The Arty Semite

Catherine Clément: a French Author of Memory and Understanding

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Wiki Commons

On January 21, French author Catherine Clément, whose Jewish mother Rivka was portrayed onscreen by Jeanne Moreau in Amos Gitai’s 2008 film One Day You’ll Understand, published an open letter in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Clement announced her resignation from France’s High Commission for National Commemorations (Le Haut comité des Célébrations nationales) after Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterand scheduled celebrations of the ferociously anti-Semitic author Louis-Ferdinand Céline for the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death in 1961.

Noted Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld had expressed objections the previous day, which led to Clément’s resignation in “solidarity” with Klarsfeld’s view that since Céline had, during the German occupation of France, published several lengthy books — still banned for republication in France today — urging that Jews be killed, he was not someone to celebrate. In her open letter, Clément explains: “The name of Céline having revolted me for over fifty years” she could not approve of honoring anyone so marked by the “virulence of his racism.” Then Clément offered a quote from her mother Rivka: “So long as only 20 percent of French people are anti-Semites, that’s okay;” in Clément’s view, today France’s younger generation rarely hate Jews, but among septuagenarians like herself (Clément was born in 1939) “latent anti-Semitism creeps up until it reaches the unconscious.”

Clément knows of what she speaks; as “One Day You’ll Understand” recounts, her mother’s parents were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. A revised edition, out in paperback in October, 2010, from Les editions Flammarion of Clément’s 2009 “Memory” (Mémoire), is a fervently exalted examination of herself and her family, as well as longtime Jewish friends such as the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch and the eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Clément faithfully recounts how Jankélévitch, who had previously written on the subject of forgiveness, could not bring himself to forgive Germany after the Holocaust, and although he was an avid pianist, refused thenceforth to play or listen to German or Austrian composers such as Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Of Lévi-Strauss, whom she knew for several decades, Clément describes a delightful 2007 visit during which the jaunty 98-year-old described a visit to his home by a Canadian representative of the Kwakwaka’wakw indigenous people, who arrived accompanied by a Vancouver rabbi, and when the former started to sing in the Kwak’wala language, the latter chimed in with a Hebrew chant. Clément tellingly concludes that although he was not observant, Lévi-Strauss’s mighty research achievements and shining intelligence “come from a Jewish source.”

Watch Catherine Clément in 2009, describing her writing process.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Frédéric Mitterand, Clement, Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.