My Friday book: “Dora Bruder” by Patrick Modiano

Nobel prize winner of 2014. But to most of us, I am sure that he was unheard of. The Nobel prize committee for literature are famous for choosing the most odd authors for the prize and in my mind, I must ask myself, is that really what Alfred Nobel had in mind? That the winners should be authors who hardly have been read by anyone, except for a very small elite? The intellectuals. Or rather not, since I count myself among them.

The nothing saying cover of the Swedish edition of the book, looks like this. Don't ask me what it is supposed to describe except the drole, cold winter that Dora Bruder disappeared in?

The nothing saying cover of the Swedish edition of the book, looks like this. Don’t ask me what it is supposed to describe except the drole, cold winter that Dora Bruder disappeared in?

Since I am of a curious mind, I did look him up in the library catalogue, only to find out that hardly anything by him is translated in to Swedish. Nor in to  English! Great choice for Nobel prize in other words. We just have to trust the committee that he is worthy of it. Unless we all want to get his books in French, struggle through them and end up having not understood a whole lot? On the day that his prize was announced, I set myself up in queue for “Dora Bruder” but tons of people had done so in the hours before me, so it’s taken till yesterday, Friday, to receive the book and you only get to have the book for 14 days since it is so “popular”!

No problem, since it is only 119 pages long and after checking up other translated books by him, I realize that he really writes short books. Which makes the price of them the more horrendous and are these books really books  that you want to own? I would say no. Reading “Dora Bruder” is only necessary to do once. Over half of the book is full of street names and locations, so you could say that less than 60 pages contain the story. And why does he do this? I have my own theory but first I will say, that every person who think they are smart in this country, think that it is such a fantastic thing, this thing he has for documenting every street. To me it is a bore and I just skimmed through it all. True, if I was to travel to Paris, I would have bought the book, highlighted all the street names and numbers and would have gone to see them all with my own eyes. But I have no Paris trip planned and most readers don’t either. Nor do we feel like sitting with a map on the lap while reading. So, I have no sense where in Paris all the things mentioned, happened. And then you lose the importance of having the street names written down in the book.

But there is a reason why someone like Patrick Modiano does a thing like this, which has not been mentioned by a single journalist or literature expert. Why? Because Sweden is pro-Palestine and deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, which has become the same thing in this country. I am going to mention it though, because people need to know. Patrick Modiano is Jewish. Well, I have no idea if his mother was Jewish and if she was not, then Jews themselves do not count Modiano as Jewish. But the Nazis certainly would have counted him as a Jew, because his father was Jewish. Which is mentioned in “Dora Bruder”. Is Patrick Modiano religious? Doubt it very much. But he is one of those Jews who feels like Simon Wiesenthal (I think it was him that said it but I can’t swear to it 100%, since I read it 25 years ago) once described as “victims”. Jews that feel like victims, will not look to the future but will only live in the past, Jews that feel like victims will feel ill-treated by everyone, act paranoid and will talk about us and them, about an enemy. And many of them will feel guilty about having survived the Holocaust or realize that had they been born earlier, they would have been sent to concentration camps and been worked to death or gassed.

I have only read one of Patrick Modiano’s books, but the “experts” here in Sweden say that he is pre-occupied with the Occupation years in Paris. They do not mention at all that his family was deeply affected by it. That his father escaped being arrested and deported, I don’t know how!? I guess, if they had mentioned it, noone would have queued up at the library for his books, which is very, very sad. After reading “Dora Bruder”, I can’t say that I understand why he got the Nobel prize. It was not fantastic in any way, nothing spectacular, but it was interesting. To me as a genealogist but also as a historian. Because what it is, is a research report. He did what could and should have been done for every French Jew deported from France. He tried to find out the fate of one single person, in destroyed archives and no-more existing streets and buildings. And all the streets mentioned in the book, are needed for this purpose: to show a disappeared Paris, to give clues what could have happened, and to document what was where and what happened where. He is trying to document an anti-semitic Paris, practice during the Occupation and put people on the map, who are remembered by noone. One can clearly tell, that he knows that it could have been him. And he feels guilty for not having lived through it? For existing when so many do not? That he was given the chance of being born in 1945, when others were not. He wants people to really see the shameful behaviour of the French during the occupation, since the fact is that the Germans did not have to enforce the Holocaust in France, the French police gave much more help than asked for and were more than willing collaborators.

