Author’s journey of discovery to WWII France, and her own past
York writer Sandell Morse was inspired by a family who shared her maiden name.

Some 10 years ago, Sandell Morse was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had won a residency at Moulin à Nef, an artists’ retreat in Auvillar in southwestern France.

Auvillar is a medieval village on the pilgrim’s road to Santiago di Compostela.

However, it was the fate of a Jewish family living there during the World War II that fired Morse’s imagination. Her curiosity stemmed not least from their name, Hirsch, which happened to be her maiden name.

The Hirsches were members of the Jewish resistance and even employed their 9-year-old son as a courier. Some 70 years later, Jean Hirsch was still alive, a retired doctor living in Paris.

Morse decided that her goal at Auvillar would be to research and write “a series of essays – hybrid forms that would be part history, part memoir, and part travel – about this boy.”

“The Spiral Shell” was originally intended to be a collection of these essays, which had already appeared to considerable acclaim in various literary magazines. However, her agent suggested recasting them in narrative form. Morse, who lives in York, has responded with an at times disconcertingly personal book that travels along two tracks of discovery: one, the history – brought to life in interviews with survivors – of a handful of extraordinarily brave women; the other, what she has called her own “patchy relationship” with Judaism.

The roots for both go back to her childhood “in the shadow” of World War II. From her grandmother – her rituals and her traditional cooking – the author received “my deep love of Judaism’s soulful heart.” Shortly after the war ended, 5- or 6-year-old Sandell came across photographs from the death camps in a copy of Life magazine. 

Somehow, she knew the bodies were Jewish.

At school, she and her friends “whispered” about the horrors “the way we whispered about sex, knowing and not knowing, believing and not believing.”

In Auvillar, Morse, aided by a couple of sympathetic townspeople, set about tracking down the 70-year-old story of Jean Hirsch and his parents, at the same time diving into everyday French provincial culture. Over the course of several years, she returned a number of times to what became “my beloved village.” As she did so, the Hirsch family story became more complicated.

In the meantime, she made the acquaintance of a woman who had run a network rescuing Jewish children in the (at first) unoccupied south.

If there is a second leading lady in “The Spiral Shell,” it is Germaine Poliakov, who died this February at age 101. Her husband, Leon, had been with the French delegation at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and his subsequent career (which Morse largely ignores) as “the very great historiographer” – so described in an English obituary – had enormous influence. Germaine, used to being in the shade of her husband’s fame, now finds herself in the limelight. Some of the best passages in the book concern this amazing nonagenarian’s recollections of her dangerous work, brought out over French cakes and tea in an elegant Parisian apartment.

In other parts of the story, I sometimes found Morse’s very personal approach to writing history uncomfortable.

In the absence of factual details, she lets imagination carry her away. Of a child being spirited to safety, she writes, “I saw her standing outside the building where she lived, adjusting the strap of her brown leather satchel and looking longingly up at a window framing her mother’s face.”

Out on a hike along the Pilgrim’s Way, she is disquieted by the reek of Europe’s violent medieval history and upset that people she passed “assumed I was Christian.

… What was I supposed to do, cry out, Hey, look at me, I am not who you think I am?”

Her sensitivity is understandable in light of a deeply shocking personal experience at a school where she was teaching in New Hampshire: a student asked to see her “horns.” But when, in that context, she “remembered Michelangelo’s horned Moses,” an editorial note might have explained that current art historical opinion suggests this was not an example of anti-Semitism but arose from a mistranslation from the original Hebrew.

The “memoir” share of her book, which can erupt even during an interview, provides lively insights into the life of a physically and emotionally adventurous woman. I loved her self-portrait from the ’60s as the suburban mother and wife who dressed like a flower child.

But “The Spiral Shell’s” strength lies in what Morse pieced together about a village under occupation.

She quotes Timothy Snyder’s chilling book about Hitler’s and Stalin’s mass murders, “Bloodlands”: “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” Stories such as the remarkable ones she has unearthed are really the only way of doing it.

Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs,” a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, will be published in 2021.