by Michal H. Malen

Maryann Mac­don­ald is the author of Odette’s Secrets (Blooms­bury).

Michal H. Malen: Please tell us some more about the real Odette Mey­ers, the per­son on whom your fic­tion­al char­ac­ter is close­ly based.

Maryann Mac­don­ald: Odette Mey­ers was a woman described by those who knew her as hav­ing a gen­er­ous and coura­geous heart. Her child­hood was just as it has been described in Odet­te’s Secrets. She was born in Paris in 1934, the daugh­ter of Pol­ish immi­grants Berthe and George Mel­sz­pa­jz, sec­u­lar Jews and social­ists. They lived in a small apart­ment in a work­ing class neigh­bor­hood in the 11th arrondisse­ment on what was then called the rue d’Angouleme (now the rue Jean Pierre Tim­baud). Just one flight below lived the building’s concierge, Marie Cho­tel, a Catholic, who was their close friend and the self-pro­claimed god­moth­er of Odette. As Odette wrote in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, In the upstairs-down­s­tairs world of my ear­ly child­hood, I went up and down like a yo-yo, at home in either place.”

When WWII broke out, George joined the French army, was cap­tured by the Ger­mans, and became a pris­on­er of war. Berthe con­tin­ued work­ing in a knit­ting fac­to­ry to sup­port her­self and Odette, and also became involved in the Resis­tance. Before dawn on July 16, 1942, the Vichy police arrived in the neigh­bor­hood to arrest all the Jew­ish peo­ple liv­ing there. Madame Marie was able to hide Odette and her moth­er in her broom clos­et, while dis­tract­ing the police from their job with wine and con­ver­sa­tion. After their depar­ture, Berthe left to try to warn her sis­ter about the round-up. Odette then had to trav­el to the remote French coun­try­side where she would hide in plain sight,” pos­ing as a Catholic school­girl and liv­ing with a fos­ter fam­i­ly. Berthe lat­er joined her in the coun­try where, despite many dif­fi­cul­ties, the two sur­vived until the end of the war.

In 1949, con­cerned by the Cold War, Odette and her fam­i­ly left Paris and moved to Cal­i­for­nia. Odette went to col­lege, became a uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, mar­ried the poet Bert Mey­ers and had two chil­dren, Anat and Daniel. She was active in her com­mu­ni­ty, speak­ing about her child­hood expe­ri­ences in schools, church­es and syn­a­gogues, and mak­ing many devot­ed friends. She made sev­er­al trips back to France, and vis­it­ed those she knew dur­ing the war years. She died in 2001 and was much mourned in her com­mu­ni­ty in Berkeley.

MHM: How close­ly is the fic­tion­al Odette based on the real one?

MM: My goal in writ­ing Odette’s Secrets was to paint as true a pic­ture of Odette’s life as pos­si­ble. When I first dis­cov­ered Odette’s mem­oir, Doors to Madame Marie, on a vis­it to the Amer­i­can Library in Paris, I was fas­ci­nat­ed by it. I pored over the pho­tographs of her and her fam­i­ly and friends. I read and reread her adven­tures, espe­cial­ly the pas­sages where she described what it was like to switch selves, not once but twice, both in the remote coun­try­side of the Vendee where she hid and then back in Paris again after the war. I learned that thou­sands of French chil­dren had had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. I vis­it­ed the street where Odette’s fam­i­ly lived, and sat in the square oppo­site study­ing the door and their apart­ment win­dow. I searched for her school. I explored the alley­way where her dear cousins lived, the cousins who left France weeks after their ar­rest and nev­er returned. I strolled in the park where Odette played, and in the ceme­tery where she went with her moth­er to hon­or the Jew­ish peo­ple who per­ished in the Holocaust. 

One night, I told my hus­band Odette’s sto­ry. Togeth­er, we took the Metro to the 11th arrondisse­ment and stood out­side Odette’s apart­ment build­ing. I so wish I could go inside!” I said, look­ing at the oak door at the front of the build­ing, a sol­id street door of the type that is always locked. 

Let’s see if we can,” my hus­band said, and pressed his fin­ger­tips against the door. It swung open! In moments we were stand­ing in the tiled hall­way where Odette had played with her red rub­ber ball. I couldn’t believe my luck…it seemed like a sign. I just had to write the sto­ry of Odette’s remark­able life for children. 

