On his blog yesterday, Museum of Jewish Heritage director David Marwell expressed his sadness about the closing of Woman of Letters, which will happen as the clock strikes 5:45 p.m. this Sunday, August 30. David, Ivy, Sarah, Amy, Yvette, our French friends Olivier and Emanuelle, and of course, Denise, helped us all get to know more intimately the writer whose words we love. Although the exhibition leaves us, we are hopeful that it will reappear soon, allowing others to meet this remarkable woman. The Woman of Letters site will remain online, so you can visit Irène as often as you like, and keep sharing her story with others. To all of Irène’s readers and friends, we say merci.
As mid-July approaches, we want visitors to the site to feel a kind of immediacy and urgency as Irène spent her last days with her family. This week, more than 60 years ago, marked the beginning of the end for Irène. She was arrested on July 13 in her home in Issy-l’Eveque in the presence of her family. She was first brought to Toulon-sur-Arroux and held for two days before being sent to an internment camp at Pithiviers. On July 15, Irène penned this tragic note to Michel and the children. The letter arrived on July 17 as Irène was being transported to Auschwitz on Convoy 6.
Cher Amour Don’t worry about me. I embrace you and also the children with all my soul and all my love. On the reverse side is a note to her daughters, Denise and Elisabeth: My dear love, my little adored ones I think that we leave today. Courage and hope. You are in my heart, my beloveds. May God help us all.
By scrolling to the last artifact in the website’s Artifact Viewer, you can see the powerful letter to Michel for yourself.
We can’t envision putting pencil to paper in that kind of vulnerable and unimaginable situation. Knowing she would not see her family again, we are awestruck by her strength and the beauty of her soul at her darkest hour.
The New York Public Library will be opening an exhibition entitled “Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation” on April 3. Some of the artifacts from our exhibition are on loan to them from IMEC, the literary archive that houses Irène Némirovsky’s papers. The four objects began their journey in Normandy, arriving in Battery Park City in the fall, and will now be arriving on 42nd Street. Although the original manuscript of Suite Française, Irène’s identity card and some other papers have been relocated to the NYPL, you can still examine them on this website. And you can still review each of the 220 digitized pages of the manuscript here at the Museum in the Salon. Our exhibition, with more than 70 artifacts and two films, has been extended through August 30, 2009 so if you have New York City in your summer travel plans, or you’ve been meaning to come but haven’t gotten the chance, please make a point of making us part of your itinerary.
Irène Némirovsky is a beloved writer, adored by people all over the world. Many are coming to know her great body of work in an era of technology that allows readers to wax poetic when they’ve read something truly wonderful or rant uncontrollably when something is truly awful. It is terribly exciting to hear from those Irène Némirovsky fans who log onto the site from as far away as London and Devonshire, and as nearby as Brooklyn. You communicate your admiration for Irène and her writing, and share our belief that her story is tragic and meaningful and deserves to be told. We received two especially thoughtful posts from bloggers this week, and we wanted to post links to their blogs, along with our thanks.
The New York Times reviewed “Woman of Letters” on October 21. If you have seen our exhibition, please read the Times review and let us know your comments. We look forward to what you have to say on the topic.
So many people have commented to us that seeing the original manuscript and the valise in person is so powerful — it is as if these objects have personalities themselves. We take for granted the tools we use on a regular basis with no thought given to what they might say about us as individuals. What objects do you possess that you believe define who you are? What do they say about you?
“Never forget that the war will be over and that the entire historical side will fade away. Try to create as much as possible: things, debates…that will interest people in 1952 or 2052. Reread Tolstoy. Inimitable descriptions but not historical. Insist on that.” – Irène Némirovsky’s notes to herself, June 2, 1942
In a way, this sentiment of Irène’s speaks to our challenges in history museums when we design exhibitions. How do we find a way for visitors to make connections to their own lives while still being true to the history we’re presenting? It’s about finding the universal in the particular, and exploring the role of the individual in the larger context of society. Take this opportunity to think about how this works for you (or doesn’t) in Suite Française, or in our exhibition.