April 2007

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Sins of the Innocent by Mireille Marokvia

Mireille Marokvia’s memoir Sins of the Innocent provides a perspective of World War II that I don’t think has been presented before. Marokvia is French and met her future husband, a German artist, in Paris in the 1930s. They were part of the Hemingwayesque group that the city was infamous for in the years before the war -- all witty repartee and glamorous creativity. Bit by bit, however, Mireille and Abel found themselves unable to ignore the news coming out of Germany and the rest of Europe. Friends abandoned the Continent; at one point a friend sends Abel a ticket to Argentina, pleading with him to leave, but the two lovers did not think it would get so bad, or that the badness would get close to them. News of the Munich Agreement in 1938 galvanized them. “No war,” she writes, “There would be no war. That was all we saw. And Czechoslovakia? Sacrificed / yes, yes, but peace, we had ‘won’ peace!” They had a victory banquet with friends in celebration. “We had several victory banquets,” she writes.

They were ready to celebrate what they were desperate to have, and in reading about her excitement, her relief, one begins to care very deeply for naïve Mireille and her husband. They don’t know what’s coming, but we do, and we wonder just how a French woman and German man will possibly navigate those events together. That struggle for survival is what makes up the bulk of the story, and what gives it a narrative dynamic that is unlike any other memoir about the war years on the market today.

In other words, Suite Française my ass. Mireille Marokvia might not have a suitably sad story complete with lost manuscript, hidden suitcase and death to accompany it, but she did more than most: she survived. The fact that she accomplished this at all is impressive, but when you consider that she did it as a French woman in Germany who was opposed to the fighting, it makes her life seem almost like a miracle.

They went to Germany because of a visit from an old friend of Abel’s. “How I disliked him!” writes Mireille. “I still do!” He brought news that Abel’s widowed mother was quite ill and needed him at home right away. It was two months since Chamberlain’s agreement; they thought war was averted. They would only go for six months, Abel promised, and then they would return to France. Mireille believed him and really she had no choice. His mother was sick and needed her son, and so of course, his new wife went with him. They stayed in Germany for the next eight years.

In the chapters that follow Mireille explains how two people who were against the war managed to survive while not being arrested as traitors. The story rarely dwells on the Holocaust, as it was not something the couple was largely aware of. The author remembers an anti-Semitic film and, later, a young Jewish co-worker with a child whose identities she helps to hide. But mostly Sins is about day-to-day living, about people who found ways to shop for little food and make meager dinner parties so they could still spend time together and pretend everything had not changed forever. It’s about having a job during the war, and being an artist in a place where art barely exists. Sins of the Innocent is the story of the German home front that has been rarely told to Western readers.

For every recollection of an evening out with friends or move to a new apartment, the author throws a deeply insightful comment that goes a long way towards expressing what Germans were thinking during the war. After Abel is questioned by the Gestapo (with a French wife his loyalty came into question), the two of then struggle to put the episode behind them. “As time passed and nothing else happened, we became carefree again -- as animals do, I suppose, when scents left by the hunter have blown away.”

On a more practical note, she reveals the blind devotion to all things good about Germany exhibited by most of the people around them. After Hitler invades the Soviet Union, cries of “Christmas in Moscow” are heard everywhere. And while it is clear that the Germans know their history enough to recall Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia over 100 years before, they are eager to explain to the French woman how different things are now. “Hitler was another kind of conqueror, a modern conqueror who possessed modern means. And anyway, what had been disastrous for Napoleon’s army was the retreat. The Germans do not retreat.”

It was early in the war still and they had a lot to learn. But Mireille, whose own great country had surrendered in a shockingly quick manner, has her suspicions. She keeps them to herself of course, because to do otherwise would be suicidal, and she is a woman determined to survive.

It was purely by coincidence that while I read Sins of the Innocent I was also deeply immersed in Jo Walton’s alternate history novel, Farthing. In that world, England negotiates a peace treaty with Germany in 1941 and thus abandons Western Europe to Hitler’s Germany. Jews are forced to wear the yellow star on the Continent and there are rumors of forced labor camps. An underground railroad of sorts is established across the Channel and Lucy Kahn, whose parents are some of the most powerful people in England, has married a Jewish man who unobtrusively does what he can to help Jews, both refugees and British natives like himself. Lucy and David think they are fine, that in spite of the occasional social insult the Kahns, just like the rest of England, will be just fine. Then there is a murder over a long party weekend at the parental estate, Farthing. Walton takes the cozy British murder mystery and turns it on its ear.

Farthing is in many ways the flip side of Sins of the Innocent. Mireille Marokvia’s life was similar to Lucy’s at first -- safe on the surface but never more than one wrong move away from going to hell in a hand basket. She came from a country that gave in to Hitler; and if there had been no Winston Churchill, no steadfast steely-eyed determination on the part of the British people, then maybe she would have lived the rest of her life in a world that lived and died at his whim. It makes one wonder just how long the German people would have been able to deny the truth of what Hitler’s world demanded if that had happened. In Lucy’s case, the denial seems to be eternal and ultimately even those whose eyes become awakened to the dark political machinations at work in the British government find themselves paralyzed by the thought of the personal sacrifices necessary to change their world. Can we blame Mireille’s husband then for finding a way to work for the German government through the war or her for finding a way to peacefully survive it in the country? There was no joining the resistance or hiding Anne Frank’s contemporaries in the attic for Mireille and Abel; they chose to live as if there was no war, to fight social battles, to provide aid and comfort in a few small ways, but largely just to get through it. The truth is that usually that is how it works. They live through it and maybe later they write very enlightening memoirs about how it was, how terrifying and horrifying and deeply intensely personally tragic the war was. And that’s fair enough, right? Farthing is fiction, it’s what did not happen and so, really, must we take it to heart? “All the demons are on the loose right now,” Mireille was told by an acquaintance during the war. “Don’t listen to them. Lie low and wait. Demons do not last.”

But they do in Farthing and truth be told they were mighty damn close to winning it all in World War II. It’s just an English murder mystery at its heart though, right? A politician dead in a guest bed, an overly histrionic wife, a rumored affair; it’s really no different from Agatha Christie’s best. Except this isn’t Dame Agatha’s England. This is the one where Mireille never got to go home, where Abel probably was shot for not being a patriot, and where that Jewish girl she worked with didn’t find a safe house in the country.

The fine line between truth and fiction is glaring obvious in reading these two books together, and what one author knows from experience and another fears for the future makes for utterly compelling reading. Mireille Marokvia lived through a war as a smart and gentle woman who wanted only peace. But Jo Walton knows the biggest truth of all: that Marokvia’s survival was due largely to the sacrifices that so many others made to guarantee that peace would come. Farthing is for them, as much as any historic book on the war can ever be. It is the warning of what might have been just as Sins of the Innocent is a gripping memory of what should never again be.

Sins of the Innocent by Mireille Marokvia
Unbridled Books
ISBN 1932961259
274 pages