How a decades-old Holocaust mystery fueled Anne Berest’s ‘The Postcard’

When Anne Berest began work on “The Postcard,” she didn’t know how the novel would end. In fact, she didn’t know if there was an end to the mystery based on her own family’s investigation into the origin of an unusual postcard.

“I was anxious,” the French author confesses over a video call during her recent stay in Los Angeles.

“The investigation took me four years,” Berest explains. “In the book, it’s four months, but, in reality, it’s almost four years.”

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The award-winning work of autofiction, originally published in France in 2021 as “La Carte Postale” and recently translated into English by Tina Kover and published via Europa Editions on May 16, begins in 2003 with the arrival of a postcard. On it are the names Ephraïm, Emma, Noémi and Jacques, the parents and siblings of Berest’s maternal grandmother, who were killed during the Holocaust. Years later, Berest and her mother, Lélia, embark on a mission to track down who sent the postcard.

Berest, author of “How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are,” researched and wrote “The Postcard” while she and her mother were in the midst of solving that mystery. “I was thinking to myself, if I don’t find the resolution, the readers, they will be furious,” Berest recalls. After all, she was writing “The Postcard” in the style of a detective novel. There had to be a resolution.

But Berest surmises that not knowing the author of the postcard as she wrote is part of what makes the novel work. “It creates something special in the book,” she says. “I am exactly like the reader. I don’t have more information than the reader because I’m writing day after day.”

In seeking out the origins of the postcard, Berest also digs deep into French history, her Jewish ancestry and how the two have intertwined. As “The Postcard” jumps back and forth through time, Berest explores antisemitism in Europe from the early 20th century through the present day and France’s role in the Holocaust.

“I’m a writer, but I’m not a historian,” says Berest. “So, before I wrote the book, I knew what everybody knows.”

She read books and watched documentaries about  the Holocaust. When she learned something new, she figured that the information might also be new to readers.

“I wanted to know how it happened, day after day, in my country,” she says.

The process of researching and writing “The Postcard” was also a way for Berest to connect with a family history that she previously did not know well.

“While I was working on my family history, I discovered some strange coincidences,” she says.

For example, she notes, Berest lives on the same street as a relative from a previous generation. She refers to these coincidences as “invisible transmissions,” things that are unknowingly passed down between generations.

“It’s truly astonishing because every person I have met who has worked on their family tree has encountered similar coincidences. That’s why I refer to these coincidences as invisible transmissions and this idea of invisible transmission is one of the main themes of the book.”

She adds, “I delve into the concept of how ancestors survive within us, even when we have no knowledge about them and even when don’t even know their first names.”

Berest worked on the investigation that drives the plot with her mother, who is also a major character in the novel. “I couldn’t have written the book without all the research that she made,” she says, adding that her mom had spent about two decades building up an archive of papers and information about her family.

“That’s why I wanted her to be the main character of the book, because the book couldn’t exist without her. She was my heroine.”

She adds, “It was funny because we made the investigation together and we went on like two very bad detectives in the movies, always arguing with each other.”

During the promotional campaign in France, Berest’s mother joined her for interviews and for talks at schools.

“It was so good because, you know, it’s not often that you meet a character. People are so happy to meet her because she is so funny and she always wants to smoke cigarettes,” she says. “I think, for her, it would have been too difficult in the U.S.A. because you can’t smoke anywhere.”

In the end, the mother-and-daughter team of sleuths does learn the origins of the postcard.  “I was so moved,” Berest says of the revelation. “Life has more imagination than me. I was so happy to discover the person.”

Underneath the engaging mystery and the wealth of historic information that’s packed into “The Postcard,” there is a story about preserving the memory of ancestors.

“When you forget your relatives, they die twice. If you have memories about them, you make them keep alive,” says Berest.

“Ancestral cultures teach us how to live with the dead members of our families. But, we, the modern world, or so-called modern world, have detached ourselves from our ancestors,” Berest adds. “I think it’s a very good thing to reconnect with our ghosts.”

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