Seeds of a Young Life

A Pocket Full of Seeds – by Marilyn Sachs, Doubleday, 1973 (also available on Kindle)

The great Jewish-American author Marilyn Sachs (1927-2016) wrote many insightful and authentic works about childhood and adolescence.  A Pocket Full of Seeds pays tribute to one young life, and is based on the experiences of her friend, Fanny Krieger, who survived the Holocaust in France and later emigrated to the United States. (Sachs takes up the second part of her story in a sequel to this volume, Lost in America.) There is no artificial division between Sachs’s other profoundly empathic novels about young people and this one solely because of its Holocaust setting.  Marilyn Sachs had a profound understanding of childhood, and also a personally defined Jewish identity, both of which are essential components of this haunting book.

Nicole Nieman is eleven years old in 1938 when the book begins.  Living in Aix-les-Bains, in a rural region of southern France, she and her family share the common perception that, even as Hitler threatens Europe’s Jews, their own community is too remote and insignificant to be a target.  They continue to hope this is true, although it gradually becomes clear that they are vulnerable.  Nicole’s beloved father is much more stubborn in his belief; her mother is more realistic, more assertive, and less protected by the psychological defense mechanisms which will become so destructive in the face of reality.  The fraying relationship between these two adults, both totally dedicated to their children and in love with one another, is one of the sad casualties of the story. I was reminded of the French-Jewish filmmaker Diane Kurys’s work in Nicole’s confusion as she responds emotionally to each of her parents.

Mr. and Mrs. Nieman are traveling salesmen in the schmatte business, selling clothes, and eventually exchanging them for food as their means of support collapse under the collaborationist Vichy regime.  Nicole is outspoken, earning her mother’s criticism for this trait and turning to her father for support:

“I cannot imagine where you get such a big mouth from.”
“I think from Maman,” I said. “I think I’m a lot like her.”
“I think so, too,” Papa said. “And that’s a good thing. But Maman never says anything that hurts anyone.”
“She hurts me.”

Yet when a girl named Lucie, for whom Nicole feels a desperate and unrequited affection, calls her a “dirty Jew,” it is Maman, whose “big mouth” clearly and strongly defends her daughter.  Nicole’s pride in her mother’s assertiveness, as well as in her stylish beauty, foreshadows how the family will be reduced to cowering in terror when the Nazis invade their town in 1943:

Maman arrived in school the following morning while we were studying mathematics. She was dressed very fashionably. She wore her black hat, her black coat with the beaver collar, a white scarf, black leather gloves, and black pumps. ..

My mother’s voice, it seemed to me, could be heard in every corner of the quiet classroom.

The phrase “it seemed to me,” set off between commas, expresses the intuition of an older child approaching adolescence that not everyone shares her own perceptions, especially of her family.

When the Niemans attend a Seder at the home of their friends, the more affluent Rostens, there is a sense of elegy.  Nicole’s father, who had been raised in an observant home but had become purely secular, conducts the ritual meal. This observance in celebration of freedom marks the beginning of their own captivity.

Nicole Nieman is one in Marilyn Sachs’s cast of characters: sensitive, intelligent, suspicious of hypocrisy, loyal and sometimes defiant at the same time.  The unspeakable loss she will face looms over the novel, but never effaces her as a person.  She is Sachs’s testament to the enduring difficulties of childhood, and also to Jewish survival under the worst of circumstances.

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