“Confessions of a good-for-nothing”, by Elie Barnavi, Grasset, 512 p., €25, digital €17.
The vision of these women, children and old men dazed with terror, fleeing the besieged cities of Mariupol or Kharkiv, whose names, like litanies, are repeated in a loop, upsets him. As a citizen and as a historian. And even as a former paratrooper of the Tsahal (the Israeli army) who fought in two wars, that of June 1967 and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which he moreover publicly opposed.
“The war in Ukraine is pure and simple aggression that no defense can justify. It is imposed by an autocrat who invades to annihilate a neighboring country whose very existence he thinks is not legitimate. Elie Barnavi is indignant with the “World of Books”, emphasizing that “this has not been seen in Europe since Nazism”. The Ukrainian tragedy finds deep resonances in him, whose family was originally from neighboring Bessarabia, in the current territory of Moldova, who now fears knowing the fate of his neighbour. “For me, these are not just television images but an echo of what has shaped my life, even though I haven’t really lived in these places that have always been laden with blood and misfortune, and not only for the Jews”, confides the academic and former diplomat who was and remains one of the figures of the peace camp in Israel.
A life of research
Now retired from teaching but still on the go, Elie Barnavi lives between Israel and Brussels. In Tel-Aviv, he lives in the city center in one of the small Bauhaus buildings which have earned the district a UNESCO listing. But he still spends a good third of his time in the Belgian capital, where he co-founded the Museum of Europe. And he always gladly makes a detour to Paris, his favorite city, where he lived in the early 1970s, when he was doing his thesis on 16th century France.and century, then, between 2000 and 2002, as Ambassador of Israel – “at one of the worst times”, he notes: the second Intafada had just broken out, which did not really simplify his mission. He came this time to present his memories, Confessions of a good-for-nothing. He had hesitated for a long time to draw up this balance sheet of a life of historical research and above all of commitments. “I’m very good at repression, it’s my way of conquering my demons”, he sighs.
Beautifully written, this lucid book ends with the death of a child – the suicide of his eldest daughter, Yaël – and opens with two other missing children, an older sister and brother he never knew. : both died of deprivation during the Second World War, when their mother fled to Uzbekistan. His parents had never told him about it, until he discovered by chance, at 19, a photo of his father carrying a baby who was not him. “She was your big sister” finally released his mother. His parents never even wanted to tell him his first name, any more than that of his brother. “If I was born, it’s thanks to Hitler,” he said furiously, convinced that if these two children who had preceded him had survived, his parents would not have given birth to him. “I have dragged the guilt of these words for years; to have dared to say them and even to have simply dared to think them”, he acknowledges.
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