By her early 70s, Sandell Morse had published a slew of award-winning essays and chapters from a memoir-in-progress about her childhood. Morse was continuing to add to her impressive body of work when she was granted a writing residency at Moulin à Nef in 2011. Moulin à Nef is an artist retreat and the European outpost of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in Auvillar, France.
Before arriving, Morse did her due diligence in researching the village of Auvillar. Among the things she discovered was that the village was on one of the pilgrimage routes leading to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago del Compostela, Spain. At VCCA, as she wrote by a window overlooking a pilgrimage route, she realized how aware she was that Jews were outsiders in France. Auvillar was also home to the Hirsch family—Sigismond, Berthe and their son, Jean. At one time, 9-year-old Jean was a courier for the resistance. Sigismond, a physician, survived the war, but his wife, Berthe, died at Auschwitz.
The Hirsch family history tugged at Morse, whose maiden name was also Hirsch. Her research eventually took her to Paris, where she met Germaine Poliakov, who was then 92. Poliakov had been in charge of a group of young Jewish girls at a safe house in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, a village near Auvillar. She introduced Morse to Yvonne, one of her charges during the war. Though she never met him in person, Morse corresponded with Jean Hirsch. She also met Gerhard Schneider, a Catholic theologian and historian, who was as interested in Auvillar’s Jewish history as she was.
For three years, Morse wrote essays about Jean Hirsch, his parents, Poliakov and Yvonne. She anticipated that those essays would come together as a book. But the more she wrote, the more she realized that the linked pieces needed to become a narrative. That narrative, which eventually included Morse’s story of finding her Judaism, is called “The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II.”
“The Spiral Shell” is Morse’s first published book at the age of 81. She recently spoke to JewishBoston about her road to publication, the years of research involved in writing the book and her Jewish awakening.
What made you return to Auvillar?
I fell in love with the village, and then it was the story of Jean Hirsch and the story of Germaine Poliakov that inspired me to return. After the residency at Moulin à Nef in 2011, I went back and rented a room from Priscilla, a woman I had met in Auvillar. I was driven to go deeper and deeper into these stories. I think the story of searching for my identity and for what I call becoming “visibly Jewish” propelled me without me even knowing it.
Your friend and translator in Paris, Valerie, introduced you to Germaine Poliakov, who changed the book’s trajectory.
She did. When I was conducting these interviews with Germaine, my intention was to write a series of essays about people during the war and how their lives intersected with my life. But I kept going back to interview Germaine, who then introduced me to Yvonne [who was under Germaine’s care in La Colonie as a young girl]. I interviewed Yvonne several times. But Germaine was the one I connected with and felt an affinity for. She once said to me, “You are lucky like me.” I found that observation very interesting because I have felt very fortunate in my life. I also connected with Germaine as a young mother of three. She was in her early 20s and I was in my early 20s when I had my three children. I was very interested in how she created a life for herself and was still a mother, which was also my struggle.
How did Jews fare in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne compared to other places in Vichy, France?
Germaine lived in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne during the war, and that was where the house that protected Jewish refugee children, La Colonie, was. We talked about the house, her life during the war and the girls she cared for. The Jewish Scouts ran the house, making Germaine part of the French Resistance. One day in her Paris apartment, she said to me, “Would you like to see the house?” I asked, “Is that possible?”
She called the town historian whom she knew because she had been honored in that village in 2006, and made an appointment for me. I made the short road trip from my home base in Auvillar. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is a beautiful village on a river and a little bigger than Auvillar. But what interested me was the difference in wartime attitudes. Everyone in the village knew La Colonie was a Jewish house, and that was amazing to me. The house was not tucked away in the countryside; it was in a plaza attached to an abbey.
You came upon the imprint of an ancient spiral shell on the limestone block of a building in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. Why did that image resonate with you?
France was once an inland sea, and the limestone, for all of those buildings, comes from underneath the city. It still does. The guide on my walking tour of the Marais showed our group an indentation made by an ancient spiral shell. I stayed behind to look at it. I think what resonated for me was that Hitler wanted to erase the Jews from history. But people always want to leave some imprint of themselves behind, and we don’t leave anything visible. We’re simply gone. Yet fossils, little ancient shells, leave something physical behind. Writing the stories for the book was a way for me to make a tiny imprint on something. And the image of the spiral appealed to me—these stories spiraled up for me.
Was this hybrid memoir the book you set out to write?
When I saw that I had recurrent themes and characters, I set out to write a collection of essays. I took a class at GrubStreet called “Finding Your Book,” and the class instructor advised me to turn the essays into a narrative. What became obvious in doing that was how much my story had to be part of this book. It wasn’t present in the essays, and it was a challenge to bring my life story to the forefront. I don’t think anyone foresaw what this book became.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sandell Morse will be in conversation with Judy Bolton-Fasman about “The Spiral Shell” on Wednesday, June 17, at 7:30 p.m. Learn more here.