The Ukrainian Childhood of Writer Irène Némirovsky

January 1914. The Orient Express is speeding from Odessa to Paris. The ten-year-old girl looks along the aisle of the train and sees her mother walking away towards the restaurant car escorted by a handsome young man. Then the girl, who is traveling alone with her mother, enters her compartment, picks up the huge doll given to her for Christmas by her parents and grandparents, who celebrated both Jewish and Orthodox Christian holidays, and throws it out of the train window onto the endless snowy surface. The doll has long blonde hair like her frivolous and merciless mother.

That Ukrainian girl, named Irina Nemirovskaia, looks at the whiteness of the landscape and thinks of the elegant district of Kiev where she lives, a stone’s throw away from the imperial palaces. From her balcony, she would look out over the countless city parks that descended the hill in successive terraces until they reached the river. In summer she would accompany her beloved father on cruises on the Dnieper. At night they would let themselves be rocked by the waves, by day they would visit villages where her father had business dealings with Ukrainian landowners. To Irina, that rural world seemed neglected and reminded her of the descriptions of landscapes and villages she read in Gogol’s books Taras Bulba and Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Gogol was her favorite Ukrainian writer. The rest of the summer she would walk through her sunny Kyiv swept by the Caucasus wind: with her French governess she would climb the steep streets, walk along the boulevards sheltered by rows of linden and chestnut trees that protected her eyes from the brightness of the golden domes of the churches.

From the Orient Express the girl looks out over the winter plain and remembers the recent New Year’s celebration in Odessa. Her grandmother prepared delicious salmon, caviar, pasta and pickle zakuski, which everyone washed down with champagne, and even Irina tried a few sips. In Odessa, every morning she used to walk with her grandfather down to the bustling port through the huge, icy staircase that she would later recognize in Sergey Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

The Orient Express is taking Irina and her mother on a shopping trip to Paris. Without the doll she feels as if she has wings. She looks at the snow that covers everything , as if plunging it all into oblivion and does not yet know that a world war will soon break out and that her family will flee Kyiv and the riot-ridden atmosphere which would later lead to revolution. After spending some time in St. Petersburg, where they will reside on the same street as the young Nabokov, the family will decide to flee the revolution to Finland and from there to Paris. In the French capital Irina will become Irène and live there for the rest of her short life: two and a half decades filled with writing and literary success, with two daughters and a loving husband who typed her manuscripts. Her mother will come to life in most of her novels as a worldly, empty and cruel woman.

Irène ignored her father’s attempts to persuade her to move to the United States where anti-Semitism had not taken root; the writer had blind faith in the ethical integrity of France. She only regretted not listening to her father when it was too late: after the German occupation she and her entire family were persecuted. In the summer of 1942 she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. A month later Irène died, at the age of 39.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)