When the leftist French Jewish singer/songwriter Jean Ferrat (born Tenenbaum) died last March at the age of 79, the outpouring of affectionate tributes surprised some. After all, Ferrat had been retired to an Ardèche village in south-central France for a number of years. A detailed new biography has appeared from Les éditions Fayard, “Jean Ferrat: Singing is No Pastime for Me” (Jean Ferrat, Je ne chante pas pour passer le temps) by journalist Daniel Pantchenko, to explain the lastingly galvanizing emotional power of Ferrat’s songs.
Born in 1930, Ferrat experienced first the hopes of France’s Front Populaire movement led by the statesman Léon Blum, and then the rise of European Fascism. In an interview quoted by Pantchenko, Ferrat recalled how in German-occupied Paris, his Russian Jewish father, Mnacha Tenenbaum, returned from his job as a produce peddler with yellow stars which all Jews were henceforth required to wear:
We felt as if we were branded. In fact, there was no feeling involved, we were indeed branded! Like an animal! But we didn’t know the animal was being sent to the slaughterhouse.
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