The House of Izieu
By Jan Rehner
The House of Izieu is a novel inspired by the life and experiences of Sabine Zlatin who, as a Jew using a fake identity, managed to find families to care for Jewish children who were in French refugee camps. She created a safe home for a number of other children called "The House ... Read more
The House of Izieu is a novel inspired by the life and experiences of Sabine Zlatin who, as a Jew using a fake identity, managed to find families to care for Jewish children who were in French refugee camps. She created a safe home for a number of other children called "The House of Izieu" which is now a museum. Unfortunately, she was not able to save the 44 children in her care. After one wonderful year of freedom in that house they were discovered, and Klaus Barbie ordered their deportation to Auschwitz where they were killed. Sabine's husband was also caught with two teenage boys he was helping escape and was also eventually killed. Sabine, suffering from loss and the guilt of not having saved the children, manages to continue contributing to the underground efforts as well as efforts to reunite people after the war's end.
Jan Rehner lives in Toronto and recently retired as University Professor from the Writing Department at York University. She has published four previous novels, Just Murder (2003), winner of the 2004 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada; On Pain of Death (2007), 2008 winner, IPPY Bronze Medal; Missing Matisse (2011); and Almost True (2018). Her current novel, The House of Izieu, based on an actual event in World War II, is a moving account of the heroic efforts of Sabine Zlatin and a small group of friends to save the lives of Jewish children hiding from Nazi persecution. When she is not writing, Jan enjoys travelling and photography.
Presence and Absence
The house still stands, a large white house on a long, sloping hill, nestled against the blue-shadowed foothills of the Jura mountains in a tiny corner of France. To the right of the house, sprays of arching, red-berried shrubs border a path that leads to the barn; to the left, a decorative terrace with white balustrades stretches toward lush fields of wild grass that ripple in the wind. A wide circular fountain filled with clear water dominates the front courtyard, while brown cows graze in the lower meadow, just below the old granary.
The view from the house is stunning, uninterrupted, bordered by pine-covered mountains, and centered by wide-open sky and the shine of water, a sweeping slice of the Rhône River. A flock of birds catches the eye, a mass of silver wings swinging in upward drifts across the sun.
All this beauty, and yet no one stumbles upon this place accidentally. The village of Izieu, a mere scattering of houses, is miles away and the narrow road twisting up the mountain is a wilderness of ivy and brambles. Encroaching tree branches meet overhead, turning the road into a green tunnel.
Step into this space and the air is electric, charged with all that once happened here. Time slides in some unfathomable way and suddenly you are there at the moment it began. The clock ticks. The hour strikes.
You want to shout out to the children, "Run! Hide! It's not too late!"
But the children are playing, drawn back to the place where they were happy, their spirits woven into the woods, sparking off the surface of the river. Their bodies are sketched in shadow, their movements slightly out of rhythm, jumpy, as if you were watching an old black-and-white newsreel.
Three young boys swing from the limbs of a craggy apple tree. Two sisters, hand-in-hand, shyly watch from the mossy edge of the woods, lingering in patches of shade. Another group of children has turned the fountain into a wading pool. You hear the lilt of their voices above the splashing. A toddler bounces up and down as if there is too much energy in him to be contained in one small body. In one corner of the terrace, two teenagers steal a kiss.
The rush of a child's breath whispering into your ear is like the flutter of a butterfly wing, a soft puff of displaced air that you wish you could capture in a jar and keep forever.
You lay the palm of your hand on the bark of a tree just to check on reality and you imagine that a child once lay their hand on that very spot, or maybe that spot is now further up the tree, further than you can reach, up in the tangle of branches above your head.
But time buckles again and you are back in the present, abandoned amid an aching vacancy.
You squint your eyes and blink and blink again, but the children are gone and it does no good to shout into the wind that they should have been safe. They should have been.
You wander inside now, hoping to find their sharp presence again, touching, naming, and identifying, acknowledging the significance of a child's crayon drawing, row upon row of empty desks in a makeshift classroom. Upstairs, there is a dormitory, yawning space where once there were beds, pillow fights, faces reflecting the light of candles, warm hands reaching out to comfort.
There are photos of the children, some blurry, some clearly in focus. You feel an urgency to learn every name, memorize each set of eyes, each nose, each smile, every freckle and twist of hair. But you are quickly defeated. Each face is a universe.
The stillness of the photographs is inherently elegiac. Sometimes, the paper evidence of a crime is more reliable than memory or testimony.
Outside again, you stand in the front yard and stare up at the House of Izieu, solid enough to have survived for over a hundred years and yet, in retrospect, as ethereal as a dream. The dream lasted for only a moment, but that moment was brilliant.
Then the light goes out. Nothing prepares you for it. The loss. The darkness. Nothing moves, not a leaf, not a bird, not you. The river stops flowing. The moment has come.
The story is too terrible to speak of in the present tense. You must slide into it from the past, the details trapped in the tangled nets of history.
The last two months of 1942 were as bleak as any Sabine could remember. Clouds and lightning raced across the sky from the sea almost every day. The sky was grey, and the ground was grey with the uniforms of the German soldiers who had swept south to occupy all of France, but for eight départements to the east of the Rhône. The newspapers printed pictures of troops crossing the now defunct Demarcation Line. Miron's parents were deported from Paris and Sabine had heard nothing from her family in months. The badlands of Rivesaltes were black with mud.
