I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us…But I’m changing. It isn’t bitterness, I’m not bitter. It’s just as if I were already gone…I don’t belong here anymore.
Perhaps it’s trite to say that a book will haunt you, particularly one about the Holocaust. How can a story told about surviving Auschwitz not haunt you?
But there’s something unusually haunting about Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back, a slim but powerful book written as a message to her father, who perished in the camps and whose long shadow fell over the rest of her life. Marceline was also deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from her native France at age fifteen, captured by the collaborating Vichy government, but survived and returned home to a world she no longer understood and where she struggled to find her place. It was an experience that would characterize so many survivors’ postwar lives.
Marceline’s words, beautifully translated, capture painfully and evocatively what that felt like. The only person who could truly understand her experience, knowing who she’d been before and was becoming, and what happened during the war to alter that course forever, was gone. She describes slipping away inside her mind to talk to her father, always a blank page waiting there where she could write out the words only he could understand.
Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness, it was too intense, people wanted everything to seem like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me; they thought they were being rational, in harmony with passing time, the wheel that turns…The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.
The book was written near the end of her life, as she sifted through what she remembered of her father, highlighting their last interaction in the camp and what it had meant to her over the years, and reflecting on life after Auschwitz, rejoining family in France and the choices made and relationships built and lost with time. All of it clusters around the absence, constantly felt, of her father and what she’s wanted to tell him. Even considering the kind of strife a parent-child relationship will inevitably encounter at times, she observes, “I’ve spent my entire life trying to find that love.”
“What do you wish for most in the world, Marceline?”
No one ever asked me that question again.
Because of the amount of time that passed between the war and writing these recollections, it’s infused with a deeper understanding that can only come with time. This could never have been written by a younger person, and it was deeply humbling in that sense. Maybe what I found especially haunting about her particular experience is that she recognizes that the loss of her father was not even so much about what she knew and loved about him, but in what was yet to come and now never could. She writes that they were at a turning point in their relationship, where she didn’t quite know him yet but would soon have begun to understand more about him. Then came Auschwitz.
The Le Parisien blurb touts this as a book to be read in one sitting, and at around 100 pages in length that’s possible, but I found that, considering the emotional impact, it was better tempered with multiple readings. Its brevity is both its strength, in how carefully selected each word feels, but also something of a drawback, as events or stories or years in her life are sometimes skimmed over despite obviously containing much more. It seems she told all she wanted or was able to tell, and at least there’s this.
Holocaust literature and accounts from the camps is a genre with no lack of entries, but this was an especially lovely and poignant one. It’s poetic, deeply felt and richly told, somehow warm and loving despite the heartbreak and pain on every page. Marceline passed away in September 2018, and what a gift she left in this enduring, affecting memoir.
But You Did Not Come Back
by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from French by Sandra Smith
published in the US in 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press
first published in France in 2015