It says on the back of the library edition of this book that it was in 1988 thatimage Modiano happened to look in an old newspaper from 1941, and discovered a plea from worried parents, asking if anyone had seen their missing daughter: Dora Bruder, 15 years of age, 1,55 m, oval face, brown-greyish eyes, grey coat, burgundy sweater, dark blue skirt and hat and brown lace-up shoes. Information was to be given to the worried parents, Mr and Mrs. Bruder living in 41 Boulevard Ornano, in Paris.

imageModiano researched her case for all of 8 years, and most questions are still unanswered today, but what he managed to find out, said a lot about the situation for many Jews during the Occupation. His first discovery was of course, that the address belonged to a hotel. 41 Boulevard Ornano, was a hotel both before, during and after the war. And the family lived at the address already in 1937-1938. Three people cramped up in one room with a kitchenette or what you would call a bed-sit, on the 5th floor.

During those 8 years, it took him 4 years to find out that Dora Bruder was born in Paris on the 25 February 1926 at 21:10 and her father Ernest Bruder was born 21 May 1899 in Vienna, while her mother Cécile Burdej was born 17 April 1907 in Budapest. The baby was born in the Rothschild Hospital, where many poor Jewish families had their babies. And present at birth was a Gaspard Meyer, 73 years of age, who was living in the Rothschild work house next door. Strange witness, but …?

Rothschild work house/poor house

Rothschild work house/poor house

The author has to draw a lot of imaginary conclusions, like that Dora’s father must have worked at the Westinghouse Brake factory. Well, that is how it translates but I have no idea if that really is what was meant. I am sure there is a French name that has been inadequately translated in to Swedish. The family lived right by it, and so did many other poor people, and most of them did work in the factory. Question is if he really could have worked there, since he was a war invalid. (My reflection.) Modiano assumes that Ernest grew up in Leopoldstadt, the part of Vienna, where all Jews lived and that his parents must have come from Galicia, Böhmen or Mähren, like most Jews, who lived in Vienna at the time. I don’t know why he adds that wave after wave arrived in Vienna in 1919, from the Eastern provinces that now no longer belonged to Austria. But since Ernest was born in Vienna 1899, why does he mention this?

During the occupation, the French police kept a card index of all the Jews, in order to be able to perform razzias more effectively. In the card for Ernest it says that he was in the Foreign Legion. When you signed up, you did so for 5 years and there was no need to travel to France, it was enough to walk in to a French consulate. For him, it must have been tough in the Foreign Legion since Germans, Austrians, Russians, Romanians and Bulgarians were not really made to feel that welcome and they were very under-nourished thanks to four years of war food rationing. These groups were sent to Morocco, in order to try to regain peace in the French colonies. Some time during his five years, he was invalided out, for being 100% made useless. But he did not get a French citizenship, as a thank you for service.

In 1924, 12 April at 11:28, he married 16 year-old Cécile, daughter of Erichel Burdej, a tailor, and his wife Dincze Kutinea. She worked as a seamstress at the time and her family of 8, had arrived to Paris in 1923. She had 4 sisters then and 1 brother. Originally they were from Russia but landed in Budapest around 1900 and by the time they arrived in Paris, three of the girls were about to die. They had basically only arrived to a Jewish shelter, and then the 14 year-old, 12-year-old and 10-year-old sisters of Cécile, passed away from typhoid. Ernest parents, Jacob Bruder and Adèle Vaschitz, were both deceased by the time of the wedding.

As newly weds, the couple lived in Montmartre. And while there is proof that Cécile worked as a seamstress, at times in the fur trade, it is more or less certain that Ernest was unemployed since he was an invalid. They must have been very, very poor. But they did manage to go to the photographer now and then, which must have meant that not all was bad in the family, or? If you want a photo to put yourself on the map, to remember and be remembered by, there must have been some love in the family, or?

