Marceline Loridan-Ivens is one of around 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. ‘I was quite a cheerful person’, she writes in the opening words of But You Did Not Come Back, her moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen when she and her family were rounded up by French police before being despatched to Auschwitz, she survived but her father did not return.

After seeing the acclaimed film Son of Saul, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ slim volume has been the second journey back into the dark heart of Auschwitz that I have made in  recent days.

But You Did Not Come Back is written in the form of a letter to Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ father, who was arrested with her in France in 1943. He was a Polish Jew who had settled in France, ‘perhaps because of Zola and his J’Accuse’, but whom France had never granted citizenship. ‘You must have told yourself that nothing could happen to us here’, she writes. ‘How naive you were’. It was French police who arrested them.

What is distinctive about this Holocaust memoir is that it is as much about before and after, as about then. In the monologue addressed to her lost father, Marceline recalls family life in southern France. Having emigrated to France from Poland in 1919, her father took to wearing ‘an English top hat’ and, in a further attempt to assimilate, bought himself a château. ‘Did you think that by becoming the owners of a château we would no longer be Jews?’ she asks. In 1940, the village fell under Vichy rule. She wonders whether her father ‘believed too much in the Free Zone.’

Or the village’s mayor and police chief, who’d promised you they’d give us some warning.  We were Jewish and we lived in the most visible of all the houses.

They left it too late to leave and go into hiding. On the night they came, Marceline’s mother and sister managed to hide, but she and her father were seized for deportation. The Germans set up their headquarters in their home.

Marceline Loridan-Ivens with her family, 1935
Marceline Loridan-Ivens with her family, 1935

Marceline’s book is a love letter to her father Shloime, who fled from the Nazis in Poland, believed that France would protect its Jews but from the fascists, but who was deported back to Poland to die. Marceline writes, ‘I loved you so much that I was happy to be deported with you’.

It’s a broken memory of her father in Auschwitz with which she begins her book:

I can picture the note you managed to get to me back there, a stained little scrap of paper, almost rectangular, torn on one end. I can see your writing, slanted to the right, and four of five sentences that I can no longer remember. I’m sure of one line, the first: ‘My darling little girl,’ and the last line too, your signature: ‘Shloime’.  But what came in between, I don’t know anymore.  I try to remember and I cant.  I try, but it’s like a deep hole and I don’t want to fall in. … Why don’t I remember? All I have left is Schloïme and his darling little girl. They were deported together. You to Auschwitz, me to Birkenau.

One day her work detail comes across his, and they run to embrace each other, for which they are both severely beaten. But he manages to slip her a tomato and an onion.

Before Auschwitz, at the Drancy staging post, her father was a prophet: he told her, ‘You might come back, because you’re young, but I will not come back.’

That prophecy became a terrifying companion, in spite of myself. I clung on to it sometimes; I loved those first words when my friends, and the ones who weren’t my friends, disappeared one by one. Then I rejected your prophecy, I hated the words ‘I will not come back’, words that condemned you, separated us, seemed to offer up your life in exchange for mine.

Even when news percolated into the camp of the landings, the battles, the liberation of Paris, the menace of the gas chambers drained all hope:

We were all on the brink. We only lived in the present, minute by minute. Nothing could give us hope. Hope was dead.

In my previous post I descried the new film from Hungarian director László Nemes, Son of Saul. Nemes’s film concerns that exact same moment when the Hungarian transports arrived at Auschwitz. Marceline describes those days in words of understated precision:

Hundreds of thousands of them – you remember that flood of people, as if entire cities were pouring into the camp. Everything increased, both the numbers and the pace. They undressed them, sent them to the gas chambers – the children, babies, and old people first as usual.

After the Hungarians, it was the turn of those from the Lodz ghetto to be liquidated. Marceline’s father was from Lodz:

I saw them walking up to the gas chambers. I thought that relatives I didn’t know, my aunts, uncles cousins, grandparents, were among them. I kept working. I struck the ground without looking around me, with no memories, n future, exhausted by not having enough to drink or eat; I dug ditches where the bodies of fifty distant relatives from Lodz would burn. I lived in the present, in the next heave of my pickaxe or the moment when Mengele, the camp’s devil, made us undress and decided who would go to to the gas chamber.

She was there, too, when the Sonderkommandos revolted – the event which provides the climax to Nemes’s film:

No-one reacted, not me, not the others … The Jewish women working in the armament factory had given them gunpowder, but the non-Jewish local Resistance members had refused to give them weapons. The Sonderkommanos blew up the crematorium, blew away their shame, for every day they carried the bodies from the gas chambers and threw them into the fire.

Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Marceline Loridan-Ivens

Then there was the time after.

I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. We were happy in our own way, as a revenge against sadness, so we could still laugh.

That’s how Marceline begins this short book – a polished jewel of exactly one hundred pages. But her second paragraph sharply corrects the illusion of the first sentence: ‘And so I think about you. I can picture the note you managed to get to me back there.’

When she first returned to Paris in 1945, she writes that she and the other survivors ‘were miracles’. But she knew that miracles had been in short supply:

To everyone … reading the lists, or on the sidewalks waving signs and photographs of their families who’d disappeared, I said over and over again: ‘Everyone is dead.’ If they insisted , showing me family photos, I’d calmly say, ‘Were there children? Not a single child will come back’

Her father died at Gross-Rosen in 1945. After the war, the family received a death notice from the French government saying that her father had ‘died for France.’ But, she insists, he died ‘because he was Jewish’. Addressing her father, she writes: ‘You did not really die for France. France sent you to your death. You were wrong about her.’

There’s a deep well of bitterness here – and fear for what the future might hold. After the war, she notes that de Gaulle ‘said that the arrests of Jews had been done by the Germans’

But it was a lie. The French gave lists of Jews to the Germans and participated in the arrests. I was arrested by both.

And now she writes to her dead father – who thought he could assimilate by buying a château in the countryside:

You had chosen France, she isn’t the melting pot you’d hoped for. Everything is getting tense again. We’re called ‘French Jews’; there are also French Muslims, and here we are face-to-face – I who had hoped never to take sides, or at least, to simply be on the side of freedom. I’ve listened to threats that sounded like echoes from the past, I’ve heard people shouting ‘Death to the Jews’ and ‘Jews, fuck off, you don’t own France’, and I’ve wanted to throw myself out of the window. Day by day, I’m losing my convictions, the nuances, some of my memories; I end up questioning my past commitments; I see policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.

If hers is a story of survival, it is also one that reveals how the trauma of the Holocaust continued to make its impact on succeeding generations – forcefully, brutally, like a blunt instrument. Marceline tells how, in the aftermath, she tried to kill herself twice. Her younger brother, who had been inseparable from his father before his arrest and deportation, developed bipolar illness and killed himself. Marceline’s mother died shortly afterwards, and Marceline’s sister killed herself. Both of her siblings took their own lives by ‘the same cocktail’ of pills and alcohol. They were, she writes, ‘sick from the camps without ever having been there’.

If you only knew, all of you, how the camp remains in all our minds, and will until we die.

Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan-Ivens in 1988
Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan-Ivens in 1988

Nevertheless, Marceline’s account of her life after Auschwitz is one of recovery and success – as an actress, screenwriter and documentary film maker. In 1962 she directed a controversial film, Algeria, Year Zero, about the liberation struggle. Then, in the same year, she met the politically-engaged Dutch documentary film maker, Joris Ivens. Together, they made committed films about Communist China and North Vietnam which she now regards as being naïve and simplistic, ‘based on illusion’. I think I might have seen at least one of their films in my student days.

In 1993, four years after Ivens death, Marceline began work on a feature film entitled The Birch-Tree Meadow which appears to have been an attempt to present the autobiographical memories of But You Did Not Come Back in semi-fictional form (it appears to be completely unavailable, in any format, this side of the Channel). In the film, eventually released in 2003 and named after Birkenau, German for ‘birch tree meadow’, Anouk Aimee plays Myriam who, as a teenager, was deported to Auschwitz. After some hesitation, she decides to retrace her steps to the place to which she vowed never to return.

Whatever the qualities of this unseen film were, it can be stated unhesitatingly that But You Did Not Come Back is a moving – and challenging – soliloquy from a Holocaust survivor (beautifully translated by Sandra Smith). Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir is both a clear expression of how those who did survive were – along with their families – forever harmed, not just by their own experiences in the camps, but also by the indifference and incomprehension of the post-war world. It is yet another rallying cry for remembrance, and for her experiences to be learned from.

In ‘When a Holocaust Memoir Becomes a Ghost Story‘, Raphael Magarik made this observation:

The 87-year-old Loridan-Ivens is writing for an audience for whom the Holocaust is increasingly distant and spectral. Some of her youngest French readers could have grandparents who were born after the war. Moreover, for the millions of French Muslims, the Holocaust must seem a non-sequitur, someone else’s history entirely. And although the French Jewish community is enormous and in many respects thriving, the ubiquitous reports of cautious contingency plans to depart make its non-existence at least a hypothetical possibility. In tomorrow’s France, the Holocaust might cease to be living, concrete history, becoming instead as slippery and ineffable as a ghost story.

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