Non-fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 112 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day just around the corner (on January 27), it seems fitting to review Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back, which I read at the tail end of last year.
This short, searing memoir, written as a letter from a daughter to her late father, is a powerful and moving read. It’s brevity means it can be easily read in a sitting, but it’s the kind of heart-rending, exquisitely composed story that stays with the reader long after you have reached the final page.
A haunting memoir
“I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us,” Marceline begins, as she pours out her heart to the man she would never know as an adult.
In 1944, when Marceline was 15 and her father was in his early 40s, the pair were arrested in occupied France and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were forcibly separated.
Afterwards, history linked those two places with a simple hyphen. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people just say Auschwitz, the largest death camp of the Third Reich. Time obliterates what separates us. It distorts everything. Auschwitz was built behind a little town; Birkenau was in the countryside. It was only when you went out through the large gate with your work detail that you could catch a glimpse of the other camp. The men from Auschwitz looked toward us and thought: That’s where our wives, our sisters, our daughters died; and that’s where we’ll end up, in the gas chambers. And I, I looked towards you and wondered, Is it a camp or a town? Has he gone to the gas chamber? Is he still alive? Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable uncertainty of what was happening to us all. It was if we were separated by thousands of kilometres. The books say it was barely three.
Marceline’s story hinges on a single memory: of receiving a note from her father, smuggled to her in Birkenau from Auschwitz, which begins: “This is a message from your father.” It was their last ever communication.
Life after liberation
As well as detailing the horrors of the camp, But You Did Not Come Back is one of those rare Holocaust testimonies which looks at difficulties associated with repatriation and the aftermath of trauma. Marceline explains how hard it was to readjust to normal life when she returned home, how her little brother did not recognise her, how her mother asked her intrusive questions about whether she had been raped — “Are you still a virgin?” — and how she longed to sleep on the floor because “I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed any more” but wasn’t allowed.
In passing, she mentions two suicide attempts and then explains the irony of this: “[…] in the camp, I did everything I could to stay alive. Never allowed myself to believe that death would mean peace.”
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, but they were mad, and not just the Jews — everyone! The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.
Yet for all the sadness and the aching, haunting quality of Marceline’s story, it ends on a hopeful note: that writing to her father has helped “release what is clasped tightly to my heart”, that surviving the camp was worth it in the end.
If you liked this, you might also like:
This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held: an extraordinarily beautiful novel about life (and marriage) after the death camps.