Cécile Burdej, Dora Bruder 13-14 years old and Ernest Bruder

Cécile Burdej, Dora Bruder 13-14 years old and Ernest Bruder

Modiano, was able to find a cousin of Dora’s, who was able to tell him that Dora was a rebellious girl and very independent. Spoiled only child? Which ever, she was sent to a charity boarding school on the 9 May 1940, before the Germans arrived. And it was all run by nuns. She stayed at the boarding school till 14 December 1941, when she went missing and which was what made her parents put the missing ad, in to the newspaper. Why was she put in the boarding school? Were her parents afraid that she would be interned or that they would be so? Modiano’s questions. 1939, all enemy state citizens of Das Reich and ex-Austrians of male gender, were interned in camps. They were divided in to suspects and non-suspects and the latter were put together with foreigners conscripted for forced labour.

Maybe her parents were right to be cautious because four days after Dora entered the boarding school, all female citizens from Das Reich and ex-Austria, were interned for 13 days at Vélodrome d’Hiver and then they were moved to Basses-Pyrenées, to the camp Gurs. Noone knows if the Bruders were interned but what is known, is that at the boarding school, 300 miserable girls were divided in to reading classes and practical classes. In other words, those who were hopeless cases, were forced to learn how to do household chores and the smarter ones were allowed to study for a certificate. In 1940 the school with the nuns, evacuated to the mother church, in Loire. Most information about the school came from a former pupil who was at the school when she was ten and hiding from the Nazis. She remembers that they lived on turnips, the school was not heated and the discipline was harsh.

On the 2 October 1940, the Germans demanded that all Jews register as Jews alphabetically. To not create chaos, every letter got a certain day and B was on the 4 October. Ernest Bruder registered, but he did not register Dora, and got his own card in the card index. But Dora was somewhat safe in the convent school, on the other side of the street where she was born. Because this area was not really safe for Jews. Between 1942-1944 there were numerous razzias in the Rothschild hospital, orphanage and work house. The hospital in particular was a mousetrap since sick people from the camp Drancy were sent there and they were only sent back at the Germans’ discretion. All over the place, they had French spies who were part of the private police Agence Faralicq. The biggest number arrested in the area, came from the orphanage, where lots of Jewish children and teenagers were hiding. The only safe place was really the boarding school and the park. The latter did not make sense to me?! How could a park be safe?

By this time in the story, Modiano gives away the end, that he has seen her name above her dad’s on a transport list to Auschwitz on the 18 September 1942. And I was grateful to find out already this early on in the book, that Dora did not make it so that I didn’t have to sit and hope! But there is a long time between 14 December 1941 and 18 September 1942. What happened in Paris around 14 December 1941? Between 8-14 December Jews had a curfew after 18:00, as a retaliation for two recent attacks. A bomb had been set off and an officer had been shot at. First there had been mass arrests. Then 700 French Jews were arrested on the 12 December and the Jewish community had to pay  a fine of 1 billion Franc. On the 15 December 70 hostages were shot.

But this was not all, on the 10 December the police prefect ordered all French and foreign Jews to regularly show up for controls when they had to show their ID-cards stamped with Jew or Jewess. More regulations were passed, which forced them to register any new place of housing within 24 hours and they were not allowed to leave the Seine area.

Dora ran away from the convent on the last day of the curfew, Sunday, when the pupils were allowed to go home and visit parents. Did the nuns know that Dora was Jewish, asks Modiano. Not likely, is the conclusion he draws, especially since church organizations did not start to hide Jewish children until after the first mass arrests in July 1942. The next record he found with Dora’s name on it, was the one saying that she, among 300 others, was interned in Drancy on the 13 August 1942. The 300 came from the camp les Tourelles. A camp which was created in October 1940, to house foreign Jews without residence permit. But from 1941, it was only Jewish women who were sent there, while the men were sent to Drancy. From then on, the women sent there were women considered to have broken German regulations. They were interned with communists and criminals.

