by Vanessa Relozat
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Can we make a summary of your book “Les enfants de Cadillac”?
It is the story of three French generations in the twentieth century that begins with the itinerary of my grandfather, an illiterate Jew, second-hand trader from Lithuania. To escape the massacres, he decided to go to France because there, the intelligentsia defended Dreyfus. My grandfather crosses all of Europe by cart to get to Paris. He will go to war to be nationalized.
But he received a mustard gas bomb before spending 22 years in a psychiatric hospital. He was sent to Cadillac, a small town in southwestern France where he would die like 40,000 madmen during World War II, left behind because they starved to death.
To talk about your grandfather, you use the third person pronoun…
Indeed, because I did a long investigative work in the archives to discover this path of a forgotten man. It is a repressed story within my family and in the history of France. When you want to tell a story, that’s the third person that comes naturally. We are moving away from ourselves. I never knew my grandfather, for me he is a character.
And then you tell your dad too…
My companion denounced my father as a Jew. From there, it will have five years of survival. Years of romance and incredible adventures happen to him. He changes his identity, escapes, is arrested again, threatened with execution, has unlikely friendships and love affairs as he does with Hitler’s young girl. In short, he survived. Then it’s an epic comeback. Released by the Russian army at that time, amid general chaos in Europe, he returned on foot from Poland to Paris.
You present this epic in first person…
In fact, it’s a conversation I had with my father. One day I asked him to tell me everything and I recorded his testimony. For me, the only way to write down this testimony was to continue the kind of dialogue I had with him. I always ask him even if he is no longer there.
It was in the form of a letter to my father that I could tell everything he had experienced. And then a book can be written to be addressed to someone we miss and who has disappeared. At that moment, this is the image of popophobia, we make a dead person speak or address them as if they are still alive, using ‘you’.
Finally, you end with “I”…
I ended up being the first person trying to understand the meaning of this legacy, especially since I live in New York. I ask myself the question of this itinerary for men like my grandfather and my father who loved France madly. I wonder about the legacy of this love for France. This “I” is recognition.
The starting point for wanting to write this book, is it your exile in the United States?
Yes that’s right. When I left I wondered about identity. What does it mean to be of the same nationality? What does it mean to be French? French abroad? French from abroad? When you are in another country you feel different.
As a result, this thinking has faced familial questioning. I asked myself the question of these men like my grandfather and my father, would I betray their love for France? Or was I prolonging my grandfather’s original journey?
Is the fact of coming from somewhere that shapes our identity?
It is important to know where you come from, what your family, background, and culture are. But it was also the encounters that opened new horizons for me. I came across teachers, books, and a lot of things that, by chance, by chance, became what I am now.
Why is DNA research fashionable, in your opinion?
In the 1980s, genealogical research became very important. We have moved on from the 20th century where the main thing was the future. We wanted to build the new guy, we had confidence in the future. We wanted to be modern and break with the past. At the end of great totalitarian regimes and with environmental hazards, we tell ourselves that perhaps the most important thing is not to innovate but to preserve it.
How did you search for your grandfather?
The only thing I knew was that he went to Saint Anne’s. It was very difficult, as psychiatric archives are almost inaccessible even for a family member. It requires a lot of perseverance. I did cross inspections and arrived at a Cadillac where I received confirmation that he had spent the last ten years of his life.
I’ve done a lot of historical work with departmental archives. I opened my eyes to a story that is not well documented. Little was said about the mentally ill, the “malformed brain,” as they said at the time.
Did this research connect you to your grandfather, and by extension, to your father?
definitely. My grandfather has become a person, he has incarnated. He is someone who is part of my life now. He now has some kind of magical incarnation. And then, in fact, he brought me back to my father. These are tragic stories that happened to both of them as they tried to escape their fate.
Do you think you inherited something from them?
Deep down I think legacy is something to come. The past changes depending on what you do with it. As for all of us, there are memories that are transmitted, they are living memories.
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