Through her book Touch Wood: A Girlhood in Occupied France, Renée Roth-Hano effectively provides insights into the terror that spread through France and into the lives of a modest Jewish family with the advance of the Nazi regime. Roth-Hano describes how she and her family were affected by the gradual application of anti-Semitic laws that forbade them to own certain commodities or to shop when or where they wanted and that forced them to wear the yellow Star of David on their coats—restricting, in effect, their entire existence. She describes how they were forced to leave a comfortable home in Alsace to live in a cramped and dingy apartment in Paris and how she and her sisters were sent to hide with nuns in Normandy. Thus Roth-Hano provides young readers with a history of the Nazi invasion of France as seen through the eyes of a child.
The book is divided into two parts: The first half depicts the years 1940 and 1941, the time Roth-Hano spent in Paris, while the second half concentrates on her time in Flers, Normandy, from 1942 to 1944. Each chapter consists of a series of diary entries from a specific year, the first one beginning on August 22, 1940. Renée is nine years old and living with her parents, two sisters, and a grandmother in a small apartment in Paris. Already, prohibitions against Jews are in place, and Renée angrily reflects on the happy life that they had in Alsace and the restrictions under which they live in Paris. Readers feel the frustration that Roth-Hano experiences as a child as she sees her life dramatically change without understanding why.
The diary entries continue with Renée’s experiences at her new school in Paris and the formation of new friendships. These ordinary childhood experiences, however, are overshadowed by the increasing Nazi presence. Renée questions with a child’s innocence the meaning of “Judaism” and why it would inspire such hatred. She stares with horror at anti-Semitic slogans written on buildings and learns not to trust anyone who is not “one of us”—Jewish. As family and friends begin to disappear, Renée’s parents force themselves to send Renée and her sisters away to a Catholic women’s residence in Flers, Normandy, where they reside under the protection of nuns.
Once in Normandy, Renée and her sisters convert to Catholicism as part of their disguise. In learning about Catholicism, however, Renée must struggle to reconcile her Jewish heritage with the Catholic faith, questioning her beliefs and upbringing. She must also endure infections that will not heal, perpetual hunger, and devastating bombings that force the girls to leave the residence and seek shelter with farmers in the surrounding area. After the girls spend months living in barns and sleeping on straw, the Allies finally arrive. Renée and her sisters are reunited with their parents, emerging no longer children but survivors.
In her preface, Roth-Hano states that Touch Wood is not the work of a historian, yet her experiences and impressions combine to form a historical text that re-creates Paris and Flers during World War II. Roth-Hano wrote this book with the intention of portraying the hate-filled climate of the time and the terror that increasingly engulfed and altered the lives of her and her family. She was successful in conveying the essence of her experiences through her use of diary entries. Although written many years after the war, they are effective in giving a sense of...
(The entire section is 1423 words.)