But how? I knew I would need the per­mis­sion of her fam­i­ly. And I knew she had a son, and he lived in Paris. 

I found Daniel’s num­ber in the Paris tele­phone direc­to­ry. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the num­ber. I left a mes­sage, explain­ing who I was and what I hoped to do. Then I wait­ed. A few days lat­er, Daniel called me back and invit­ed me to lunch in his sun­ny apart­ment on the rue Ram­buteau. He lis­tened to my request and made his deci­sion almost imme­di­ate­ly. He was sure his moth­er would want her sto­ry to live on. As her lit­er­ary execu­tor, he gave me per­mis­sion to use the facts of her life as the basis of a book for children. 

I was thrilled, but want­ed to learn as much as I could about Odette and her fam­i­ly and expe­ri­ences first. Daniel gave me his grandmother’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy and some of his mother’s poems. He showed me film clips and more fam­i­ly pho­tographs. He also told me that although Odette and her three friends thought they were the only Jew­ish chil­dren in their small vil­lage in the remote coun­try area of the Vendee, in fact, more than forty chil­dren were hid­den there by local families.

I decid­ed I need­ed to vis­it the Vendee. I took the train to Nantes, as Odette did at the time of her escape from Paris. All the way I stud­ied the farm­hous­es, the vil­lages and the train sta­tions pass­ing by. What was there in 1941? Did Odette see it as I did? Then I drove to Chav­agne-en-Paillers, the first vil­lage where Odette was hid­den in plain sight dur­ing the war. My hus­band and I were stand­ing out­side the house she lived in when a kind­ly old man appeared at the upstairs win­dow and invit­ed us in. He was Jaques Raf­fin, one of the chil­dren in the fam­i­ly who had tak­en Odette in. He showed me the gar­den where they played togeth­er on the swing and fed the doves. After­wards, we vis­it­ed the school Odette attend­ed with her friends Cecile and Paulette, and the church where she went to Mass every Sun­day. Final­ly, we went to the ham­let where Odette and her moth­er lived togeth­er under assumed names. We saw the for­est and the square where she played hide and seek and hop­scotch and the path­way she took walk­ing to school in the town of St. Ful­gent. The fields, the cows, and the cot­tages were all still there. Now that I had seen as much of Odette’s wartime world as I could, I was ready to write, ready to bring Odette’s child­hood to life, as best I could.

MHM: What are the par­al­lels between the Madame Marie of the book and her real-life counterpart?

MM: Again, I have tried to stay as close as pos­si­ble to Odette’s own descrip­tions of Madame Marie and her actions. She was a woman who had expe­ri­enced pain and dif­fi­cul­ty in her ear­ly life in the Lor­raine. She met Mon­sieur Hen­ri dur­ing WWI and joined him in Paris after the war. Lat­er, she became the concierge in Odette’s build­ing and also her self-appoint­ed god­moth­er, car­ing for the lit­tle girl, teach­ing and guid­ing her in her ear­ly life. As Odette wrote of her in her book, “…my godmother…had indeed ful­filled her role, not only in shap­ing my soul but in sav­ing my life and that of my moth­er.” Madame Marie was also respon­si­ble for help­ing to save oth­ers. Her name and that of Mon­sieur Hen­ri are record­ed at the Memo­r­i­al de la Shoah in Paris, at Yad Vashem, and on the wall of Right­eous Gen­tiles in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

MHM: Madame Marie is a mar­velous char­ac­ter, warm, lov­ing and car­ing. Although a believ­ing Catholic, she risks her life to help Jew­ish fam­i­lies sur­vive. Can you tell us a bit about the inter­re­li­gious relation­ships of the time and place? Where do you think she found the cour­age to act as she did?

MM: The French mot­to, Lib­erte, Egalite et Fra­ter­nite” attract­ed large num­bers of immi­grants to France, includ­ing many Pol­ish Jews in the 1930s. In fact, immi­grants con­sti­tut­ed 70% of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of 350,000 before WWII. Immi­grants, as is often the case today, were com­monly thought dur­ing this peri­od to be respon­si­ble for tak­ing jobs away from the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. They were also some­times sus­pect­ed of being spies. When the Vichy gov­ern­ment came into pow­er, Jews and com­mu­nists — and many work­ing class Jews from East­er Europe were com­mu­nists or social­ists — were both con­sid­ered ene­mies and tar­gets for persecution. 

