A Jewish Girl in Paris by Melanie Levensohn: Vivid, poignant tale of entwined destinies – book review –

When librarian Judith Goldemberg falls for a handsome young Parisian law student in Occupied Paris in 1940, it’s the start of a love affair that will cast a long shadow over the next sixty or more years.

A Jewish Girl in Paris by Melanie Levensohn
A Jewish Girl in Paris by Melanie Levensohn

Because Judith is Jewish and her relationship with the son of a wealthy, influential city banker is forbidden by his family, and the Nazis who now control France and are already planning to round up Jewish citizens and transport them to camps in the far corners of Eastern Europe.

When she married and took her husband Pascal Levensohn’s surname, former communications expert at the World Bank in Washington, German and US national Melanie Levensohn discovered that she was, in fact, the family’s second Melanie Levensohn. And when she learned that the original Melanie disappeared after being deported to Auschwitz in 1943, it set in motion a moving and atmospheric debut novel based on a series of true events.

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The 70-year-old mystery surrounding the fate of her namesake was just the inspiration Levensohn needed to write A Jewish Girl in Paris, which has been adapted from a translation by Jamie Lee Searle and features an engrossing, multi-layered, fictionalised account of young Melanie’s precarious life under Nazi rule, beautifully interwoven with a contemporary search for the truth spearheaded by an enterprising French woman.

In September of 1940, Paris is a city filled with a ‘ghostly uncertainty’ and learning to live under German occupation. Young Jewish girl, Judith Goldemberg, enjoys her job as a librarian but finds life tough with her teacher mother who has become a shadow of her former herself since her divorce from Judith’s father who left to return to his native Romania and married again.

And it’s at the library that Judith meets the love of her life, law student Christian, the son of a wealthy banker and Nazi sympathiser. Christian’s family are gentiles and would never approve of the girl he has fallen in love with but from their first meeting, ‘something powerful had ignited’ between them.

As the Germans start to impose more and more restrictions on the Jews in Paris, the couple, who have pledged to get married, secretly plan to flee the country but before they can make their escape, Judith disappears.

In Montréal in 1982, as he lies on his deathbed, the ageing Lica Grunberg confesses to his daughter, Jacobina, that she has an older half-sister called Judith. Living in Romania, Lica escaped the worst of the Nazi atrocities but he lost all contact with his first-born daughter in Paris and he pleads with Jacobina to find the sister she never knew.

But the search languishes for years, until in 2006, elderly Jacobina is struggling to make ends meet in Washington where she now lives and is encouraged to re-ignite the quest to unearth Judith’s story by her young friend Béatrice Duvier who has a high-flying job but is working to help others through a charity.

Soon the two women discover a dark family secret, one that stretches back over two continents and six decades, and that will end up changing both their lives for ever.

Levensohn’s enthralling and powerfully emotive story weaves seamlessly between two timelines as we meet the characters whose lives are invisibly bound together by a forbidden romance that blossomed unexpectedly amidst the perilous days of the Nazi Occupation.

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The inspiration she drew from her own adopted family’s history shines through as Levensohn explores an eternally haunting and shocking chapter of European history when Jews in Paris were shunned, and sometimes betrayed, by the people who had once been their friends and neighbours.

And at the heart of it all is the flame of love between Judith and Christian which is set alight amongst the bookshelves of a Paris library and which sparks an unquenchable desire in Jacobina to find out just what happened to the long-lost sister she never knew.

It’s a mystery that Jacobina fears she will take to the grave until she meets and befriends the determined, resilient and caring Béatrice who forms a memorable bond with Jacobina and refuses to give up the fight for the truth even if that means travelling far beyond the shores of America.

Packed with extensive historical research, and written with warmth, insight, sensitivity, and a genuine empathy with the events of the Holocaust, this vivid, poignant tale of entwined destinies, unseen connections and enduring love is guaranteed to resonate long after the last page has turned.

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(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)