In January, when Joachim Schnerf published his novel Cette nuit – about Salomon, a Holocaust survivor, who must celebrate Jewish Passover for the first time without his late wife, Sarah – nobody could guess that a Jewish family in Paris would encounter a similar fate.
When Salomon wakes up on this day, he knows that a special evening lies ahead. As the oldest in the family, he must lead their Seder festival celebration on the eve of Passover to remember the release of the Jews from Egypt. The same as every year, he will read texts about the Israelites’ imprisonment and their flight from Egypt; he will dip celery in salt water to commemorate the tears of enslaved Hebrews. His grandchildren will ask him, “Why is this evening different to all the others?” Why is there only matzo? Why the bitter herbs? … Every year, these traditions are relived and passed on. Yet, on this evening things are very different for Salomon. He is missing the most important person: Sarah, his beloved wife who recently died.
Sarah was from an educated middle-class family; she married Salomon, a Holocaust survivor, and had two daughters, Denise und Michelle. They couldn’t be more different and make their life hell. Sarah is the soul of the family; she knew how to ease almost any tension and accompanies Salomon throughout the novel. Sarah, the dead woman, is the most present in this story despite her absence.
“How should I survive this festival without her?” asks Salomon, and remembers many Seder evenings, which he spent with his wife. The very first one after the war, when only he and his aunt attended from his ‘decimated family’, and he was tormented by questions about his difficulties arising due to his time in Auschwitz. But Salomon doesn’t talk about this. “It’s impossible, I can only talk about the Shoah in jokes.” These make his family incandescent, but he cannot stop himself. “Do you know what was written above the entrance to the gas chambers in Sobibor? Mind the step!” Jewish humour in its cultural element that Salomon can only share with other Holocaust survivors at the Shoah café. But it doesn’t protect him from the images of horror that permanently interject in his mind with reality … “a ready-made feast for every psychoanalyst.”
With equally biting humour, Jewish customs and characteristics are described in this novel. For instance, the difference between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews. Patrick, Michelle’s husband, is “the moving cliché of an Ashkenazi (…), this type of Jew, who wants no problems with anyone, and who would rather have a swastika tattooed on his forehead than ask a child to turn down the volume of his radio.”
Denise’s Moroccan husband Pinhas, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘oriental lightness’ for which Salomon admires him immensely. “His parents were allowed to grill sardines on the beach, while we went up in flames. But at least he doesn’t look morbid when I laugh about Auschwitz. Sephardic genius perhaps rests on this unshakeable lightness, and at times this nerve-racking carelessness. But ultimately the Sephardic Jews are still persecuted, and how would they have survived without humour?”
The reader is confronted in this novel with the essential aspects of Jewish life regardless of whether or not he is familiar with Jewish customs. He sits with the characters around the table when Salomon’s family meets for the Seder fest. Thanks to the evocative descriptions he can imagine the sound of the prayers and the taste of the symbolic foods. He can freeze like a pillar of salt or laugh aloud when Salomon tells “jokes from the concentration camp”.
Joachim Schnerf, born in 1987 in Strasbourg, was the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. He wanted to share this in precise detail – and this is important when Antisemitism is resurgent again in Europe. Most people are not familiar with everyday Jewish life. This is also one reason why clichés like ‘all Jews are rich’ are so insidious. In March this year, this is exactly why an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, became a victim who was stabbed in her Paris apartment because of greed for money. It was an Antisemitic act; and for the first time in France it also sent shock waves beyond the Jewish community. “The fact that, shortly after my novel was published, this family had to celebrate the Seder festival without their grandmother is obviously a sad coincidence”, remarks Joachim Schnerf in an interview. “But it’s high time that the subject of Antisemitism is openly discussed again and taken seriously.”
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Joachim Schnerf, CETTE NUIT. Zulma, 2018.