Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Q&A with Jacques Besnainou

Jacques Besnainou is the author of The Promise: A Tale of Two Families Betrayed by France and Saved by the French. It is now available in a revised edition. Born in France, he now lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that your mother, who died many years ago, encouraged you to write about her history. Why did you choose to also include your wife’s family history in your book? 

A: I had a great relationship with my mother-in-law Gisele whom I met in 1982 a few months after meeting my college sweetheart Isabelle who became my wife several years later. Gisele was full of life and loved me like her own son.

When she learned about my intent to write a book about what happened to my mother during World War II, she confided to me that she may have gone through a similar ordeal. I then interviewed her and understood that her story was very similar to my mother’s story.

Many years later, it became obvious to me that I should write the two stories in parallel, and that it would be a great gift to my three children to learn about their two grandmothers. When researching, I also discovered that these two stories were representative of thousands and thousands of stories of French Jewish families during World War II. 

Q: How did you research the lives of your various family members, and how long did it take to write the book? 

In 1998, I opened a small red notebook and interviewed each member of my and my wife’s families in France and Israel. I also got a copy of the files made by my uncle and my wife’s uncle who were seeking monetary compensation from the French government. I then read a small book written by my aunt Zelma.

Finally, which was the most moving part of this research, my father-in-law, convinced by the seriousness of my work, gave me the original postcards written by Gisele’s grandmother from the camps before being murdered on her way to Auschwitz. These postcards that were quite difficult to decipher gave me a real look and understanding of the horror faced by all these innocent people who were arrested and deported only because they were Jews.

In 2012, when I decided to write the book, I completed these documents by an extensive research on the internet to piece together all the elements of the stories.

The book took me a year to write in French (from April 2012 until April 2013) and then I got it translated in English by Johanna Sarriot (former bilingual student of the French International School in Washington) to get the first publication in November 2013. 

Q: What do your family members think of the book? 

A: Except my uncle Henri, who doesn’t want to remember about what happened during the war, everybody else is very happy that I wrote it.

This past December, I had a very moving experience. I went to Israel and met with Daniel (Isabelle’s uncle) who is now 88 years old and lives in a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. I brought him the French edition of the book. He is now unfortunately blind but insisted that I read to him the chapter that explains how he escaped by miracle death in Nice when he was kept hostage by the Gestapo in Hotel Excelsior.  

Q: How did you decide on the book’s title? 

A: Johanna Sarriot, my translator, came up with the idea and I loved it. It represented exactly what it was all about, a promise kept to my mother and a promise to the future generations to be able to know exactly what happened. 

Q: Are you planning to write another book? 

A: I have a couple of ideas but I lack the most important resource of all: time! 

Q: Anything else we should know?   

A: I wrote this book as a simple [story] in order (hopefully) to appeal to younger generations who need to understand what happened and make sure it does not happen again.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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