Sins of the Innocent
By Mireille Marokvia
274 pages; $24.95
It would be safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of personal memoirs related to the Holocaust have been written by Jews. Most of these follow one of three tracks. The most common features a couple of chapters about life before the war - a description of the city, town or village in which the writer was raised, an introduction to the writer's family and then the black wave that transformed the writer's life. From there the memoir takes the reader into the writer's places of hiding - cellars, attics, secret rooms, barn lofts, caves and forests, with all the accompanying fear of discovery.
Another track may be a view from the Aryan side, with the writer remembering having been able to fight or act as a courier in resistance movements by virtue of the fact that he or she did not look remotely Jewish.
And then there is the third and most awful track - survival in the camps under the most inhuman of conditions.
Mireille Marokvia tells a somewhat different story. For one thing, she's not Jewish. For another, she was married to a German who was passionately anti-Nazi yet was recruited into working for the regime. As a Frenchwoman living in Germany, she was an enemy alien, but enjoyed a protected status because her husband was German. They were apart much of the time, however, and although she glosses over the hardships, it must have been an extremely frightening period for a Frenchwoman traveling alone in Germany.
Marokvia has a keenly observant eye, which notes not only what is happening in front of her but what is happening around her. Yet she tells her story in sparse sentences - almost like a caricaturist presenting a vivid picture with only a few strokes.
To those not familiar with any part of the history of the war, this is just an easy-to-read recollection of the differences between urban and rural life in wartime Germany. The recollection is peppered with people who are kind and decent - but also with those who would sell their grandmothers for a penny.
But for readers who know about the Holocaust from other books or from their own family histories, Sins exerts a magnetic thrall more for what it doesn't directly disclose than for what it does. It's as if Marokvia has written for a targeted audience - one that is only too aware of what lurks beneath the surface of her words, and this relieves her of the need to provide in-depth detail.
The book is a page-turner not because the reader is waiting with bated breath to discover what happens next, but because the writer's editor - or perhaps the writer herself - has used a clever ploy of limiting the length of chapters. The longest is seven pages; most are only two or three, tempting readers to go for just one more chapter, and then another and another.
Marokvia rarely tells us tales of horror. She just points the reader in a certain direction and leaves the rest to the informed imagination.
Sometimes she does go into detail, and says a great deal with few words. For instance, she describes the nightmares of the country grocer whom she had met a year previously. At that time he had had dark hair. He becomes a maintenance man near a death camp, and when he comes home on furlough, his hair had turned white. He would not speak to anyone of his experiences, but was obviously ill. The events that preyed on his mind made him talk in his sleep. What he said was disseminated by his daughter-in-law.
He had been building a wall around the camp. "He had seen what was going on in that camp. People were brought in, young and old, children, busloads of them. To be killed. With poison gas. And then their bodies were burned in the ovens. The ovens' chimney's smoked day and night, and sure enough one day the grocer had told an SS guard: 'If our soldiers in the field knew what's going on here, they would throw their guns away.' As a punishment the grocer had been made to work inside the camp. And that was when he had gotten sick and could not work any longer."
Marokvia reintroduces us to the grocer after the war. By this time he has recovered and gotten over his squeamishness. He has also vented his ire on the dentist in Sossingenm, who had refused to use the gold the grocer had brought with him to have his teeth fixed.
"This is not good gold," the dentist had said.
"Not good gold?" the grocer had ranted. "Not good gold? Those Jews had good gold in their teeth!"
To say so much in so few words takes real talent - but it is all the more amazing when one realizes that the author, now in her late 90s, was past 40 and knew no English when she arrived in America in 1949.
Any new immigrant can vouch for the difficulties in mastering a new language. It's hard enough for people in their 20s. For people in their 40s and over, it's a challenge many find impossible to overcome.
Marokvia not only overcame, but made a career for herself as a writer. Her first English publication was a children's book released in 1959.
A nomad by nature, she has lived in France, Italy, Germany, Mexico and the United States. In fact, before the war, she and her husband (a gifted painter) lived a bohemian existence. These adventures appear in the early chapters of the book.
Like many older people, her long-term recall is better than her short-term. She remembers long-ago conversations clearly and injects them into the story. There are brushes with danger and death which are depicted with such brevity as to make them an almost normal part of life.
Although she is careful not to emphasize the point, what comes across most vividly is that more Germans than one might think wanted no part of Nazi rule, and resisted in ways that would not get them into trouble but would be helpful to others. Sometimes it was by providing false documents. Sometimes it was by giving food to runaways trying to get to Switzerland. Sometimes it was by getting an animal to trample the ground so that the tracks of escapees would be blurred.
Marokvia refers frequently to Christine - a friend of her husband's whose own husband was a party member who never left home without wearing the party badge. Yet after the war, Marokvia discovered that Christine had concealed an elderly Jewish friend in her country house throughout the final year of the conflict. She doesn't elaborate on this; it's just a simple statement.
Prior to this memoir Marokvia wrote one about her early years in France.
She is now working on a third, and hopes to live long enough to complete it. She turned 98 on December 7.