version anglaise Voyage au Pays d' Hazel Karr Hazel Karr's Picture Book

Peinture contemporaine

I live surrounded by phantoms floating around me. Those of my family.
I have painted the portraits of these beings who are no longer here not in order to exorcise them- for they are kindhearted phantoms-but so as to somehow fasten them down on canvas,the way one pins down butterflies. Phantom butterflies. There are just one or two portraits of myself, as a little girl. And I'm not a phantom. Not yet.


Jean-Claude Grumberg
10 January 2019


In my family, both on my mother's as well as my father's side we are tailors - in every sense of the word : tailors for ladies, for gents - whatever. My grandfather on my mother's side, name of Baruch, started the tradition, it is said, in the 19th century, going to work at the age of four and a half in his town of birth, Brody, which was then in the Austro Hungarian Empire. What was he doing at the age of four and a half in a workshop? Probably what I myself did when I was fourteen years old, primary school certificate in my pocket.That is to say sweeping the workshop, after sorting out the different scraps of cloth, and in winter lighting the fire in the heater. On my father's side, who was born in Galati, Roumania, the family were also tailors of course, from father to son and that till my father and his father were sent from Paris to Drancy and from Drancy to you know where... My mother was a seamstress, sewing men's shirts and so naturally I became an apprentice in a workshop making ladies clothing, where my incompetence worked wonders. They say there is a black sheep in every family who appears on the scene to break with tradition. My career as a tailor thus nipped in the bud, I tried to become an actor.

It was at that time about fifty years ago, that I met Hazel Karr. That says a lot about our respective ages, I know, but what to do, the decades go by without one really realizing it. Hazel was also trying to become an actress. She even played a leading role in a classic Yiddish play, in Yiddish if you please. One day we were sitting at a café terrace near the Theâtre de la Renaissance and talking about the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature that seemed to be at death's door. And I was telling her about a Yiddish writer whose work I was devouring, who was alive and writing in New York and who here she interrupted me and said "I know, who you mean, Singer. He's my uncle " "Your uncle?" "Yes my paternal grandmother's brother."

When you come to think of it Hazel's family was much like mine. With one essential difference, while my family were all tailors, in her family they were all writers, writers in the Yiddish language.

It was her grandmother, the eldest of the Singer children who started to write. Then her brother Israël Joshua started publishing short stories in one of the many Yiddish magasines for all those readers who were hungry for stories, realistic, social, family stories, all kinds of stories. He then published some important novels with a strong social flavour, these first appeared in Yiddish and were then translated everywhere in the world. His books in Yiddish became best-sellers, first in Poland, then in New York, the city where the families of tailors,cobblers, sick people,doctors all lived,all of them hungry for books, in Yiddish or in any other language, all of them wanting to know what was happening in Poland or elsewhere in Europe, the continent they had left and which some of them dreamed of going back to, and others wanted nothing more to do with.. They all talked a lot, dreamed of changing the world and,who knows,writing their own books in Yiddish, books for those who had been left behind in Europe those who still lived there before the catastrophe swept them away.and exterminated them.

And then the younger of the Singer children, Isaac Bashevis, who emigrated to New York to escape antisemitism and to join his brother, already a succesful writer, Isaac Bashevis also started to write and became if you please Nobel Prize of Literature for his work in Yiddish. And he made his acceptance speech in front of the Nobel jury and in front of the King and Queen of Sweden in Yiddish, may he forever be thanked for that !

The eldest of the Singer children, Esther, Hazel's grandmother - I know, I know, these family stories are difficult to follow, also difficult to live with and difficult to write about, especially when one is not especially talented - Hazel's grandmother,then, married the son of a a diamond dealer  And of course their son Maurice, Hazel's father, became a writer in London where he and his parents were refugees. He translated from the Yiddish his mother's book, The Dance of the Demons, and was the first to translate a short story by Bashevis which he published in a book entitled Jewish Short Stories of Today, book in which he also published a story by Joshua and one by Esther, both of which he translated and there was also a story by Maurice under the pen name Martin Lea. He wrote in English the way one writes in Yiddish, simply.

And so, it was a natural thing for Hazel, who had become a painter, to translate from English to French her father's book, The Singer Family - the Other Exile - London, the story of his life and the life of the Singer family. The book was published at the same time as the Yiddish stories of her grandmother written almost a century ago.

Are you still following ?

So to return to her son,in London or elsewhere, he met a young woman Lola, also the offspring of yet another Yiddish writer, A.M. Fuchs, and she became, by the grace of love, Hazel's mother. Lola did not become, as far as I know a Yiddish writer, but she did become a Yiddish painter, just as Hazel was to become many years later, in Paris.

And so Lola, Hazel's mother, began to pàint the way one writes, the way the family writes, in Yiddish or in any other language. She painted landscapes, people, men and women, so that they shouldn't disappear completely, so that they should leave a trace of their passage. She painted her journeys, the ones she undertook and the ones she dreamed of undertaking, she painted her loved ones, her hopes, her despair. Vienna is in her paintings. Vienna at the time of it's splendor, at the time when Vienna was still Vienna, capital, nay, jewel of intellectual, and artistic Europe. We see in her paintings her dreams and her nightmares, and we read her most secret thoughts, she also painted without really realizing it, the happy times so that they should not be effaced by the horrors and crimes of the unhappy times. She painted in the same way as the Singers and the others, the hundreds of thousands of Yiddish authors wrote, and then Hazel, out of loyalty, out of love for her family, changed her style, so as to bring those who were no more back again, so that they should exist in places where life goes on.. She painted so that those who had disappeared should not disappear totally, so that those who had been forgotten, those too should not disappear and should even reappear.

Hazel, with a light brush, with the sensitivity inherited from her mother, has saved from oblivion and given life to those shadows who people her canvases and which hang on the walls of her home. By the gracefulness and precision of her drawing she has reconstituted her family, the Singer family. To see their work, side by side, the work of the mother and of the daughter, is to see a family reunited once again and who, from one wall to another, speak to one another in Yiddish. Family whose mother country is art, whose flags are paintings and whose laws are recorded in books that no one can read or understand any more.

And this is the family way I love !

Jean-Claude Grumberg 

French playwright, screenwriter and author.

1991 Grand Prix du Théâtre de l'Académie Française for Zone Libre

Prix SACD for his complete works 

César 2003 : César for the best screenplay for Amen by Costa-Gavras


Click on the pictures to enlarge them