Soon there were new restrictions issued for the Jews. In February 1942 they were not allowed to go outside after 20:00 and they were not allowed to change address. Modiano’s dad was arrested on the same day as Dora Bruder. His dad was out without an ID-card on the first day, when the law was inforced, and must according to Modiano, have travelled in the same RIOT as Dora. Neither were registered as Jews. But there was a difference between them, since his father was 14 years older than her and a man, which made it easier for him to survive on the streets as a lawless. She was just 15 years old and on the run with nowhere to go. Noone will ever know what happened to her that night and afterwards because all files were destroyed by the French office for Jewish questions. All records of ID checks on the streets, the reports after the mass arrests and the card indexes. What Modiano knows, is that the man arresting his father and maybe Dora, was Superintendent Jacques Schweblin, who became famous for visiting internment camps with his helpers, 7 men and 1 woman, to rob the inmates of all the valuables, before transporting them to Auschwitz. He disappeared in 1943 but was spotted after the war, a war criminal who got away.

Throughout the book, Modiano’s strange relationship, with his father shines through. There was no love lost between them. His parents did split up and while his dad moved on to another woman, his mother had a difficult time surviving and raising their son. When she demanded payment and was awarded alimony by the courts, her ex-husband refused to pay and had the son arrested, pretending to not know him. I guess his criminal past made him assume that his son should provide for himself and solve his own problems, the way he had during the war.

The book skips back and forth which makes me as a researcher myself, realize that Modiano describes the research process, rather than things in chronological order. You do not get information chronologically when looking for people in history. At this point he did find out that Ernest Bruder finally went to the police on the 27 December and reported his non-registered daughter, as missing, which was risky of course, since it put the family on the map, so to speak. At a time when you needed to lay low. I felt resentment for Dora at this point, because her running away, seemed an incredibly selfish thing to do and made her parents take risks that eventually lead to their deaths. They tried to keep her safe and she did the worse thing she could do, she brought on all the search lights!

At this time, the Jews were not wearing Stars of David but in June 1942, the regulation arrived that all Jews above 16 must wear a star and three stars per person were issued to Jews at 50 different locations in Paris and the suburbs, and they all had to be signed for. But by now, Ernest had already been arrested. On the 19 March 1942 he was taken to Drancy, and it was recorded that he was an invalid since he was poison gassed while in the Foreign Legion and suffered from Tuberculosis. His index card at this time said that he was a wanted man. And Modiano reflects that “Those, whose task it is to search for and find you, makes an index in order to make it easier to make you disappear, eventually forever”. Ernest went to the police to get help with finding his daughter and this facilitated killing her off! Because they did find her. 17 April, the 16 year-old girl is returned to her mother’s housing and since the card said “her mother’s”, they were well aware of that her father had been arrested.

It’s at this point, Modiano discloses that his father’s family were Italian Jews from Saloniki. Explains the surname!

A serious Cécile, with her equally serious  mother Dincze, and a defiant looking Dora, smiling about some hidden secret, says Modiano..

A serious Cécile, with her equally serious mother Dincze, and a defiant looking Dora, smiling about some hidden secret, says Modiano..

On the 17 June 1942, Dora has done it again. She once again has run away, which made Modiano wonder if this photo is from before the second “escape”. What was she running away from? Who did she run to? How did she survive? Why did she put herself and her family through this? Stupid, stupid girl! Because this time it is recommended that she is sent to a reformatory. A message was sent to a Mademoiselle Salomon, who was working for UGIF, a Jewish organization set up during the occupation. Union Générale des Israelites de France. Like their Polish equivalent, the Judenräte, they were all distinguished Jews and was supposed to organize help actions for the Jewish congregation in France. But it was Vichy and the Germans who forced its creation as a help for their own plans. Just like the Judenräte, they had special ID-cards that protected them from razzias and internment. And of course, in 1943, they no longer were safe either, just like their Polish equivalents, and 100s were arrested.

