The Paris Photo

January 1, 2013

A nov­el in two parts, The Paris Pho­to first relates the expe­ri­ences of Ben Gor­don, a Jew­ish Amer­i­can sol­dier who arrives in 1944 Paris short­ly after the Lib­er­a­tion. He is also on a mis­sion to find a Jew­ish fam­i­ly. He hears that the father and grand­fa­ther have dis­ap­peared, and bit by bit, learns with the fam­i­ly of the tragedy that has over­tak­en the Paris Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. In the sec­ond part, six decades lat­er, Ben has just died, and his adult daugh­ter Judith, in clear­ing out her par­ents’ apart­ment, finds a box of pho­tos that includes one of Ben with a French family. 

While Judith knew her father had been in Paris, she had known noth­ing about them. Her researcher’s curi­ousi­ty aroused, Judith locates the child in the pic­ture. She finds a retired jour­nal­ist who has cut him­self off from Judaism. Grad­u­al­ly, he reveals the trau­ma from which he has still not recov­ered, and she dis­cov­ers her grow­ing anger with France for betray­ing its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. The expe­ri­ence changes her ori­en­ta­tion, as she real­izes the sig­nif­i­cance of Jew­ish identity.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jane S. Gabin

  1. The nov­el is set in two dis­tinct time peri­ods. What sim­i­lar­i­ties or dif­fer­ences exist between the two, in terms of local and glob­al socio­cul­tur­al and/​or polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions? What par­al­lels can be seen between the char­ac­ters in the two periods?

  2. Con­sid­er the expe­ri­ences of the Holo­caust from the per­spec­tive of Simone Daval. How might this be dif­fer­ent from the expe­ri­ence of oth­ers like her (i.e.married Jew­ish women, or Jew­ish moth­ers) in Paris? In the rest of France? In Ger­many or Austria?

  3. What can be said about Guy’s will­ing­ness or unwill­ing­ness to dis­cuss aspects of his life from the time of the war? What might explain this behav­ior, or not explain it? What effect does it have on the sep­a­rate­ness or cohe­sive­ness of the two parts of the novel?

  4. Con­sid­er the rela­tion­ship between Guy and Sergeant Ben. How does Guy dis­cuss this rela­tion­ship with Judith? Do you think the emo­tion­al response Guy has to any men­tion of Judith’s father makes sense, giv­en their relationship?

  5. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the tit­u­lar Paris pho­to? what part does this pho­to play in the plot? In the devel­op­ment of char­ac­ters? To whom is the pho­to most significant?

  6. When Ben meets the Davals, WWII is still rag­ing in parts of Europe. As an Amer­i­can sol­dier, Ben actu­al­ly knows lit­tle about the details of the Ger­man Final Solu­tion” or the expe­ri­ence of Euro­pean Jews dur­ing the war. How does he respond to hear­ing about Simone’s and Mira’s expe­ri­ences? What would it have been like for Simone to tell her sto­ry to this stranger?

  7. The first time Ben hears about Auschwitz is on a radio news pro­gram, and he’s not sure how much to believe. Com­pare this with Judith’s exten­sive library research on the Holo­caust more than 60 years lat­er. What sim­i­lar­i­ty and dif­fer­ences are there in the con­tent and/​or the cul­tur­al con­text? What emo­tion­al sim­i­lar­i­ties or dif­fer­ences might there be in their responses?

  8. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the novel’s epi­graph? How does this theme play out in the expe­ri­ences of the characters?

  9. Ben feels guilty for not hav­ing been on the beach­es of Nor­mandy for the inva­sion, instead arriv­ing in France with his postal unit short­ly after­wards. How does he han­dle being reject­ed for com­bat, and how might things have been dif­fer­ent if this had not happened?

  10. The nov­el includes many fac­tu­al, researched retails of the Holo­caust, the Occu­pa­tion of France, the Lib­er­a­tion of Paris, and more. How do these details, spread through­out Parts 1 and 2, com­pare with your own under­stand­ing of these events?

