Given the precarious state of the book business, publishers appear to be reluctant to take on projects that won’t fit neatly on the shelves, so I am heartened by Crown Publishers for its publication of The Fifty Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. The CIP on the verso page of the book categorizes it as a memoir, a family story, the grandparents’ story, a biography about Jews in France as Holocaust survivors and later, in the United States, a guide to France itself, a tale of divorced people, and life in France during World War II. It is all of these, and more.
At the outset, the author reveals the book “is a true story, but it a work of memory, not a work of history.” Mouillot’s intent behind the tale is to “confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past.” In Mouillot’s family the shadow is the fifty-plus year discord between her maternal grandparents. How can they have endured the Holocaust together, but for more than five decades afterwards, not manage to acknowledge one other’s existence?
Reader, I detect an eye roll from you, and the ensuing ‘just what we need, another Holocaust story.’ The book’s uniqueness is in not only how the couple survived, but how they became a couple, and why they ultimately split apart. The saga begins long after Anna Munster, a physician and Armand Jacoubovitch, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, artfully avoid seeing or speaking to one another after producing two children and emigrating to the United States. One of the few things binding them is a love for Mirandali, the author and their granddaughter.
Miranda Mouillot, born long after the war ends, has always sensed the horrors Jews endured during the war, and as a child experiences inexplicable terrors, until years later, a childhood friend explains that Mouillot “comes from a family of holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with,” shedding light on the author’s prescience.
As a child the author imagines her mother’s parents as separate entities, not fully comprehending that they had to have been a couple at one time to produce her mother and uncle. She grows up with the mystique of knowing her grandparents’ dislike of one another, yet not knowing why.
The catalyst for the author’s search for answers comes as a result of a disagreement over ownership of a dilapidated family house in France Ms. Mouillot wishes to inhabit as she works on her thesis. She begins a long saga of dealing with French officials, digging through old records, and piecing together the puzzle that links and divides her family.
Like all good tales, the protagonist sets out on a journey, in search of what h/she hopes to find, a simple love story between her kin, only to discover a more intricate, sometimes perilous story. Along the way, Mouillot learns of Anna and Armand’s long, complex relationship, how each separately and together survived the war, and how the horrors of the war prohibited them from staying together. It is also Mouillot’s memoir, and while one love story unravels, a new one forms.
The book lists numerous primary and secondary sources, chief of which are her grandparents. The title is available from Crown in January, 2015.