Shadows of a Childhood

In SHADOWS OF A CHILDHOOD: A NOVEL OF WAR AND FRIENDSHIP, Elisabeth Gille fictionalizes her own childhood as a virtual orphan after her mother was deported to Auschwitz when Gille was five. In this story the girl, Lea, is left at a Catholic girl’s school in Bordeaux, and her original Jewish identity is kept a secret. One of the sisters feels a special sympathy for her, and looks after Lea, in spite of Lea’s violent and unstable temper. Lea also makes a friend in Benedicte, a girl two years older who looks after her as well. The two become inseparable, and, when left at school during weekends and vacations, form a bond which ultimately saves Lea from her own horrible nightmares and fears. When the war is over, Lea goes to live with Benedicte and her parents, and the two then move to Paris to go to school.

However, before Lea goes to live with Benedicte, the sister who protects Lea brings her to Paris to look for her parents, and in a hotel which is housing all the concentration camp survivors that are returning to Paris, Lea meets a teenage boy who tells her the realities of the camps and convinces her that her parents are not coming back. From that time, Lea silently and painfully seeks the truth about those who must have killed her parents.

The writing is sometimes awkward, in that its perspective is too clear, its dialogue is too understanding for a young girl, and its story is too neat. The depth of pain and horror regarding this tragedy, however, and the very real sense of confusion and guilt that the French felt about their involvement or lack of it, make this a deeply moving insight into this unfathomable period of human insanity.