André Schwarz-Bart (shvarts bahrt), one of the most important French writers of the post-Holocaust period, was born of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland in 1924. In the close-knit community of their Jewish neighborhood, they followed Orthodox tradition (the father had prepared for the rabbinate), told and retold Hebrew stories and legends, and spoke only Yiddish. In fact, it was not until he attended public school that Schwarz-Bart learned French and associated with gentile children; by that time he had, however, already been subjected to anti-Semitic insults and violence. On days off from school he helped his father sell stockings in the open-air markets. In 1940, after the outbreak of war in France, the family was evacuated first to the Île d’Oléron, off the Atlantic coast, then to Angoulême, where Schwarz-Bart studied metalworking. There the Germans arrested his parents, two brothers, and a sister. At the age of fourteen, left to care for three younger brothers, he hired out as a farm laborer, until he and his brothers were shipped to Paris in early 1943.
In Paris Schwarz-Bart became a member of the Communist Youth League and, lying about his age, joined the Resistance movement. He was able to smuggle his brothers, as well as his sister, whom he coolly had taken out of a children’s home, into the so-called Free Zone. After his arrest in Limoges and subsequent escape, he continued his underground activities until the end of the war, when he learned that his parents and brothers had been killed in the concentration camp. He accepted his responsibilities as head of the remaining family and, at the age of seventeen, worked during the day in a foundry; at night he read books borrowed from the public library, devouring detective and mystery novels, as well as classics such as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866).
Spurred by the need to relate his experience, Schwarz-Bart began to devote his spare time to improving his written and spoken French, which had been completely neglected during his wandering war years, and he passed the baccalauréat examinations in 1948. After a discouraging semester at the Sorbonne, he dropped out of the university, but he...
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