Modiano suspects that Cécile contacted UGIF out of desperation. She was poor, her husband had been interned so she wanted to know where he was and she needed help finding her obstinate daughter. The message sent to the organization suggested Mademoiselle Salmon ask the social workers at the police station for help and they would gladly help put the girl in a reformatory. How did they find Dora and why was she arrested? Perhaps she was not wearing a Star of David? Letters A and B had to wear the star from 2 June 1942 and by the 7 June, all Jews had to wear them. If you did not wear one, you would be arrested and your case was sent to the Department of foreign and Jewish questions. This department decided from case to case what would happen to the persons arrested, after conferring with the German authorities. This lead to mass arrests of youths in June, because the teenagers refused to wear the stars, and they were sent to the arrest, then Drancy and on to Auschwitz. Dora was sent to les Tourelles with five other girls on the 19 June. One girl was from Poland and was handed over to the Germans already on the 19 July, the others who were French, were sent from les Tourelles to Drancy on the 13 August.


If Dora did not understand in what deep trouble she was in by now, she did when she arrived to les Tourelles since all Jewish women between 18-42 were called out. The 66 in question was put in isolation, transported to Drancy on the 22 June to be joined by 900 men, and this became the first Auschwitz transport with women, from France. Some of the women heading for their deaths were Claudette Bloch, 32, who had done the mistake of going to Gestapo headquarters to ask about the fate of her husband. Tamara Isserlis, 24, had sewn the Tricolor under the Star of David. Ida Levine, 29, kept writing letters to her family till the last-minute. The final letter was thrown out of the train carriage and a railroad worker posted it, so the family knew where she was heading. Polish Hena, 19, broke in to a flat and stole 150 000 Franc and jewelry and because she was Jewish she was sent to Tourelles as punishment. (Modiano points out that his father at the time broke in to the SKF warehouse and took all the ball bearings to his and his friends black market stash. Modiano thought that since the German regulations, the laws of Vichy and the newspapers, all said that Jews are criminals and pestilence, why not behave that way then, in order to survive?) Annette Zelman, 21, had the saddest story of the girls. She lived with her boyfriend Jean Jausion, the son of a professor of medicine. The family found out their son was marrying Annette, so they had her arrested and sent to les Tourelles. On the 11 November 1944, Jean was working as a war correspondent and his newspaper was looking for him, because he had gone missing. He had actually driven in to a German military convoy, where he started to shoot until the Germans picked up their guns, shot and killed him. He never got over the loss of his fiancée Annette. One wonders how his parents felt, who so unnecessarily wrecked their son’s life, by turning his fiancée in, when she had been “safe” in Vichy.

Modiano can not keep to his story, but his mind wanders to a Robert Tartakovsky, whose letter he found and purchased at a book box-shop. Robert wrote to a Madame Tartakovsky with an urgent plea. He knew he was to go on a transport somewhere, but knew not where. If he had only known, he might have written a totally different letter to his loved ones. Instead he was concerned with his work, asked people to run errands for him, for things to be sent to him, to bring on the journey. All so pointless for us who knows what happened to him or what was about to happen to him, when he wrote that letter. I can see how he must have regretted his letter on arrival in Auschwitz and when he stood in that gas chamber, knowing that this was it. That all his plans, all his concerns had been pointless. This is what hurts the most when reading Holocaust literature. I know the end, they did not, I can see how they wasted their last days, hours, on petty concerns, they realized too late. It hurts to read it.

Robert wrote that he was about to have his head shaved on the 20 June. What happened next was the isolation and having to be escorted everywhere by French police, even to the loo. Modiano adds that the Jewish police, collaborators and informers were also about to go through Robert’s luggage, in order to steal. This really is a black part of France’s history and makes me think of Modiano as France’s Simon Wiesenthal. Simon W. lived in Austria after the war as a protest because they refused to deal with their past, bringing Nazi criminals to justice. In a way Modiano is doing the same thing in France, even though he was never in a camp himself, nor his father. He is reminding the French of a very nasty past and a past which still lingers today with  a widely spread anti-Semitism.

During July 1942, the mass arrests took place and among other things, 9 children and youths were dragged out of 48 B Rue de a Gare de Reuilly, in the morning hours.

Part of the Rotschild charity complex of hospital, work house and orphanage: 48 Rue de la Gare de Reuilly

Part of the Rotschild charity complex of hospital, work house and orphanage: 48 Rue de la Gare de Reuilly

Such nice, calm looking houses. Modiano has taken a walk around most of the streets were the Jews lived and were arrested and for the most part, the buildings have been torn down, roads have changed directions, new houses and roads have been built, all to cover over what really took place here, so that noone will know anything about what happened in the past.

