Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

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Memoir by Sarah Kofman, 1994

Sarah Kofman's memoir Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, originally published in French in 1994 and in English translation under the same title in 1996, is an account of the effect on her life of the deportation of her father, a Parisian rabbi ("maybe all my books have been detours required to bring me to write about 'that,"' she says at the start of the memoir), and on her subsequent experiences as a Jewish girl in hiding in Paris during the war, torn between loyalties to her Jewish mother and to the Gentile woman who hides them.

Kofman describes her family life and upbringing in their house on the Rue Ordener: rigorously observing kosher rules, her father's duties, and the family's religious activities. As with so many memoirs, she describes the gradually worsening situation during the occupation of France: anti-Semitism in schools, roundups, yellow stars. Her parents try to send the young Sarah away to the country, but she cries inconsolably when separated from her mother and refuses to eat nonkosher food. On 16 July 1942, despite her mother's attempts to prevent it, her father is taken away, sent to the transit camp and Drancy and finally to Auschwitz: "One day when he refused to work, a Jewish-butcher-turned-Kapo (on returning from the death camp he reopened his shop on the Rue des Rosiers) supposedly beat him to the ground with a pickaxe and buried him alive."

After her father's deportation Kofman and her mother hide at various addresses in Paris. Their apartment is searched by the Gestapo and sealed (and was not returned to them after the war). They end up with a "lady" on the Rue Labat. The mother hides in one room, and the woman, Mémé, begins to treat the young Sarah as her own daughter. This is the central dynamic of Kofman's short memoir: the tension between her Jewish self (summed up by the metaphor of the Rue Ordener) and a developing non-Jewish self (Rue Labat). Mémé changes Sarah's diet and hairstyle, makes her new clothes, and gives her books to read. On "Mother's Day" Sarah buys cards for both her mother and Mémé. Although Mémé saves the Kofmans, she is not without anti-Semitic prejudices, which she teaches to Sarah. Trapped by a bombing raid away from home, Mémé and Sarah stay in a hotel overnight: "My mother was waiting, sick with worry, certain we'd been arrested … I had completely forgotten her. I was quite simply happy."

After the liberation her mother tires to "recapture" Sarah by taking her far away from the Rue Labat. Sarah escapes and returns to the "woman I now loved more than my mother." Her mother takes her back and beats her. Mémé goes to the law, and a Free French tribunal awards her custody of the child. Sarah's mother, however, takes her child back with force. "Deep down," she writes, "I was relieved."

As Sarah grows up, she is able to visit Mémé occasionally, usually with a friend, and she reestablishes her links to Judaism. Two motifs surfacing at the end of the book reflect her experience of having "two mothers." The first is Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and Child with St. Anne. Freud explains the oddities of the picture by showing how it reflects the experience of the young Leonardo, torn from his real mother at five and brought up by his stepmother. The second is Alfred Hitchcock's film The Lady Vanishes, in which the "good maternal face of the old lady" is replaced by "a horribly hard, shifty face" of the impostor.

Similar in a way to Saul Friedländer 's memoir When Memory Comes, Kofman's account describes the trauma not just of her father's deportation but also of the difficult process of coming to terms with a concealed identity and all this implies.

—Robert Eaglestone