"You might come back, because you're young, but I will not come back." (Marceline Loridan's father to her, 1944)
A runaway best seller in France, But You Did Not Come Back has already been the subject of a French media storm and hailed as an important new addition to the library of books dealing with the Holocaust. It is the profoundly moving and poetic memoir by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, who, at the age of 15, was arrested in occupied France along with her father. Later, in the camps, he managed to smuggle a note to her, a sign of life that made all the difference to Marceline - but he died in the Holocaust while Marceline survived.
In But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline writes back to her father, the man whose death overshadowed her whole life. Although her grief never diminished in its intensity, Marceline ultimately found her calling working as both an activist and a documentary filmmaker. But now, as France and Europe in general face growing anti-Semitism, Marceline feels pessimistic about the future. Her testimony is a memorial, a confrontation, and a deeply affecting personal story of a woman whose life was shattered and never totally rebuilt.
©2015 Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle. Translation copyright 2016 by Sandra Smith. First published in French as Et tu n'es pas revenu by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle. Recorded by arrangement with Grove Atlantic, Inc. (P)2016 Audible, Inc.
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"My darling little girl..." So begins the short note from father to daughter, scrawled on a torn scrap of paper at great personal risk to its writer and to its bearer, and smuggled out of Auschwitz to young Marceline in her cell block in Birkenau. Much as she treasures the note for as long as she is able to hold on to the physical object itself, she can never afterwards recall the remainder of her father's last words to her. "I try to remember and I can't," she says. "I try, but it's like a deep hole and I don't want to fall in." This haunting memoir (written as one long letter from daughter to the father she lost) is lean and spare, lyrical and lovely even in the horror it describes. It pulls no punches, while overstating nothing. There is no redundancy, no repetition even though it is nonlinear, like poetry, moving fluidly from past to present. That is its only flaw, if the book has one; while the narrator is excellent and does ample justice to the material, a listener may feel a little lost at times. I found it beneficial to review chapters I'd listened to using a print copy, in order to see what exactly had taken place during some of the more fleeting transitions between sections.
One of the things that makes this unique memoir so unforgettable is the perspective of the author, looking back from the vantage point of so many years later upon events that seared their imprint on her mind and on her flesh, both literally and figuratively. "I’m an elderly lady now," she tells the father who never lived to see half the years she has attained, "I'm not afraid to die, I don’t panic. I don’t believe in God, or that there’s anything after death. I’m one of the 160 still alive out of the 2,500 who came back—76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Six million Jews died: in the camps, killed and thrown into mass graves, gassed, shot at point blank range, massacred in the ghettos. Once a month, I have dinner with some friends who survived, we laugh together, even about the camp, in our own way. And I see [a childhood friend and fellow survivor] too. 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."
Heartwrenchingly, spoon-stealing is not nearly the most devastating lasting legacy of the Holocaust among its victims. "I never had children. I never wanted any," she tells her father. After the camps, "motherhood had no meaning any more: Babies were the first to be sent to the gas chamber." The camp leaves its mark even on those who never saw its horrors firsthand. Marceline tells her father that two of his other children who escaped capture later went on to take their own lives; they "died from the camps without ever having been there." Perhaps most striking of all are the author's reasons for telling her story now; she does sense that the past is about to repeat itself. "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."
Although "writing to you has helped me," she tells her father, the gaping hole that his disappearance left in her spirit can never be filled. She is forced even to admit that "deep down, I don’t know what kind of man you would have been. I feel as if I didn’t really know you. We were separated at the very moment when we would have begun to find out about each other.” The ending is a gut-punch that I cannot quote without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that you will never forget it.
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“I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us”, that is how Marceline Loridan-Ivens introduces herself to us, but I should say that this is not one of those uplifting, heartwarming, feel good memoirs; it’s not optimistic, spiritually elevating or full of assurances and hope for the future of the human race.
Loridan-Ivens's prose is strikingly factual and unsentimental. I believe that's because she didn't have to amplify her narrative, the reality is that the horrific account of what happened to her and her family speaks by itself.
In March 1944, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and her family were living a quiet but relative sheltered life in Nazi-occupied France. All of this changed when she and her father, Solomon Rozenberg, were captured and sent to Drancy, a location that served as a layover to the extermination camps located in Poland.
Immediately after their arrival the two of them got separated, Solomon was left in Auschwitz while Marceline was sent to Birkenau, a women’s concentration camp. The two places were separated by a mere three kilometers. Marceline was only 16 years old.
One day Marceline and Solomon catch a glimpse of each other. Marceline is euphoric when she sees him but her happiness is short-lived when soldiers savagely beat her into unconsciousness. A few weeks later, Solomon convinces a fellow prisoner to smuggle an onion, a tomato and a short letter for her, all things that were considered unimaginable luxuries in the camp.
Marceline has to make the note disappear so that the camp officers won’t find it on her, the narrative of this memoir is framed around her inability to recall the message her father wrote.
But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline's response to that note, in it she painfully contemplates what Solomon might have written to her and the precious memories she lost.
Later on, Marceline was sent to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died, and then to a factory where junker planes were manufactured. She was finally liberated in the early summer of 1945. She never heard from his father again.
This book is as much the story of Marceline's horrific experiences at Birkenau, as it is about the challenges she faced trying to readjust to an ordinary life after her return to France.
Last year marked the 70 year anniversary since the Soviets liberated the Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland, but reading Loridan-Ivens account you feel as if that event only took place a little while ago. But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir is that vivid and emotionally raw.
With its unsparing, bleak prose, this memoir will break your heart; so why should you even consider listening to it? I would say if for nothing else, because it’s gorgeously written, brutally honest and deeply touching.
But there is also this:
6,000,000 Jews died in the Holocaust. 76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 2,500 came back. 160 of them are still living. Marceline is just one of them. We are running out of survivors. Her story needs to be heard because sadly, it's remains very much relevant today.
Karen Cass' narration was absolutely flawless.
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