Modiano even admitted to his own criminal past in the book. Like father, like son as we say in Sweden. He had a female friend who boarded with different families. He did not say why, but he raided those families’ homes for anything that he could sell at second-hand shops. At one time he sold the things to a man, Polish Jew, who had been 18 years old during the mass arrests and who had been able to avoid getting arrested. Strange that it was the criminal elements who fared so well and were able to survive. But I guess it comes with the territory  of being criminal. You adapt to the situation, you know where to hide, you have contacts, but most of all, you are selfish and not held down by duties, tradition, family and feelings.

Modiano was able to find out what Dora Bruder’s life in les Tourelles must have been like. You were able to receive packages and visitors on Thursdays and Sundays. There was a roll call at 8:00, lunch was cabbage, dinner was served at 18:00 and then another roll call. You were able to shower two and two, every 14 days. To receive the visitors, you had to write and request a permit, from the prison warden. If you were lucky, you got the permit, but a visit could be cancelled as late as an hour before visitor’s time, if the prison warden wanted to. It was actually refreshing to read about the Aryans present in the camp, who were there because they had been wearing the Star of David out of defiance and out of solidarity. One woman had put the star on her dog’s collar. Many had embroidered names inside the star and one woman had embroidered the letters v-i-c-t-o-i-r-e in the star’s points. These women came from all parts of life: typist, tradeswoman, newsagent, cleaner, postal worker, student. Modiano did not mention their fate though!


Drancy internment camp


On the 19 and the 27 July, Jewesses were taken to Drancy, among them Raca Israelowicz, arrested on the same day as Dora Bruder. On visitor day, the 12 August, Dora with others, were taken to Drancy. On the 15, 4000 children arrived whose mothers had already been sent to Auschwitz. Thousands arrived from the free zone. The camp was getting over-crowded and the French Jews were sent on to the camp in Pithiviers on the 2 and 5 September, but not Dora. She asked to stay behind with her dad. The French Jewesses who had arrived with her to les Tourelles: Claudine Winerbett, Zélie Strohlitz, Marthe Nachmanowicz and Yvonne Pithoun, were among the 1500 who left for Pithiviers. I guess it is nice to know, that Dora and her father could give each other some comfort, because they left together for Auschwitz, already on the 18 September.

French police checking new arrivals a Pithiviers internment camp

French police checking new arrivals a Pithiviers internment camp

What happened to Dora’s mother? Cécile Bruder was arrested the day before the mass arrests, 16 July, and was sent to Drancy where she was able to see her husband for a couple of days, but she was released on the 23 July, because she was from Budapest and there had not been any orders for the arrest of Hungarian Jews yet. That came 9 January 1943 instead and she was on her way to Auschwitz on the 11 February, that same year.

The day after Dora’s and Ernest’s departure for Auschwitz and death, a new curfew was inforced which forbade the Jews to be outside after 15:00. There had been an attack at a cinema, that time.

Modiano finish his book by saying that the Germans could take away everything from Dora Bruder except one thing: Her secret that noone will ever discover. Where was she in the cold winter of 1941-1942 and in the spring 1942? With whom did she spend her time? Where did she hide? How did she spend her  days?

Like I said, it was a good book, but nothing spectacular. Nothing that pulled at heartstrings really nor a book that deserves five stars. But it was good because it shows how dark France’s past is and I doubt it is taught in the French schools of today. It also shows how difficult it is to give all those lost lives, meat on their bones. When you do genealogy, you try to find out more than just the dates people were born and died. Many times, it is the only thing you CAN find out. Modiano wanted to take the fate of one girl and find out as much as he could about her. But having finished the book, one can still only guess at most things about her. Most of his questions go unanswered, especially the biggest one, why did she run away and put herself as well as her parents on the death list? What went through the silly girl’s mind? Or was she just an inconsiderate teenager, like most teenagers are? Invisible, unbeatable, it won’t happen to me attitude?

What hides behind those eyes?

What hides behind those eyes?



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