  11. Con­sid­er the rela­tion­ship between Judith and Guy. How ought it be described or cat­e­go­rized, if at all? What ten­sions exist, and what com­forts? The nov­el describes a wealth of detailed inter­ac­tions between these two. How does Judith feel about their rela­tion­ship, and what does Guy feel? Are they sim­i­lar or different?

  12. What par­al­lels does Judith notice between the past and the present as she explores the mod­ern city of Paris? What effect does this have on her? How might her expe­ri­ence as a tourist in Paris be dif­fer­ent from oth­er tourists’ expe­ri­ences, and what can be made of these differences?

  13. Ben expe­ri­ences con­sid­er­able emo­tion­al tur­moil regard­ing his feel­ings for Simone in Paris and his respon­si­bil­i­ty to Sylvia, back home in New York. How han­dle this ten­sion, and why might he act the way he does? What fac­tors are involved? How does this influ­ence the char­ac­ters in the present day? Does what he decides to do (or not do) affect your opin­ion of him?

  14. The top­ic of anti-semi­tism in the US is men­tioned in a few dif­fer­ent places. What does it look like in the 1930s and 1940s, and how is that sim­i­lar or dif­fer­ent from today? Con­sid­er the anti-semit­ic inci­dents Ben expe­ri­ences in New York, and lat­er in Frank­furt, from oth­er Amer­i­cans. What effect does this have on the char­ac­ters and on the reader?

  15. All the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in the nov­el describe them­selves as not very reli­gious.” How­ev­er, their Jew­ish­ness rad­i­cal­ly influ­ences their life expe­ri­ences. How does this appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion work in the nov­el, and with­in each of the characters?

  16. As father and daugh­ter, Ben and Judith have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship which per­haps Judith does not even rec­og­nize. In what ways does Judith nav­i­gate the rela­tion­ship she has with her now-deceased par­ents? How do Judith’s ques­tions about her par­ents’ mar­riage influ­ence her con­ver­sa­tions with her broth­er Michael?

  17. What is the great­est impe­tus for Judith’s search for knowl­edge (about her father, about Paris, about the French fam­i­ly)? Why is there such an emo­tion­al draw that Paris has on her after she dis­cov­ers her father’s addi­tion­al pic­tures? Com­pare the ini­tial cat­a­lyst of Judith’s inter­est in her father’s past with her desire to return to Paris at the end of the novel.

  18. How does the fig­ure of the fla­neur or fla­neuse use play out in Judith and Ben’s explo­rations of Paris? How does this expe­ri­ence affect their under­stand­ing of their sur­round­ings? Are their expe­ri­ences unique, and if so, how? How does the novel’s depic­tion of the fla­neur cor­re­spond to your own expe­ri­ences of trav­el­ing in a new city?

  19. In his 2009 book, Holo­caust Trau­ma: Psy­cho­log­i­cal Effects and Treat­ment, Natan Keller­man describes the Holo­caust as a major col­lec­tive trauma”that con­tin­ues to leave its indeli­ble mark on us.” Many oth­er schol­ars have also described the Holo­caust as per­haps the prime exam­ple of the psy­cho­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence of col­lec­tive or inher­it­ed trau­ma. Is it accu­rate to say that we see this in The Paris Pho­to?

  20. Sev­er­al dif­fer­ent lan­guages are used in this nov­el, both in dia­logue and nar­ra­tive descrip­tion. What is their sig­nif­i­cance, in terms of cre­at­ing the story’s tone and the emo­tions of the char­ac­ters? How does the lan­guage we use to talk about WWII influ­ence our under­stand­ing of it? Words like Occupation”and Lib­er­a­tion” have tak­en on a sig­nif­i­cance far beyond their stan­dard mean­ings. As anoth­er exam­ple, Judith notes the recur­ring phrase mort pour la France,” which has also tak­en on a spe­cif­ic mean­ing. Dis­cuss the func­tion of lan­guage in the book.