Idiss was the grandmother of the French well-known politician Robert Badinter. He wrote this book in her honour. It offers both a moving family history and perspectives of jewish and non-jewish Europe. Idiss is an interesting and moving book.
Idiss is the story of a turbulent life that started and ended amidst crises of antisemitism. Badinter’s grandmother was born in 1863 and raised in Bessarabie, Yiddishland: a region ruled by Ottomans, Russians, Roumanians and Soviets, nowadays part of Moldava. Her community were Ashkenazic Jews, most of them living in poor circumstances. Idiss married her great love, Schulim.
The atmosphere in Bessarabie is threatening towards Jews, discriminating against them in many acts. In 1903 a terrible pogrom takes place, killing 50, wounding 100s, looting and destroying shops and houses. The two sons of Idiss and Schulim leave for Paris, to start a new life. They are quite successful and in 1912, Idiss, Schulim and daughter Chifra – Badinter’s mother – follow their track. Imagine what that journey meant for Idiss who never left her village before.
Robert Badinter shows how France was seen as a paradise through the eyes of the inhabitants of Bessarabie. Yes, there was the antisemitic affaire Dreyfus but Dreyfus was nevertheless protected by the law and the values of the République Française (‘laïque’) and famous French people stood up for him. So from the perspective of the Yids in Bessarabie the proverb ‘living like a Jew in France’ remained attractive.
Badinter describes the situation of Jews in France in the first half of the XX century as a place where they were considered as French in the first place: being Jewish was their religion: “citoyens français de confession israélite” (p.39). Simone Veil in her biography gives a similar vision. It is interesting to read how French society dealt with the Jewish citizens, rich like Rothschild and Citroën and poor like Idiss and Schulim.
Badinter gives more nuanced insights later in the book (p. 61-64) explaining how Jews were envied or despised by the French, suspected for plots to dominate the world and not considered as ‘real’ French: “Pour eux, les juifs avaient beau donner tous les gages du patriotisme, ils n’en demeuraient pas moins d’étrangers sur la terre de France, plus hospitalière dans ses lois que dans les coeurs” (p.62-63).
He tells that the Jewish community was not homogeneous like antisemitic pamphlets suggested and that there was some kind of zionist movement but that most “Israélites français” considered it more of a fantasy than a real dream, saying: “Un sioniste est un juif qui paye un autre juif pour envoyer un troisième juif en Palestine” (p.63).
I cannot simply resume this book as it has several layers. The language used is beautiful and suits the life of Idiss that was pure and loving. Many happy years are described, a great pleasure to read. The different developments in the family are very interesting and by times amusing. In 1942, the end of the book, Idiss dies. It is 2nd World War also in France and there is only one son, Naftoul, present at the funeral; the rest of the family is hiding, hoping to escape the Holocaust that is in full development. Naftoul is arrested soon after the funeral and dies in Auschwitz. Badinter’s father dies in Sobibor. The book Idiss leaves you with the same feeling as the first chapters of the biography of Simone Veil: you are just living your life, working, trying to do good things and be happy, and then you get persecuted for how others see you: as a Jew and a Jew only. They want you to die for that reason.
Idiss is very refined in language, lovely to read. Moreover Badinter succeeds to describe times, insights and places that are not common knowledge in Western-Europe. In the Netherlands, Sephardic customs and contributions have traditionally dominated more than Ashkenazic experiences (see also this book). Idiss can enrich your views of the European society and European diversity.
More about Idiss in this (French) blog.
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* Anne Frank House Amsterdam: remembrance and reflection
* Grandfathers, Jews and the impulse to act