Author Sandell Morse has written widely for literary magazines including Ploughshares and the New England Review. Her new book, The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II is out now from Schaffner Press. It is both a memoir and the history of the Jewish resistance movement in the French village of Auvillar.
Sandell talked with Rose City Reader about The Spiral Shell, writing in France, WWII stories, and book tours during COVID19:
How did you come to write your memoir, The Spiral Shell?
In 2011 at age 72, I was awarded a writing residency at Moulin à Nef, an artists’ retreat owned and operated by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar, a village in southwest France. Before leaving home, I researched the village and learned that Auvillar was on one of the pilgrimage routes that ends at the Shrine of Saint James in Santiago del Compostello, Spain. I thought of Crusaders walking that route, and whenever I think of Crusaders, I think of Jews. My thoughts jumped to the Second World War and I wondered if Jews had lived there then. My original intent was to write a series of essays on this subject.
Your memoir is also the story of Jewish resistance during World War II in the French village of Auvillar. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I was very lucky to find Gerhard Schneider, a German, Catholic theologian who lived in the village. Not only was Gerhard willing to talk to me, he was interested in facing the dark history of both Germany and France. Gerhard was married to a French woman, and early in their marriage, he set out to bridge the two cultures. So, like me, Gerhard was interested in connection and our common humanity. Others, also shared stories of their families. I read a lot, researched a lot.
If you’re asking me about specific resistance in that area, yes, the resistance worked there. I researched Jean Hirsch, a nine-year-old resistance courier during the war. He and his family sheltered in Auvillar. His father and mother both worked for the Jewish Scouts of France, a normal scouting organization before the war, an organization dedicated to saving Jewish children during the war. Both parents were sent to Auschwitz. I won’t say more because I tell their story in the book. Also the German presence was nearby. There were also Nazis sympathizers in the village.
How does your story, the memoir part of your book, connect with the story of Auvillar?
My maiden name is Hirsch, and I felt an immediate connection to Jean Hirsch and his family. I was not on a quest for my roots, but I understood, that my fate as a Jew rested on the fact that my father’s family had left the Alsace Lorraine in the mid 19th century and his had not. In addition to his story, I tell the story of four families deported from Auvillar, a history that to this day remains hidden to most villagers and visitors. Nothing marks the houses where they lived. For years and even today, many in France do not want to face their past any more than we in the States want to face our legacy of slavery or our native American genocide. I would say the memory part of my book connects with Auvillar on a deeply human level.
What is the meaning of the title, The Spiral Shell?
I was on a walking tour in Paris, exploring a part of the marais, Jewish Section, I hadn’t explored before. The tour leader stopped and pointed to a limestone building block. France was once an inland sea and buildings in Paris are made from limestone dug from quarries under the city. I couldn’t see what I was supposed to see. Then I saw it, the indentation of a spiral shell, a fossil. Then, later the tour leader found a tiny spiral shell among crushed up shells that made a path. He dropped it into my palm. It sits on my desk. The shell is like my narrative; it spirals up.
Did you consider turning your personal experiences and what you learned about Auvillar into fiction and writing your story as a novel?
I did not. I started out as a fiction writer, and I have about four unpublished novels on my shelf. I’ve had agents. I’ve come in second in contests. I figured that was enough. I turned to essays, and I loved the form.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
I want everyone to read and love The Spiral Shell. In the book, I cultivate empathy and connection, two things we need desperately right now.
Can you recommend any other memoirs about the Holocaust or Jewish resistance in World War II?
A classic would be Margaret Duras, The War, A Memoir. I loved The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Wall, not exactly a resistance story, but I found myself retracing his peoples’ steps in Paris. De Waal led me to the Musée Nissim de Camando in Paris. I highly recommend The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir. It’s published by Schaffner Press, publisher of The Spiral Shell. Three more are A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Crooked Mirror by Louise Steinman, and The Rescuer by Dara Horn.
What do you think people today can learn from the stories about WWII and the Holocaust?
Is everything an okay answer? The struggle for justice is never over. It’s an ongoing fight. The challenge is to retain our humanity in dark times. This, too, is an ongoing struggle.
You have a terrific website and are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources?
In this time of COVID19, they are my lifeline. So many wonderful people have taken me under their wing. I’m a debut book writer with no track record, and my book came out when the country shut down. I felt like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up hill. Then, the wonderful Jenna Blum introduced the book on pub day on A Mighty Blaze.
Many, but not all, of my bookstore events went to Zoom. I’ll be interviewed by Annie Mcdonnell of The Write Review on August 31st. I list all of my events on the events page on my website.
What are you working on now?
I’m keeping it pretty close. I will say it’s another memoir, and it takes place during the time I was writing this memoir and visiting France, so 2011- 2017. It’s a family story, and it has many of the same themes, social justice, what it means to be a mother, and for me a grandmother. We live simultaneous lives, but we can only write about one at a time.
THANK YOU, SANDELL!
THE SPIRAL SHELL IS AVAILABLE ONLINE FROM ALL MAJOR SOURCES.