Nobel Prize for Family History?

Patrick Modiano, The Search Warrant, Harvill Secker, London 2014

The 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was the French writer, Patrick Modiano. The event has prompted the issue of several of his books in English, one of which, ‘The Search Warrant’ (Dora Bruder in the French edition), has echoes for those of us interested in family history research, though it could also qualify for my ‘Archives in Fiction’ section elsewhere on this website.

The story is a meditation on the story-teller’s fascination with finding out more about a runaway girl in an old 1941 newspaper report. It is relatively short at 137 pages and an easy read. Much of this meditation will be familiar to those of us researching individuals in our families’ pasts. There is the piecing together of disparate records: the newspaper notice, a birth certificate obtained after some bureaucratic difficulty, vague memories of places and how they have changed, street patterns, notices on walls, bits of background research on people and institutions, logbooks, registers, regrets at not having been able to speak to those now passed on who could have given more information.

Frequently, the story-teller remarks on how little we actually know despite this painstaking work at patching together bits of official data, speculation, background and imagination. Dora Bruder was a young Jewish teenager, who had been hidden from the authorities during the occupation of Paris, but who was picked up as a runaway and finally transported to Auschwitz, as was the rest of her family.

For me, the final paragraph (as translated by Joanna Kilmartin) struck a penetrating emotional chord about how little we can know. After a painstaking exposition of his research the narrator comments:

“I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dépôt, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you – have been able to take away from her.” (p 137)

Whatever we may think we learn from historical research and however much we congratulate ourselves on our discoveries, our ancestors remain FREE in all that is most important to their lives, hopes and ambitions. It should be a source of humility for all historians, in all forms of the subject.