“I am a Yiddish writer of the French language,” states Myriam Anissimov, who was born on June 15, 1943 in a refugee camp in Switzerland (Sierre). Her autodidact father, Itzik (Yankl) Frydman, was born on April 6, 1914 in Szydtowiec, Poland (112 km. ESE of Łódź). A tailor by profession, he was also a Yiddish writer. In 1938 he migrated to Lyon, France, where he met and married Bella Frocht (b. Metz, April 11, 1924) in 1942. Her parents, members of the French Jewish resistance movement, had fled there in 1942. Myriam Anissimov’s sister, Denise, was born on January 10, 1947.
In 1982 Myriam married Gerard Wilgowicz (b. 1945), a musician and conductor. She studied photography and later became an actress. Since 1966, she has been living in Paris as an actress, singer, writer and journalist. She initially took the name Anissimov because the producer of a record she was making pronounced the name Frydman as being too Jewish. She therefore picked a name at random from the telephone directory, and has used it ever since.
Anissimov’s first novel, Comment va Rachel? (How is Rachel?), appeared in 1973 and was followed by another seven novels, including La Soie et les cendres (Silk and Ashes, 1989) and Dans la plus stricte intimité (Family Only, 1992). Her biography Primo Levi, la tragédie d'un optimiste (Primo Levi, Tragedy of an Optimist), which appeared in 1996 and was translated into English, won the WIZO Prize in 1997. Her most recent work concerns the French-Jewish writer Romain Gary, who was for a short time her lover. Anissimov is the recipient of many awards and literary prizes, among them the prestigious Ordre des Arts et Lettres awarded by the Ministry of Culture.
How is Rachel? introduced themes that recur throughout her entire oeuvre. She tries to find a language capable of relating how Jewish women born after the Holocaust deal with their parents’ suffering as persecuted Jews settling in France after the war. She addresses the incongruity between the conditions endured by the inhabitants of the ghettos and the camps, whose personal life was extinguished by mass persecution, and the state of second-generation Jews who encounter betrayal and humiliation in their private lives. The fear that such a comparison risks trivializing the pain of the persecuted is, paradoxically, eased somewhat when the reader learns at the end of the book that the protagonist is considering suicide by turning on the gas.
One of the many strengths of Anissimov’s works lies in their outspoken presentation of the sexual and emotional relationship between the sexes from the point of view of the woman. In this respect, Anissimov’s works are intriguing complements to the American Jewish novel of the 1960s and 1970s. However, her early female protagonists are not at all troubled by the intellectual minds and sardonic attitudes typical of her American peers. Theirs is often a life of many struggles to which the men they encounter greatly contribute. She portrays the children of the victims as incapable of action and as caught between the guilt of the survivors and the lack of identificatory models of resistance. She often describes the syndrome of “telescoping,” the emotional handing down of traumatic experiences by family members, which has long preoccupied numerous authors. In her later work, Anissimov powerfully reverses the psychological effect described at the beginning of her career and instead follows the imperative of remembering the family lost to the Holocaust.
The heroines of Anissimov’s more recent novels take their lives in their hands and actively face up to the challenges of their surroundings, examining the discourse of victimization equipped with a historical perspective and sharp intellectual acumen. This attitude can be found most prominently in her Sa Majesté la Mort (Her Majesty, Death), published in 1999 and awarded the Jean Freustié Prize, which is dedicated to the endeavor of re-membering, via writing, a family genealogy endangered by the peril of becoming “unreadable.” Reconstructing the past by searching for photographs and documents, by reading letters, and by listening to the stories of her mother, the author-narrator faces an almost insurmountable challenge of reconstructing a lineage destroyed by the Nazis. Whereas many of Anissimov’s previous works had been based largely on autobiographical materials, Her Majesty, Death does not pretend to be anything other than a memoir. The first-person narrator of the book finds herself confronted at the outset with a genealogical hiatus that only her writing and the research informing her writing can bridge. Naming in the most concrete manner possible what had happened in the past is the initial step the book takes. Anissimov sets a stage for the narrative by pointing out from the very beginning that this stage, once populated, is now hauntingly vacant. There is no doubt that among today’s Jewish writers in France Myriam Anissimov is the most engaged in reminding the reader of exactly what happened in the past.
SELECTED WORKS BY MYRIAM ANISSIMOV
Comment va Rachel? Paris: 1973; Le bal des puces. Paris: 1985; La soie et les cendres. Paris, 1989; Dans la plus stricte intimité. Paris: 1992; “Écrivain yiddish de langue française.” Pardès 21 (1995): 237–241; Primo Levi ou la tragédie d’un optimiste. Paris, 1996, English translation 1999; Sa Majesté la Mort. Paris: 1999; Romain Gary, le Caméléon. Paris: 2004.
Elikan, Marc. “Le sentiment ‘minoritaire’ et identitaire dans la création romanesque de Myriam Anissimov.” Colloquium helveticum 22 (1995): 41–53.
Nolden, Thomas. In Lieu of Memory: Contemporary Jewish Writing in France. Syracuse, New York: 2005.
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Nolden, Thomas. "Myriam Anissimov." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/anissimov-myriam>.