18 May 2013

Joseph Joffo: Un sac de billes (1973)

Joseph Joffo's Un sac de billes (A Bag of Marbles) was translated into eighteen languages and turned into a movie, and yet I can't help thinking that the book is still very little known, say, in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless this autobiographical work gives a remarkable description of a subject that is not often spoken of elsewhere: the plight of the Jews in occupied France.

The book spans three years (1941 to 1944) and is narrated by ten-year-old Joseph whose father (himself a seven-year-old refugee from Russia when the tsar is seeking young 'emissaries') decides that the time is right to flee south to relative safety: as a barber in a Jewish area of Paris, he realizes that it is only a matter of time before his family will be sent to German 'work camps'. His decision comes when the compulsory wearing of the badge declaring 'juif' (Jew) on his sons' school jacket lapels (not on the front of their jackets as seen in the still from Jacques Doillon's film) results in them being repeatedly called 'Youpin' (Yid), and earns Joseph a cauliflower ear and his twelve-year-old brother Maurice a black eye.

A sac de billes describes a life of frequent flight, initially when the brothers join their two elder brothers in Menton via the metro to the Gare d'Austerlitz, then the train to Dax, the bus to Hagetmau, then clandestinely over the demarcation line, etc. They are never settled, and their stay in Menton is curtailed by the fear of them being forced to join the S. T. O. (Service de Travail Obligatoire), meaning that they might be sent to Germany into the lion's den (or la queule du loup as the narrator puts it) in order to, for instance, cut enemy hair.

In 'Dialogue avec mes lecteurs' – a twenty-page afterword – Joffo reveals that in spite of the very real dangers the boys faced, it was not until they underwent four-week interrogations at the Excelsior hotel (the Gestapo headquarters in Nice), towards the end of which they threaten to chop Joseph into pieces if Maurice doesn't provide them with written proof of their non-Jewishness (as opposed to their circumcision, indicating the contrary). Before the interrogations, Joseph had seen their enforced peregrinations as a kind of adventure, almost a real-life version of the films he loves so much.

In spite of the grim material, the book celebrates life, the simple joys of childhood (playing marbles, football, snobs), but above all the charity, the selfless generosity of the many people who help them, sometimes putting their own safety at risk in doing so.

In Joffo's afterword he answers several questions that readers have asked since publication, such as the identity of the final town the brothers lived in, where Joseph worked and lived in a librarie (a newsagent's-cum-bookshop) with an obsessive anti-semitic Pétainist proprietor: Mancelier. Joffo reveals that this was Romilly in Haute-Savoie.  After the publication of the book, not only was Joffo invited to the town and made a citoyen d'honneur, but (a wonderful irony) he gave a book-signing at the librarie Mancelier.

Un sac de billes (in part a reference to the exchange Joseph's non-Jewish friend Zérati made with him for his Jewish star) is in some respects a heart-warming testament to human love, to resourcefulness, to simple pleasures, and to the survival instinct in the face of institutionalized insanity. But the background is always present, the death camps always form the backcloth to the action, and the closing paragraphs inform us that Joseph's father was one of the victims of the Holocaust.

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