Interview with Miranda Richmond Mouillot (first published in Good Reading magazine)
In 1936, two young Jewish students met in a café in Strasbourg.
In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, the young man Armand walked three hundred kilometres to find Anna, the beautiful young Romanian he had met that day, who was hiding out in the French Pyrenees. Two years later, they managed to escape France by climbing the Alps in a snowstorm. In Switzerland, as war refugees, they were married.
In 1945, Anna gave birth to a beautiful little girl and Armand worked as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, giving voice for the first time to the full horrors of the Nazi regime.
In 1948, the couple bought a tumbledown stone house in a tiny village in the south of France.
In 1953, Anna fled their home with her two children and just a few souvenirs of their life together. She and Armand never spoke again.
In 2015, Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Armand’s and Anna’s only granddaughter - published an extraordinary memoir entitled A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France. Although it tells the story of Armand and Anna’s tumultuous love affair and its tragic end, Miranda’s book is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. It is also the story of how the author fell in love with France, and with the Frenchman who would become her husband.
Miranda, you wrote in your Author’s Note that you “sought to maintain the vertiginous sense of poetry that their silence provoked in my life.” Could you please expand on this idea?
Fairy tales and poems are a powerful part of the human experience because they are like little symbolic capsules for carrying big ideas and emotions. They help us to remember and pass on what would otherwise be too vast and complex for us handle. We connect to those little capsules long before we understand them fully because we sense all the meaning packed into them. And I sensed before I could give words to it that grandparents’ silence was like that, a capsule tightly packed with a lifetime of experiences, of love and loss and hope and heartbreak. It was so palpable – and they themselves were such extraordinary people – that it made me alive to that symbolic potential in all things. And when you walk around sensing that symbolic potential in all things, it’s a bit dizzying: you are keenly aware that everything around you contains an infinity of stories. In A Fifty-Year Silence I sought to make the reader aware of that world of infinite memory, not only in my own family, but everywhere.
Why do you think your grandparents’ tragic love story took such a hold of your imagination?
For two reasons: first, I think that it was imprinted in me. There’s research showing that the methyl group that gets attached to your genes in certain traumatic situations causes epigenetic changes that are actually passed on from one generation to the next. I literally felt it in my bones. Second, to say my grandparents fascinated me would be an understatement: there was simply no one like them on earth. And they were so beautiful, both as I knew them and in the few pictures we had from when they were young. They were larger than life, more brilliant, difficult, and original than anyone I knew. I wanted to follow them into their originality and find out more.
Your grandmother had a knack for finding four –leaf clovers, told fortunes with playing cards, and ‘viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning.’ She sounds so wonderful! Can you tell me more about her?
She was wonderful! A brilliant psychiatrist, a staggeringly well-read woman, equally at home in Samarkand and at the supermarket and would strike up a conversation with anyone she met, anywhere she went. She made every part of life into an adventure, loved postmodernist literature, and made catastrophically bad cakes from whatever she had lying around in the refrigerator – squishy kiwis, grated carrots, old raspberry jam. And she was generous – she wasn’t a wealthy woman, but she supported her artist friends, gave to charity, and kept up with old patients long after they’d left treatment.
Your grandfather cooked elaborate feasts, sent you poetry to read, and had a library of books on the Holocaust. He sounds like such an intelligent and deep-thinking man. Can you please tell us more?
My grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and then as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trial just after, left his confidence in humanity shaken to the core. I don’t think he ever fully trusted another human being again. But he wanted to – he wanted to desperately. And that desperate want drove him on a lifelong intellectual quest for the best and most hopeful of parts of human existence, which he located in two places: in the human capacity to create beauty, and in the human potential for kindness to others. That intersected for him in literature, so he read all the time. (After he retired, when he wasn’t reading, he was volunteering for Amnesty International, seeking justice for writers.) No matter how difficult and tyrannical he was – and he was, he sent back my letters with corrections written on them, wouldn’t let me wear my hair down in his company, and nearly cut off our relationship because I disagreed with him on the Shakespeare authorship question – he threw me the lifeline of literature.
