Joseph Joffo

A Bag of Marbles

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A Bag of Marbles Summary

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A Bag of Marbles is a 1973 memoir by French Jewish writer Joseph Joffo. Born in Paris, Joffo, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, tells the story of how he survived the Holocaust. Joffo’s father helped him escape Paris with his brother Maurice; they eventually met their brothers Albert and Henri in southeastern France at the Zone Libre. After the war, they returned to Paris and reunited with what remained of their family and home. A Bag of Marbles, Joffo’s best-known work, was adapted into a 1975 film of the same name.

The book begins in Paris in 1941. Though the war has raged for two years in Europe, France remains relatively unscathed. Ten-year-old Joffo flourishes in Paris and has many friends who are both Jewish and non-Jewish. His favorite pastime is playing marbles; after the seizure of Paris, the memory of this game comes to be symbolic of his lost childhood.

When the Nazis descend on Paris, Joffo’s childhood abruptly ends. Though his family is secular, and he has little understanding of Jewish history, the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people is unsparing. When he is ordered to wear a star that identifies him as a Jew, he trades it to a friend for a bag of marbles. As Hitler tightens his grip on the city, Joffo’s father realizes that his children’s lives are under threat. He sends Joffo and Maurice through Marseille and ultimately to Menton on the southeastern border of France. He urges them to conceal their Jewish identity at all costs. He stays behind to try to hold onto his small business.

Joffo and Maurice travel south into the demilitarized zone, crossing the Line of Demarcation in secret with the assistance of a boy named Raymond. They make it to Menton, where they meet Henri and Albert and see the sea for the first time in their lives. Their stay in Menton lasts for four months, and they relish their sanctuary from the strife in northern France. Afterward, the four boys travel to Nice, where they reunite with their parents. Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies advance inexorably. They overtake the parts of France that were considered safe, forcing Joffo and his brothers to leave for an Italian-run camp for boys called Moisson Nouvelle. There, they live in relative safety, despite the encroachment of the Nazis on Italy. Their streak of luck runs out when they visit Nice and are captured. Nearly relegated to concentration camps, while at the Nazi headquarters, Hotel Excelsior, they are saved thanks to the help of a priest. They then learn that their father has been arrested and sent to a camp, making it impossible for Joffo and his siblings to remain in Nice.

That winter, Joffo and Maurice return north to find their sister. Realizing that it is not safe to stay with her, they leave for a resort in the Alpines called Aix-les-Bains. Until the end of the war, Joffo works at a bookshop and Maurice works at a bakery. Just before Hitler is officially defeated, Joffo and Maurice learn of the restoration of peace in Paris while on a train. They return to Paris and find their father’s salon, where they meet their mother. They learn that their father died in a concentration camp. While he grieves his father’s death and suffers significant emotional trauma from the Holocaust, Joffo considers himself extremely lucky to have survived.

A Bag of Marbles is a vivid firsthand account of the difficult coming-of-age of a Jewish child during the worst mass genocide in human history.