WWII, the Nazi’s, the Resistance, and Vichy France come alive in Aaron Rockett’s Fake Papers: Survival Lessons from Grandma’s Escape. When I first started reading Fake Papers, I thought that it was a series of short accounts. It is not. Rockett alternates between eras, the present and two past ones — WWII and in the decades following Letty’s emigration to the U.S.
For readers of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Fake Papers is a well-written account by Rockett who is the grandson of Letty the grandma. Letty is dying and at Rockett’s request tells him her story, reliving it. Fake Papers takes off where Hannah left off in the The Nightingale; it is another part of the sacrificial effort of the Resistance to save so many who would have perished at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps.
Fake Papers tells the true story of three sisters and their mother who escape from Antwerp Belgium as the Nazis are entering the city. The account begins before this with the father who discovers that he has been swindled and faces financial ruin, eventually becoming bankrupt. Unable to face his family, he leaves once, returning in the days before Hitler’s army invades Antwerp. The father returns to relatives who ask him for him to return to Poland. He leaves just prior to his family’s escape into occupied France. He is never heard from again. The family never learns what became of him.
From then, Letty and her family, from the tradition of strict Orthodox Jewry, are dependent on the mercy and help of strangers. Enter the Resistance though it is a more subtle hidden element than in The Nightingale. It is the one of two undercurrents in Letty’s account. The pervasive hunting of Jews, of singling them out for the worst of what the Nazi government has in store for the world, is the other. For Letty and her sisters it means staying one step ahead and being clever, out thinking the hunters, in ways that at times means playing nice with the enemy, of hiding in plain sight, pretending to not to be Jewish or disavowing your own family. In short, it is desperate times when doing the unspeakable becomes essential for survival.
For the sisters’ mother, who would be the great-grandmother if she had lived, she is one who can’t run, at least not for long. She is the one who must be grounded to a particular hearth even if it means dying. Some of it is because of the fear of the outside world; some of it is because of the mother’s stubbornness. She rules the roost before the war and after Belgium is invaded even as she leaves with her daughters, the mother maintains her Jewish identity, practices and religious traditions, en at the risk of being discovered.
It is when the Vichy government steps up the roundups and living in France is no longer safe that Letty and her sisters decide to escape to Switzerland and they become Picards through the issuance of fake passports. The escape would be the best decision they ever made, but at a high cost. The mother remains in France whether out of fear of the unknown, distrust of her daughters’ plans, plans which are based on Letty’s belief that Switzerland is their best option for staying out the hands of the Nazis, refusing to run yet again or possibly understanding that she, the mother, is the weakest point, the factor that will cost her daughters their lives. The mother, as does so many others, ultimately pays with her life for staying behind.
Letty’s account of Switzerland’s official “neutrality” while helping fleeing Vichy France under the radar was enlightening tidbit to this reader.
The author’s weaving of Letty’s life after WWII (the present and the immediate past) is a nice touch, and is well-written (as is the rest of the account). It is not strictly necessary to tell Letty’s story. It does however provide context in terms of wrapping up the sisters’ lives after their escape into Switzerland and shows how living in those trying times while denying oneself, living under false pretenses, altered forever the sisters’ futures and that of the succeeding generations, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
The author provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.