The missing

Jacques and Lotka: a resistance story

Aude Yung-de Prevaux, translated by Barbara Wright <em>Bloom

Many memoirs function to help answer that anxious modern question: Who am I? Aude Yung-de Prevaux's book seems old-fashioned and scrupulous compared to those contemporary memoirs that consciously make the search for information and memory part of their subject. Like a biographer of yesteryear, she keeps herself out of her account as much as possible, concentrating on her story, whose climax occurred just after her birth.

However, like all memoirs, her book turns out to be strongly influenced by fictional models, proceeding apparently seamlessly, easily intimate with the innermost thoughts of strangers, all notes and references kept to an appendix at the end. Reminiscent of both romance and thriller, it concerns a daughter's chance discovery of her parents' identities, and her quest to discover their history and establish their bravery. This is done for the sake of France, one infers, and for the sake of historical truth. In the process, Yung-de Prevaux has created portraits of two progenitors to be proud of.

Her own face, viewed by a stranger, jolted the whole strange tale into motion. A man, reading across the table from her at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, hailed her as a daughter of "Admiral Trolley de Prevaux" and of "poor Lotka". The young student, aged 23 on this momentous day, had until then believed that she was the child of a woman called Micheline with whom she lived. Her interlocutor continued ruthlessly: "My poor child! Your parents were heroes. They were in the Resistance; they were killed by the Germans. You were only a baby . . . Your mother was Jewish, Polish I think, she was very beautiful, much younger than your father, who was an admiral. Voila."

When, eventually, Yung-de Prevaux's Polish godfather sent her a trunk of her father's belongings and papers, from Morocco where he had been faithfully guarding them, she had to contemplate how her father's high-bourgeois (and one supposes anti-Semitic) family had suppressed what to them were scandalous secrets. She makes light of what must have been traumatic discoveries. She keeps her reactions private, and one has to respect this. You recognise this as an effect of war, what tyrants do: they suppress memory in order to destroy culture, to suppress a people's soul. In this respect, rigidly Catholic families such as the de Prevaux family helped the Nazis in their endeavours. In her own quiet way, Yung-de Prevaux is a hero, too, braving her own losses to stare torture and death in the face.

Her parents met just before the war. Lotka's Polish family worked in the clothes trade. They had tried emigrating to America, disliked it, and finally settled in Paris, whence they were deported by the Germans in early 1943, to the transit camp of Drancy, and then to Auschwitz. Lotka, tall and beautiful, worked as a model in top Paris salons, hid her intelligence and enjoyed light-hearted love affairs, some with other women. Jacques had a brilliant career in the French navy. In secret, he read poetry and wrote a journal, as well as exploring sex and drugs. The navy seems to have been heaven after his harsh childhood, banished early to boarding school and bullied by his cold father. His darker side probably came from those childhood scars: emotionally distant, he could not love his daughters by his first wife, banishing them to the care of a governess. When he fell passionately in love with Lotka, he still kept her dangling for a while. Joint happiness was brief. In prison, they kept each other going by exchanging glances when they passed in the corridor. They were shot together and their bodies flung into a mass grave. Their fellow prisoners testified later to their kindness and courage.

Yung-de Prevaux believes that her parents, although post-humously honoured by their respective governments and awarded military decorations, have not yet received their full due; that for a long time they were not seen as the "right" sort of Resistance activists. The politics of the various Resistance movements, some linked directly to Charles de Gaulle in exile in London, and others manipulated by the British, were extremely complex, with various clandestine functions operating, in some cases, independently of each other, while being masterminded from abroad. The chapters on the organisation and politics of the Resistance groups with which Jacques and Lotka worked are among the finest in this absorbing book.

Michele Roberts's latest novel, The Looking Glass, has just been published by Virago (£15.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit