‘A Fifty-Year Silence; Love, War, and a Ruined House in France’

A young couple. A raging world war. Danger. Discrimination. And the will to survive. Author Miranda Richmond Mouillot believes her Jewish grandparents’ hidden love story awkwardly lies somewhere among the ashes of memories too painful to discuss. But she denies the duty to let it go. Instead, she prods and pleas. Armed with stories, letters, archives and interviews, the author pieces together a puzzling love story no one could imagine. It is a true story, or at least as close to true as Miranda can decipher. There is truth in the grandparents’ love that is constantly redefined even up to the final breaths as one generation passes the surviving torch to another.
Although readers will eventually enjoy more than one love story encapsulated on the pages of A Fifty-Year Silence, the main characters are the grandparents, Anna and Armand. In the 1940s, Europe was allowing women only minimal schooling. Yet, Anna earned a medical license and found work at a tuberculosis sanatorium during the war. Armand was fluent in half a dozen languages. Both sets of skills likely kept them out of concentration camps. Yet the ever-present danger was still only around the corner.
As Miranda holds tightly to every syllable shared by her maternal grandmother, who now lives in the United States, she is entranced by the stories. There’s an uncle who walked from a labor camp through Turkey to Israel. There’s the burning of books and the golden sparks the gilt pages made when they burned. History unfolds before the readers’ eyes and as always, it can paint a grotesquely depraved picture of mankind.
Amidst a horrendous environment, Anna is resolute and revolutionary all at the same time. She vows that surely without her war experiences she could not have become the person she eventually became. The author’s writing allows readers to thoroughly process this quite painful idea. Without our troublesome experiences, or trials of survival, perhaps our full self would never be quite full.
At fourteen years of age, Miranda accepts an invitation to travel from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, to her grandfather Armand’s home in France. She learns quickly that Armand has a precise order for all things, that he has no interest in hearing “that woman’s name” ever mentioned in his lifetime, and as far as sharing memories, forget it. But Miranda persists for years, and eventually, a relationship and an open door into the past are presented for the taking.
The elegant prose Miranda uses captures readers’ attention, although critics have said there is perhaps too much speculating and not enough factual information in parts. Over the years, though, Miranda fascinatingly arranges a timeline of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, war dates, and peace agreements until there is a recognizable truth. Yet, the truth is still flitting from Geneva to a tiny village in the south of France where Miranda feels an immediate connection as if her grandparents’ past is waiting to be revealed from the stone walls.
“How amazing that these two people, finally told their stories, even if they did so in nearly undecipherable code. Their everyday war time experiences were horrendous,” commented one reader.
As time passes, Miranda sometimes chases rabbits in search of her grandparents’ story. Readers are asked to be patient as the author’s story is intricately intertwined with her grandparents, just as we all are tethered to our own family’s history. Miranda’s memoirs focuses on facts but cannot forgo the feelings seeping from the heart.
Armand’s mind is slipping. Eventually, he must leave the Geneva apartment where he has lived for decades. His new residence requires him to relinquish much of the independence he nearly died to save. As Miranda visits her grandfather one day, the nurse asks if Armand used to practice law?
“No, why do you ask?”
“Sometimes he recites things … it sounds like legal language. Like a trial. I just wondered. I wouldn’t bother you with it, only sometimes it’s rather gruesome,” shares the nurse.
It’s a pivotal moment for Miranda. She recalls her grandfather’s stories of his role in the Nuremberg Trials. He worked as an interpreter. He had carefully and proudly explained the system of lights the interpreters used. Yellow lights indicated speakers should slow down. Red lights meant there was a technical problem. Eager to show his loyalty to justice, Grandfather was honored to say that he had never leaked anything to the press.
This key piece in her grandparents’ lives proved to be paramount in writing their story. It also marked a crucial point for readers.
“I wept as I read parts of the transcripts that Armand had to translate. He listened to testimonies about women carrying their dead children in their arms as they wandered through the bombed-out streets, yet he was never able to really decompress. Where did all that horrible history go?” asked one reader.
According to Armand, the trials were like a black box. “I carry it with me, but when I open it, there’s nothing inside. It’s empty.”
Imagine returning to your wife and children after working as a war trial interpreter for nearly a year. The haunting experiences proved to be too much for Armand. He could never beat them, could never get in front of them. And in the end, for him, there was only silence.
From the silence, however, Miranda finds a voice. Sometimes the voice shouts. Sometimes the voice is strained but always, the voice is there. That voice breaks A Fifty-Year Silence and deserves an audience.