The mysterious card, from 2003, is at the center of Anne Berest’s book, which is part detective story, part examination of French attitudes toward Judaism.
In 2003, an unsigned postcard reached the Berest family home. On one side was an old picture of the Opéra Garnier. On the other, there were four names: Ephraïm. Emma. Noémie. Jacques. All were relatives of the French author Anne Berest. All died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Berest and her mother, Lélia Picabia, descended from Myriam — daughter of Ephraïm and Emma, older sister to Noémie and Jacques, and the single surviving member of the nuclear family. Myriam had not liked to talk about the war, and Berest grew up knowing little of their history.
The mysterious postcard, at first, hardly changed her relationship with the past. Without a clue about the identity or the motives of the sender, Berest soon forgot about it. Until one day, her 6-year-old daughter came home and said: “They don’t like Jews very much at school.”
The words were “a shock,” Berest, 43, recalled. “I couldn’t even talk to her about it.” Her mind turned to the postcard, and to the lost family members. Soon, she embarked on an investigation of the mysterious piece of correspondence.
The result, “The Postcard,” recreates in stunning detail the lives of Berest’s lost family members and weaves them into a detective story, loosely centered on the postcard. Part Holocaust drama, part family mystery, the novel led Berest to relive some of the grimmest hours of France’s recent history and to examine her own experience of being Jewish. Europa Editions will release an English translation by Tina Kover on Tuesday.
“Sometimes I spent entire days crying in front of my computer, from morning to night,” Berest said recently at her home in Paris. “On the way to the school pickup, I had visions of children being arrested, being put on trains to death camps.”
“The Postcard” reached a large audience when it was released in France, in 2021, and earned the author critical acclaim, especially from younger audiences. “It’s a book that is totally researched, yet you don’t feel the research in it,” said the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, known for the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript.
Struck by the “human quality” of Berest’s style, Peck asked her to co-write his next script, inspired by the Jewish director and producer Bernard Natan. “We are both motivated by history and by injustice,” he said.
By the time she started work on “The Postcard,” Berest had plenty of experience with biography. After a literature degree and a stint as editor of a Paris theater’s in-house magazine, in 2008 she looked for a flexible source of income as she worked on her first novel. Together with an associate, she founded Porte-Plume, a niche press that specializes in ghostwritten family biographies and corporate books.
“I’d always been attracted to the past, and I loved this job,” Berest said. Telling the stories of strangers “taught me to write, to craft characters and through-lines,” she added. “You realize that every life is extraordinary, once you dive into it.”
After her first novel, “Her Father’s Daughter,” was published, in 2010, she wrote “Sagan, Paris 1954,” a short fictional memoir of the French author Françoise Sagan that was translated into English and published by Gallic Books. Then Berest turned to her own family history: In 2017, she and her sister Claire, also a writer, wrote a biography of the artist and critic Gabriële Buffet-Picabia, their great-grandmother, who was married to the Spanish painter Francis Picabia. Myriam, Berest’s grandmother, had married their son, Vincente, and survived the war with help from the Picabia clan.
Berest’s family history was so complex and layered that during a bout of depression in her 20s she turned to therapy through genogram, a form of treatment based on the analysis of a person’s family tree. “The idea that we inherit invisible bonds really helped me,” she said. “It means that even people who were murdered pass things on to their children, to their grandchildren.”
It took longer for Berest to reckon with her Jewish roots. Her family had distanced itself from religion; she had never attended service at a synagogue when she started the investigation that led to “The Postcard.”
She could at least count on the help of her mother, Picabia, a linguistics professor who had self-published a book through Porte-Plume about their ancestors who died during the Holocaust. Picabia shared her extensive archives with her daughter.
Berest’s perspective in “The Postcard,” Picabia said, was “a revelation” for her. “Each generation has their vision, and she captured things that were much more difficult for me to see.”
Picabia is a prominent character in “The Postcard,” and much of the story is told through fictionalized conversations between her and Berest. “I wanted the book to progress through dialogue, because it’s a key form in Jewish thought,” Berest said. “The figure of ‘the ignorant’ is very important in it. Asking questions is almost more important than having the answers.”
Berest herself feared for a long time that she wouldn’t solve the central mystery of the postcard. “For four years, I worked on a detective novel without an ending, which was very stressful,” she said. Ultimately, an answer came — and in the book, it is worth the wait. “When I figured it out, I couldn’t even speak,” Berest said, shaking her head.
Along the way, she found herself reconnecting with her Jewish identity. “I feel like I’ve found my way back to the idea of a community, a culture I belong to.” Her two daughters have started attending a Talmud Torah after-school program: “They teach me now — the songs, their meaning,” she said.
The release of “The Postcard” also led Berest to experience antisemitism in earnest, she said. While Berest was a successful author and scriptwriter — she has worked on several TV series, and was among the 82 women who staged a red-carpet protest against gender inequality at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 — few knew of her Jewish heritage until the book was published. In addition to attacks on social media, there were “explicit” remarks, she said, from work acquaintances. “I saw things come to the surface in this very hushed literary world, and I understood what antisemitism might have been like in intellectual circles in the 1930s.”
It is the “paradox,” as Berest puts it, of French attitudes toward Judaism, which have historically ranged from unusual tolerance by European standards — her great-grandparents had settled in the country for that reason — to outright bigotry. For instance, “The Postcard” explores the unsettling reality of postwar France, where Holocaust survivors were silenced for decades in an attempt to allow the country to start with a clean slate after the Nazi occupation.
Taking her cue from those who later shone a rigorous light on the genocide, like the documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, Berest vowed “not to write a single sentence of description that I hadn’t read somewhere in testimonies,” she said. Period scenes were fleshed out by lifting details from survivors’ memoirs and research. “You have to be historically faultless, because if you start making things up, it’s an opening for Holocaust deniers.”
Berest calls “The Postcard” her “mitzvah.” “In Hebrew, it means something you do for your community. I didn’t care whether it would be a hit. I had done what I had to do.”
Her Holocaust-related “neuroses,” as she puts it, haven’t gone away — “I’m still scared of gas leaks and losing my child in a crowd” — but the book has made her feel lighter.
“There is something liberating about bringing ghosts into your home,” she said. These days, painted portraits of Noémie and Jacques, her ancestors, watch over her desk in Paris as she works on the next installment of her family saga, which will center on her parents. “You’re not scared of them anymore — on the contrary, these ghosts feel like family.”