January 1943. Moritz Mayer has just been picked up by the Gestapo in Marseille. A Romanian Jew who had been living in Antwerp when the War began, he had acquired false papers that allowed him to escape with his family, his wife Roszy and their two sons to the south of France. When Moritz was arrested, Roszy, now seven months pregnant, knew what she had to do. She gathered up their sons and boarded a train across France to Saint-Claude on the Swiss border, carrying emergency funds in the form of diamonds embedded in a bar of soap that she hopes will help her find a way to escape over the frontier.
The story takes the form of a fictionalized letter from Roszy to her husband, who she is sure will somehow find a way to survive and meet her in Switzerland. In the letter, she recounts in detail the dramatic physical and emotional journey through Nazi-occupied France to what often seems like an impossible salvation in Switzerland.
As the train rolls across the frozen countryside, the days and nights are punctuated by the terrors of identity paper checks by Nazi officers or Vichy officials. In between, Roszy retraces moments of her life that illustrate points she is making in her long one-sided conversation with Moritz, who unknown to her has perished at Auschwitz. It makes for a powerful narrative. And one of the most remarkable qualities of the book is that it reads like a novel but with the chilling ring of truth—because it is, in fact, both at the same time. The book is written by her son Yitzchak, who was 8 years old when he and his brother made the journey with their mother, so he is one of the principle actors in the story that is written in the imagined voice of his mother.
What the book does brilliantly is chronicle how profoundly war-time France was infected with the Nazi ideology. We see this most pointedly when Roszy has to check in with the French Vichy police to have her papers examined when they arrive in Annemasse, the last stop before the Swiss border. The local official who orders her arrest, she observes, has no more problem shipping people off to their deaths than he would tossing a piece of wood into a fire. The pair of nuns working with him lead her children away with an almost ghoulish satisfaction.
In the face of this, Roszy’s meditates on the terrible more fragile humanity in the darkness of occupation. She looks at how we accommodate evil and we twist into contortions to avoid confronting it. Hers is a lament not so much for what people are doing but for what, in their souls, they have become.
Yet on this journey through the bleakness of occupied France, Roszy also meets with some real life guardian angels, particularly a Catholic priest who is also a medical doctor who works as part of the Resistance and engineers the final stage of her journey that will involve an incredibly punishing climb for her and her children through the Alps.
At the end of this heart-wrenching story the author, Yitzchak Mayer, recounts what happened to his family members after the war. In his case, he went on to distinguish himself in a lustrous career that included authoring seven books and serving as ambassador to both Belgium and Switzerland—the country where his family was first trapped by the Nazis and the land they escaped into. His memoir of the period, Silent Letter, is an extraordinary work, rooted in a horrific period of human history but still speaking loudly and clearly to all of us trying to find a way through the still far too dangerous world we inhabit today.