• Birth—February 11, 1903
• Where—Kiev, Ukraine
• Death—August 17, 1942
• Where—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany
Irène Némirovsky was the daughter of a Jewish banker from Ukraine, Léon Némirovsky. Her mother was not interested in her, and often denied that she had a daughter, because it would make her "look old".
The Némirovskys lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she was brought up by a French gouvernante, almost making French her native tongue. Irène also spoke Yiddish, Basque, Finnish, Polish, and English (probably learned while strolling the Rue des Rosiers in Paris, according to an interview).
The Némirovsky family lived for a year in Finland in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, and then, in 1919, moved to Paris, France, where Irène attended the Sorbonne and started writing when she was only 18 years old.
In 1926, Irène Némirovsky married Michel Epstein, a banker, and had two daughters: Denise, born in 1929; and Élisabeth, in 1937.
In 1929 she published David Golder, the story of a Jewish banker unable to please his troubled daughter, which was an immediate success, and was adapted to the big screen by Julien Duvivier in 1930, with Harry Baur as David Golder. In 1930 her novel Le Bal, the story of a mistreated daughter and the revenge of a teenager, became a play and a movie.
The David Golder manuscript was sent by post to the Grasset publisher with a Poste restante address and signed Epstein. H. Muller, a reader for Grasset immediately tried to find the author but couldn't get hold of him/her. Grasset put an ad in the newspapers hoping to find the author, but the author was "busy": she was having her first child, Denise. When Irène finally showed up as the author of David Golder, the unverified story is that the publisher was surprised that such a young woman was able to write such a powerful book.
Although she was widely recognized as a major author, by Jewish authors like Joseph Kessel and anti-semitic authors like Robert Brasillach alike, French citizenship was denied to the Némirovskys in 1938.
Irène Némirovsky was Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1939 and wrote in Candide and Gringoire, two anti-Semitic magazines—perhaps partly to hide the family's Jewish origins and thereby protect their children from growing anti-Semitic persecution.
By 1940, Némirovsky's husband was unable to continue working at the bank—and Irène's books could no longer be published—because of their Jewish ancestry. Upon the Nazis' approach to Paris, they fled with their two daughters to the village of Issy-l'Evêque (the Némirovskys initially sent them to live with their nanny's family in Burgundy while staying on in Paris themselves; they had already lost their Russian home and refused to lose their home in France), where Némirovsky was required to wear the Yellow badge. On July 13, 1942, Irène Némirovsky (then 39) was arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" by French police under the regulations of the German occupation. As she was being taken away, she told her daughters, "I am going on a journey now." She was brought to a convoy assembly camp at Pithiviers and on July 17 together with 928 other Jewish deportees transported to Auschwitz. Upon her arrival there two days later, her forearm was marked with an identification number. According to official papers, she died a month later of typhus.
Her husband was sent to Auschwitz shortly thereafter, and was immediately put to death in a gas chamber.
Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite Française (Denoël, France, translation by Sandra Smith, Knopf), two novellas portraying life in France between June 4, 1940 and July 1, 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events, as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time.
Némirovsky's oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.
The original manuscript has been given to the Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC), and the novel has won the Prix Renaudot—the first time the prize has been awarded posthumously.
Némirovsky's surviving notes sketch a general outline of a story arc that was intended to include the two existing novellas, as well as three more to take place later during the war and at its end. She wrote that the rest of the work was "in limbo, and what limbo! It's really in the lap of the gods since it depends on what happens."
In a January 2006 interview with the BBC, her daughter, Denise, said, "For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory." (From the author's website.)
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