Sunday, May 4, 2008

Biography: Youth

Yvette's exceptional youth had a deep impact on her art. She wrote her memoirs of that period in 1999, now published as "Un Diamant brut - Vézelay-Paris, 1938-1950", Ed. Métailié, 2008

She was born in Bourgundy, France (1929). She, and her younger brother soon after, were placed in the French fostering system, the "Assistance Publique"1 who had complete control over its wards' lives. Her first years as a foster child were spent in a loving family in a small township, believing her parents were dead and that her brother was all the family she had.

At the age of 9 (1938) she was taken from that family, deemed old enough to work in a farm (as was the practice then with foster children). She was placed at a farm in a small village. There she learned that her father died only several months before, and that she had two elder siblings, a brother and a sister (who had lived nearby with the father).

She was abused physically and mentally by her foster parents, and the only comfort, the only "humanity", she found in that period of her life was with the cows she herded.2

At the age of 12 (1941) she was near death. The Assistance Publique, functioning under German occupation as before, removed her from the abusing foster family and placed her at another farm, in a small village near Vézelay.

Her new foster parents allowed her to heal physically and mentally, to study - and to draw. Taking black market produce from the farm to a nearby villa, she met the owners, the Zervos.

The (childless) Zervos, impressed by her and her drawings, offered to adopt her. At the age of 13 she suddenly left the almost medieval world of rural France to the one of the leading names in French art - Picasso, Braque, Miró3, Éluard, etc. During the occupation she was tutored by the friends of the Zervos, and after she started art studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.

After the war, the closest friend of the Zervos was the poet and "resistance" fighter, René Char. Yvette was part of all their joint projects, e.g. the creation of the Festival d'Avignon.

With the end of the war she also became aware of Jews and of their fate in WWII. She empathized and started claiming that "what was done to the Jews was done to me", which quickly became "me too, I'm Jewish".

However, living with the Zervos had a darker side - sexual abuse by Christian Zervos. It became worse after the war, when Yvonne Zervos was "busy" with René Char. Yvette started making wild plans to escape.

In 1949 she met at the Zervos' an Israeli lawyer, Shmuel Alexander Szczupak, an adventurous "bon vivant" and 30 years her elder. The Zervos sent her to a vacation in Israel under his "guardianship" and a romance developed.

Back in France she carried out her plan to escape, with the help of friends like Ida Chagall, Marc Chagall's daughter. Being still a minor according to French law she had to arrange her status. That's how she found out that the Zervos had never adopted her (and that she had yet another, younger, sister).

She came to Israel, converted to Judaism, married my father and began her life as an artist. She forgave, or came to accept, all of the wrongs and abuses she had suffered except one - she never forgave the Zervos for lying to her about having adopted her.4

Ariel L. Szczupak.

1 . For a scholarly discussion of the Assistance Publique operation in the early 20th century see, e.g., publications by Ivan Jablonka.
2. "The Dream",
copper etching, late 80's.
3. Portrait of Joan Miró, crayon conté drawing, 1949.
4. "The family that wasn't", woodcut, 1970

Digital images © Ariel L. Szczupak 2008


Anonymous said...


I am currently reading "Un Diamant Brut" in french : an incredible story very well written. I have such pleasure and interest in reading Yvette's story that I would like to share this experience with part of my family. Unfortunately, they cannot read French. Has it been translated into English ? I searched the net and could not find anything. Thanks

Admin said...

I'm glad you liked it. It hasn't been translated into English. Yet (I hope). There is however an Italian version coming out tomorrow.