Catholic church lead­ers took a pas­sive atti­tude towards the Vichy regime until the mass depor­ta­tions of Jews began in France in the sum­mer of 1942. But at that point, the Bish­op of Mon­tauban wrote a let­ter denounc­ing the uproot­ing of men and woman, treat­ed as wild ani­mals.” This let­ter was read in church­es through­out France, and over the BBC’s dai­ly broad­casts, encour­ag­ing the French, most of whom were at least nom­i­nal­ly Catholics, to pro­tect Jews. It may have had some of its intend­ed effect. Three quar­ters of the French Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion sur­vived, includ­ing 84% of French Jew­ish children.

But free thinkers among the French pop­u­la­tion who act­ed to save the lives of Jews before that time act­ed accord­ing to their own con­sciences, as did Madame Marie. Accord­ing to Odette, when Madame Marie was asked by Berthe why she had hid­den them when the Pope had not spo­ken out on behalf of Jews, her friend replied, Don’t wor­ry. Popes and gov­ern­ments come and go; only God is eter­nal. This is between me and God. If he thinks I’ve done wrong, He will let me know.” 

MHM: Odette is afraid to leave her com­fort­able sur­round­ings for a new and uncer­tain life in the coun­try yet she adjusts to coun­try life and, return­ing to Paris finds her old life unfa­mil­iar and strange. What can today’s chil­dren learn from Odette about secu­ri­ty and per­ma­nence and adjust­ing to the unexpected?

MM: Odette’s sto­ry is part­ly a com­ing-of-age one, and in com­ing-of-age sto­ries I think chil­dren learn about the inevitabil­i­ty of change. But ear­li­er on, Odette is seen to grow in the resilience that brings secu­ri­ty by respond­ing with child-appro­pri­ate courage and deter­mi­na­tion to the needs of each new sit­u­a­tion in which she finds her­self dur­ing the war years. Lat­er, she also learns to find secu­ri­ty in fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty. I’m a child of my fam­i­ly, a child of France,” she says after the war, But more than these, my heart now tells me, I’m a child of my peo­ple.” Last but not least, Odette demon­strates that she has devel­oped a con­science of her own and has learned to trust it in deal­ing with the unex­pect­ed, as in when she is sud­den­ly con­front­ed by the woman in mourn­ing at the Pere La Chaise ceme­tery. My heart tells me what to do,” she says. It’s so sim­ple. Let this woman be your moth­er. Be her daugh­ter. So I hug her. I stroke her back as a lost-and-found daugh­ter would. I am every Jew­ish daugh­ter who has died. She is every Jew­ish moth­er who has lost a child.” Odette’s com­pas­sion for this griev­ing woman helps her get past what might oth­er­wise have been a trau­mat­ic confrontation.

MHM: The book is writ­ten in a gen­tly flow­ing free verse. Why did you make this lit­er­ary choice in the telling of this story?

MM: At first, I tried to write Odette’s sto­ry as a straight biog­ra­phy. This seemed too dry. Then I remem­bered that Odette loved poet­ry. She believed the beau­ty of poet­ry was one of the things that helped her to sur­vive her expe­ri­ences in the Vendee. She even wrote poet­ry in her lat­er years. So, I began try­ing to write her sto­ry in first per­son, in free verse, imag­in­ing inso­far as I was able, the child­hood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be. 

At this point, since I was imag­in­ing Odette’s voice, the work became fic­tion, although I did not make up any of the events men­tioned in the book. What I did was add detail, such as giv­ing Odette’s doll a name, and putting into words con­ver­sa­tions allud­ed to in her book and in her mother’s hand­writ­ten autobiography. 

MHM: Thank you so much for shar­ing this beau­ti­ful sto­ry with us. 

MM: My plea­sure, absolutely.

Michal H. Malen is a librar­i­an and edi­tor of ref­er­ence books. She is the chil­dren’s edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.