New Holocaust memoir storms bestseller charts

The author aged 16: Shortly before she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. © Doc personnels

On April 13 1944, accompanied by her Polish-born father, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Paris. She was 16 at the time. Now she has written him a love letter.

A bestseller in France, But You Did Not Come Back is Loridan-Ivens’ memoir of those dreadful times. Despite its gruesome subject matter, the book has moments of bleak humour and its affirmation of human tenderness instils a kind of joy in the reader.

‘I loved you so much that I was happy to be deported with you,’ she writes of her father, Solomon Rosenberg. Early in the book, she tells of a conversation with him as they prepared for the trains which would take them to eastern Europe. ