A few years after World War II, sometime at the beginning of the 1950s, I became aware of the Holocaust for the first time, not because of any discussions at home or from newspapers (I didn’t pay much attention to them in those years). When I was in my early teens, a number of sensational paperbacks became available, not only with printed text but also horrifying photographs of what was discovered in the death camps once they were liberated. I remember photos of naked women, piled up on top of one another. I was an avid buyer of paperbacks, which in those days mostly sold for 25 or 35 cents. I don’t even remember discussing what I read with any adult. I probably thought that if my parents realized I had purchased those books, they would be confiscated.
Such was my introduction to the Holocaust, not a pretty picture then or anytime later.
Much of the serious literature—the first-hand accounts of survivors and novels by those same people and others—has riveted our attention ever since those early years. I’m talking about Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levy and others, plus controversial works such as Thomas Keneally’s Shindler’s List and Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. I’ve read dozens of these accounts of the Holocaust and regard Arnost Lustig’s A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova as the most chilling example of the pure evil of the camp facilitators that I’ve ever encountered. Lustig, who was Czech, died a few years ago, and I was blessed to know him well when he lived in the United States and taught in the same department as I did at American University. If you haven’t read that novel, you should easily be able to locate a copy.
This takes me to Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir, But You Did Not Come Back, an enormous success when it was published in France last year and now translated into English. Even the publishers ask the question: is there anything else to say about the Holocaust that hasn’t already been said?
The disturbing answer is yes.
Writer, actress, and director, she survived life in several concentration camps, if you can call life after such wretchedness survival. The litany that runs through her stark, brief memoir (in a beautiful translation by Sandra Smith) is stated in the opening paragraph in this short sentence: “I don’t belong here anymore.” Variations of that statement run like a leitmotif throughout her entire narrative. In the final paragraph, she asks another survivor, “Do you think it was a good thing for us to have come back from the camps?” And the friend responds, “No I don’t.”
The question Loridan-Ivens asks is whether anyone can survive such horror. Her answer is addressed to her father. Together, the two of them were taken from Paris by the Nazis and subsequently separated, her father to Auschwitz, and she to Birkenau. Though these camps are adjacent to one another, “It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers. The books say it was barely three.” She was fifteen years old and given other people’s clothes to wear (as were all the other females in her camp). Somehow, her father managed to send her a brief note, which she immediately had to destroy. He also smuggled a tomato and an onion to her, but that was all. End of communication. She never heard from him again; after the war, he did not return.
She was seventeen when the war ended, and she observes of her father, “You didn’t really die for France,” in spite of the government’s attempt to make him into a hero. Rather, she states, “France sent you to your death,” an incredible indictment of France’s complicity with the Nazis. The rest of her family (her mother and her siblings, who were not in the camps) never recovered from his loss. She attempted suicide at least twice; her brother went mad. Her mother believed that all her daughter needed to do to recover was get married. “The camp remains permanently alive with us,” she states of all the people who returned.
Her memoir was written when she was eighty-six and “one of the 160 still alive out of the 2,500 who came back—76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.” She writes about a friend who is also still alive. “I’ve watched her take teaspoons in cafés and restaurants and slip them into her handbag; she’d been a minister, an important woman in France, an imposing person, but she still hoards worthless teaspoons so she doesn’t have to lap up the terrible soup of Birkenau. If you only knew, all of you, how the camp remains permanently within us. It remains in all our minds, and will until we die.”
But You Did Not Come Back is as disturbing an account of what it was like to return from the extermination camps as anything I have read. But it gets worse, because the final segue is towards anti-Semitism in France today, what Marceline Loridan-Ivens describes as “an eternal given.” She states that she wishes she could run away from the history of the world: “The world is a hideous medley of communities and religions pushed to the extreme. And the hotter things get, the more unclear and important everything becomes, the more it has to do with us, the Jews.” Sadly, her words are what we read and hear in our news every day. Hate has become a growth industry.
What will get us first? Climate change or racial hatred?
Marceline Loridan-Ivens: But You Did Not Come Back
Trans. By Sandra Smith
Atlantic Monthly Press, 112 pp., $22.00