger, stranger “enemy”, that of her love for Maurice?

In her books, Colette often refers to love as the enemy. Did she collaborate with the enemy as Nazi or with the enemy as love?

 In L’Etoile Vesper, written after the War, Colette writes:

“Love, bread and butter of my pen and of my life! Whenever I sit down to speak
ill of you, to disown or deny you, someone rings and the shock …a memory of the
day when what I gained from you was taken away, …I offer you my apologies,
Love, victorious opponent…”

I am haunted.
We choose death.”

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