A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France

  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

What is the rela­tion­ship between mem­o­ry, his­to­ry, and truth? How do these three dis­tinct ways of per­ceiv­ing the world inter­act with each oth­er? What hap­pens when they inter­twine, fold togeth­er and dou­ble back over one another?

The result, as brought to us by Miran­da Rich­mond Mouil­lot, is an intense, grace­ful, and lumi­nous mem­oir about a fam­i­ly secret that had cast a shad­ow over her life and those of her loved ones – a shad­ow that remained long and dark until she found a way to give it sub­stance and pull it head­long into the light.

Filled with a com­plex mix­ture of aching sad­ness and abun­dant joy, A Fifty-Year Silence fol­lows the author’s very per­son­al jour­ney across two con­ti­nents and three gen­er­a­tions. Mouil­lot is the grand­child of Holo­caust sur­vivors, and she describes this fact of her life in sim­ple yet heart­break­ing words: I’d grown up in a uni­verse that revolved around an unspo­ken max­im: every­thing can fall apart.” That every­thing” includ­ed her par­ents’ mar­riage and that of her grand­par­ents, Anna and Armand, whose lives she attempts to recon­struct in this ele­gant and com­pelling book – a work that is equal parts detec­tive sto­ry, fam­i­ly his­to­ry and per­son­al jour­ney. Plumb­ing the depths of a hid­den sto­ry no one in the fam­i­ly will talk about, Mouil­lot fills every chap­ter with sus­pense as she breaks the silence that sur­rounds an old yet endur­ing fam­i­ly secret.

Although the book is a mem­oir, it reads like a nov­el, com­plete with a twist­ing, turn­ing plot. Mouillot’s grand­par­ents, Anna and Armand, sur­vived the Holo­caust by escap­ing Nazi-occu­pied France and find­ing shel­ter in a series of Swiss refugee camps. After the war they bought an old stone house in the South of France, liv­ing there for the next five years with their daugh­ter (Mouillot’s moth­er) and son until Anna sud­den­ly packed up and left Armand, tak­ing both chil­dren with her and nev­er returning.

What divid­ed her grand­par­ents? What mys­te­ri­ous wound tore the fam­i­ly apart? Mouil­lot, grow­ing up in Asheville, NC, loved both Anna and Armand, though the two had lived on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents — and with­out speak­ing — for forty years. Now she sets off to solve the mys­tery of their estrange­ment, hop­ing to dis­cov­er the past and trans­form it into a root­ed sense of iden­ti­ty for herself.

Luck­i­ly for read­ers of Holo­caust mem­oir, Mouillot’s quest for self-dis­cov­ery has pro­duced a work that tran­scends both time and space, illu­mi­nat­ing a fuller under­stand­ing of the ways in which the Holo­caust casts its dark­ness onto the gen­er­a­tions and pro­vid­ing insight into the heal­ing pow­er of know­ing pre­cise­ly where we come from, and why.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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