To add to the general gloominess, Sabine sensed that a remoteness had crept between her and Miron over the past few months. They had spent too much time apart. Even though she felt as if the events of her day were not real until she'd told him about them, he was still only an audience, not a participant in her daily life. She spent more time with Marius in his truck than she did with her own husband. Miron had withdrawn when he heard the news of his parents, not turned to her as he usually did for comfort. There were long lulls in their conversation and disagreements that flared into spurts of anger. Sabine felt like she'd failed him in some fundamental way, that she had become a different person without telling him.
At Landas, she and Miron had done so much together, scraped a farm from the dirt and planned a future. Perhaps the loneliness she often felt now was just the loss of that future and not the diminishment of love. That morning, despite the rain, Miron had left her to eat breakfast alone while he went outside to mend a fence. She waited at the window, watching him, sure that if he would only look back at her, her thoughts would be as transparent as the glass she stood behind, and they might begin together a different kind of mending. But Miron did not look up, and Sabine could not wait for him.
During a break in the downpour, she put on her raincoat and headed for the OSE headquarters in Montpellier, for she had heard rumours that the Vichy police had ordered releases at the camps to stop. Rumours came more quickly than radio broadcasts these days, transmitted mouth to mouth like lifesaving breath, and the rumours were usually as true as they were bad.
When she reached the town and walked down eerily empty streets, a brush of rain fell across her face and she snapped open her umbrella. She heard a rattle of drops on the umbrella overhead and then a hand gripped her arm, pulling her into a doorway. She opened her mouth but before she could scream she heard a familiar voice.
"Don't go to headquarters. It's locked up. "
"What's happening, Marius?"
"OSE's gone underground. There are soldiers at the door watching. "
"What should I do?"
"Try our friend at the prefecture. "
Before Sabine could even respond, Marius was walking away from her on a mission to warn others. She changed direction and headed for the offices of the Hérault, hoping to find the fidgety young man she'd met so many months ago.
To her very great relief, he was still there, but occupied, according to his secretary, with no hint of the irony of the double entendre in her voice. Sabine took a chair in the outer office and some twenty minutes later heard herself announced, much to her alarm, as Jeanne Verdavoire.
As she entered Monsieur Fridrici's office, the secretary handed back her papers, her false papers, and closed the door.
The young man's mouth twitched to see the look on Sabine's face. "Madame Verdavoire," he teased. "You look remarkably like a certain Madame Zlatin I once met. But so many people come and go these days, I must be mistaken. "
Sabine smiled, releasing the tension in her body, but the light mood of Monsieur Fridrici changed quickly. "Come, please sit. There's no time to lose. You know that OSE has closed its doors?"
"I have a friend, a subpréfect at Belley in the Italian zone. " He picked up his pen and began writing, handing her a note. He opened a drawer and pulled out a sheaf of documents. "I also have a set of papers that will allow you and a number of children to travel. Do you understand?"
She nodded again.
"The Abby of Prévost is holding a number of packages for you. Do not leave them there long. A pleasure meeting you, Madame Verdavoire. Bonne chance. "
Sabine rose, as did the young man. They shared one last look at each other, direct and stripped of all pretence, one human being to another, and then Sabine turned away. She knew what she must do and hoped Miron would forgive her.
On the way home, she opened the note, memorized the name, Pierre-Marcel Wiltzer, and then dropped the scrap of paper into a sewer.
By the time she reached the farm, her hair was dripping with rain, the umbrella having buckled in the wind. For once, Miron was not outside, driven in by the weather, no doubt. She let herself into the warm kitchen, casting aside her wet coat and calling out for him, but he did not answer. He must be making an egg delivery, she thought, and set about fixing a simple lunch of omelette and bread. An hour later, she sat at the table, eating alone again, pretending she was not watching the clock.
"Jan Rehner's novel The House of Izieu grabs you by the heart and doesn't let go. It's a wrenching portrait of a secret children's refuge in war-torn France, where, for a time, joy replaces horror, and love brutality. Jan Rehner's prose sings. The characters she spins are captivating, in particular the children. They are rendered so fully and intimately, their voices so pure, their personal histories so tragic, that readers will want to crawl right into the pages to comfort them. This story of selflessness and bravery is impossible to put down, and impossible to forget. "
--Phyllis Rudin, author of Evie, the Baby and the Wife and My True and Complete Adventures as a Wannabe Voyageur
"In this moving, earnest novel, Jan Rehner traces the inner and outer journeys of Sabine Zlatin, a courageous woman who risked her life during the Holocaust to try and save 44 children. Rehner, relying on historical accounts including Zlatin's own postwar testimony, brings to life in heartfelt detail this harrowing, tragic, and inspiring story. "
--Nora Gold, author of The Dead Man and Fields of Exile
"Jan Rehner's elegiac narrative of a chapter of the Holocaust in France fulfills a sacred obligation: to commemorate and honour the life-affirming presence of the orphaned children and their adult caregivers whose lives were brutally stolen, and whose hopes for a future were expunged during the Nazi terror. Through the plural voices and the interweaving narrative lines Rehner reimagines, we share sensory, trauma-laden memories of the pre-war past, the pleasure taken in attending to the natural world in an idyllic countryside setting, a sense of a play so inherent in childhood, post-war survival, and retribution. Alongside the small joys afforded the children, there lives in each character incalculable loss, suspended temporarily in the fragile shelter of the House of Izieu. Dramatic irony intensifies as we come to know, in fleeting measure, the children and adults compelled to play their part in the tragedy which took place some seventy-five years ago in rural Vichy France. I was deeply moved by this book. "
--Carol Lipszyc, author of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stores