As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, you describe your childhood as being ‘bafflingly full of terror.’ You kept your shoes by the front door so you could grab them if you had to flee in the night, and always looked out for possible places to hide. I find this evidence of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust deeply moving. Can you tell us some of the stories that engendered this terror in you?
A lot of those stories are in the book, so I won’t give them away, but I believe the thread connecting them is uprootedness, the possibility of being taken away from your life at any moment, or having to leave it. Of everything you’ve created and grown accustomed to shattered in an instant. One thing that stands out to me is footsteps in the night. My grandparents were nearly arrested many times, but the first time, as far as I can tell, they were lying in the dark morning in the south of France and heard boots on the stairs. There was a pounding at the door, and two French milice officers demanded they rise – to go interpret for them as they arrested my grandparents’ upstairs neighbours, who had grown to be very dear friends. My grandparents had to stand and not only watch, but enunciate the brutal arrest of two people they had grown to love, and were only saved from the same fate by one of the officers, for whom my grandmother had (through a chance encounter) knitted a pair of wool gloves.
Tell us about the first time you saw your grandparents’ house in the south of France.
I was fifteen, and in boarding school in Geneva, and my grandfather drove me down there one Sunday, with absolutely no explanation as to where we were going or why. The house is in a little medieval hamlet, a tiny fortified village with just two streets. A lazy, half-dry river runs by it and it is dominated by a gigantic rock, some six stories high, with the ruins of a fort on its flat top. When my grandfather propelled me down one of the hamlet’s two narrow streets and showed me the house, it was as if he’d thrown a brick into the still, unruffled pond of my teenage imagination: in an instant, I knew I had to live there.
You had trouble establishing the truth of your grandparents’ love affair and subsequent marriage. Even the date of their wedding was hard to pin down. Explain some of the challenges you had to overcome in your search for your grandparents’ story.
The main challenge was them! No matter how many times I interviewed them, and how many questions I asked, it was as if they’d lived through the war in parallel, matching universes. They would tell stories about the same times, and the same places, with absolutely no mention of one another. And when I did get them talking about the other, it was like finally grabbing the bar of soap you’ve lost in the bathtub: they’d slip irretrievably off onto another subject before I knew it. Talking to them was also challenging because I loved them so dearly, and knew what suffering they were carrying in them, and how hard it was to for them to talk about.
You moved to the south of France to life in your grandparents’ long abandoned house. Can you explain some of the emotions behind that choice, and some of the consequences?
I moved there chasing an ideal, in many ways: like many young people starting out to study history, I believed there was a single truth to uncover, and that the house would lead me to it. I also, as many children of refugees and immigrants do, grew up with a sense that I had no real home, and I was chasing the dream of finally finding my home, which I thought was a physical place. Moving there showed me how much more complex life really is – not only was there no clear-cut connection between the house and my grandparents’ love affair (though the complex connection I discovered in its place is just as strong), there was no way I could make this house my home! It wasn’t mine, for one thing, and for another it was nearly uninhabitable. Half its windows had been shattered, one of the doors had rotted nearly away, it was freezing cold and infested with spiders and scorpions. But I moved in anyway (I had no real choice) and learned more about my grandparents’ experiences with hardship than I ever would have in a cushier place. And of course the best consequence of all was meeting my husband – who is my true home.
One aspect of the book which I found utterly heart-wrenching was the scenes in which you explore your grandfather’s work as a translator at the famous Nazi trials at Nuremberg. On one occasion, he broke down while translating Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. What kind of scars did this experience leave on your grandfather?
Interpreting is usually thought of as highly intellectual work; certainly it requires a great deal of knowledge and quick thinking. But it is also intensely physical: the voices of the people you are interpreting enter your body through your ears, they vibrate into you, travel through your brain, and then you perform the work of transforming it into another language, and vibrate it back out into the world with your vocal cords. My grandfather once said to a journalist that he felt as if he had been a black box into which all the Trial disappeared, which he carried with him without being able to see inside it – and which I know tortured him and weighed on his soul for the rest of his life.
What happened to your grandparents’ ruined stone house in the south of France?
It’s still there, still in the family, and I still hope to one day fix it up and live there. But who knows what life will bring?