The will to survive

This is my review of Un sac de billes (Romans contemporains) (French Edition) by Joseph Joffo.

Not yet teenagers at the outbreak of World War 2, Joseph Joffo and his older brother Maurice, resilient and resourceful beyond their years, managed to keep one step ahead of Nazis and French collaborators and escape deportation. The decision to send the two boys away from Paris to cross into the "zone libre" with neither correct papers nor enough money may appear utter folly on their parents' part. Yet, the pair managed to survive this first challenge through a mixture of good luck, the kindness and humanity of strangers, and Maurice's wily realisation that, having been shown a safe path across the border for a fee, he could guide others in turn and gain a useful night's earnings.

What seemed at first like a game gradually became arduous each time, having found a safe haven, the boys had to move on. Matters reached a grim low point when they were for a while held by a band of Nazis and repeatedly questioned in an attempt to break them down to make the admission of being Jewish. As a final irony, Joseph spent the last months of the war working living and attending the Catholic mass with his employer, an ardent supporter of Pétain and the idea of a united Europe under the Germans – which, as Joffo notes, has in a way come to pass.

Even if some scenes have been embellished a little, this is an inspiring and moving tale, an excellent choice as an A Level text, since it portrays so vividly a human tragedy which should not be forgotten. It is also bursting with useful French idioms. In the final pages, the normally ebullient Joffo writes of his eventual realisation that he would not come out of the war unscathed: "they" had taken not his life, but perhaps something worse, his childhood, by killing in him the child he could have been.

I enjoyed reading the postscript to the novel, written half a century later, in which Joffo summarises his answers to questions commonly posed. For instance, in denying his Jewishness in order to save his life, was he forfeiting the right to be Jewish, as maintained by a Spanish rabbi? Tolerant and pragmatic to the end, Joffo prefers the view that a man who has renounced his faith can always reclaim it,citing Maimonidies to the effectthat the first duty of a Jew is to save his life, and if necessary deny his faith, provided he remains true to it in his heart.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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