Dearest Chantal,

I am speaking to you from Tel Aviv – a city you loved and visited often. We’d see each other, we’d have a good time together. Sometimes you’d arrive as I was leaving for Europe. We’d pass each other like “two ships in the night.” These last few years, we’d mostly meet in Brussels at your Mum’s, where you were staying, and where we’d drink together the first coffee of the day.

According to Hassidic custom, mourners surround the coffin where the dead person is lying and each of them asks for forgiveness. Thus starts our monologue. We are addressing the one who hears us but can no longer reply to us.

Yet, by saying YOU, I don’t feel this is a monologue.

The offence for which I should, maybe, ask for your forgiveness, is your first name – which you liked and didn’t like.

In 1950, your mother, who was pregnant with you, asked me, before my departure for Eretz Israel, to suggest a “really French” first name. I proposed Chantal. In the 1950s it was in fashion, and I was the member of the family who was supposed to know something about fashion.

I made your acquaintance only ten years later, when I returned to Europe for the first time. With your pint size you looked down your nose at me. “So, that’s you, my cousin Ethy?” You seemed so disappointed. They had told you, again and again: “Ah, that’s what Ethy’s like!”

Very soon, in spite of our age difference that gradually faded through time, we became friends. Even sisters. For a long time I was the big sister and you the little one who eventually broke away.

I came back two years later. We met in Knokke 1 and immediately started to talk about literature. It became our favourite subject. I was talking to you about Proust, whom you were to discover later. We also talked about the practice of Judaism. You told me you didn’t believe in God anymore. You were barely 12 and you were reading Sartre and detective novels. You were imagining the characters. Already you were filming them in your mind.

You didn’t finish high school – neither had I! I had to convince your parents to let you take the entrance exam to INSAS, 2

telling them that, considering that you were very young and didn’t have a high school diploma, you had very little chance. You were admitted. You didn’t stay there very long. You were in a hurry to make your own films. All your life you were in a hurry. Every day presented itself as if it were your last day on earth. (You made me think that one must always be ready to welcome the messiah, who may arrive at any moment.)

Soon you made your first film, Saute ma ville (1968). It contains all your cinema, all your life even. It is your Ars Poetica.

Later there was Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). We lived in Paris, and so did you. You invited us to a private screening. You were not there. Jonathan was enthusiastic. I kept wondering where you had gotten all of this – and yet I knew a thing or two…

The following day you were waiting for me near the office of the Rue Copernic Synagogue. 3 I came downstairs and from far away you told me “If you liked it, telephone the family in Brussels.” I fulfilled my role as a Go Between. 4

I saw almost all your films. You were filming your own way, without concessions, and so until your last film, No Home Movie (2015), about Nelly, your mother.

Our relationship, very close, often passionate, experienced many twists and turns. Geography also kept us apart. Yet what got the upper hand was our sisterhood that went beyond family ties. Your close friends, Sonia, Marilyn, Charlotte, Jean-Bernard, became mine. My friends were yours.

I remember when you came to Israel with Sonia Wieder-Atherton who had been invited to play cello in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This remains a special moment. Sonia became a part of our family.

You are the one who introduced me, at the Dalmas’, to the Cahiers du Nouveau Commerce. 5 You were one of the first to read and reread [my first novel] Autobiographie de Personne (1999) while it was still a manuscript. The Shoah – which I was deliberately not naming – was showing just beneath the surface. We talked a lot about it. I shared with you the little bit that I didn’t know. Nelly, your mother, Auntie Toska and my mother Gitelè were together in Auschwitz. Maybe I should not have told you about the Death March, 6 during which my mother was chewing food for Nelly, who was only 16. Even before your birth, we were bound together. Throughout the years, the Shoah, named or not, played an increasing role in your suffering. Do not forget, however, that you also had moments of great happiness. You loved life. I look at your pictures. You are very beautiful, with your big blue eyes. On most of them you look happy. And you are.

A time to laugh, a time to weep. 7 Yehudah Moraly made me realise that you left on the day of Shemini Atseret, the last day of Sukkot. It is the day when one reads the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Mist, all is mist.”

There is one year before your mother’s death, and one year after. Your mother was the thin thread that kept you in balance.

You left too early. For relatives and friends, it’s always too early. You left really too early. Forgive us, who were close to you, because we were not able to hold you. We loved you. Your pain was stronger.

May your memory be blessed. Ytgadal ve Ytkadach. 8

Text originally published in French by Rachel Samoul in the blog Kefisrael and dedicated to Sylviane Akerman.  
English translation and notes: Bérénice Reynaud

 

Endnotes

  1. A seaside resort in Belgium where many Brussels inhabitants come for weekends or vacations. From 1949 to 1974, five editions of an experimental film festival also took place there (see Marilyn Watelet’s text). For the 1967 edition, Michael Snow’s Wavelength received the Grand Prix.
  2. Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion, film and theatre school founded in 1962 in Brussels.
  3. The Rue Copernic Synagogue, in the posh 16th quarter of Paris, is the first “liberal” synagogue in France (pertaining to what is called “Reform Judaism” in Anglo-Saxon countries). Five years later, on October 3 1980 (during the holiday of Sim’hat Torah, which, both in Israel and in Reform Judaism, coincides with Shemini Atseret), that synagogue was the target of a bomb attack, which killed four people and wounded 46. It was the first anti-Semitic attack to take place in France since the end of WWII. Then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre raised a stir when he described the non-Jewish victims of the attack as “innocent French people.”
  4. In English and with capital letters in the original.
  5. Literary review founded in 1963 by the couple Marcelle Fonfreide and André Dalmas (“the Dalmas”) that, in 1976, started publishing books as well. Among the people whose texts were published were Emanuel Levinas, George Peros, Unica Zurn, André Dalmas himself and Esther Orner. After stopping publication in 1998, Le Nouveau Commerce was acquired by Les Editions José Corti.
  6. Forced march undertaken by nearly 60,000 inmates evacuated from Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945, when the Nazis were retreating from the advance of the Red Army. About 15,000 prisoners died on the way.
  7. This is a slight variation on one of the verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Chap 3, verse 4).
  8. These are the first words of the Kaddish: “exalted and sanctified”.

About The Author

Born in Germany in 1937, Esther Orner is a writer and translator living in Tel Aviv since 1983. She has published seven books, including her “memory trilogy”: Autobiographie de personne (Nobody’s Autobiography, 1999), Fin et suite (The End and After, 2001) Petite biographie pour un rêve (Small Biography for a Dream, 2003).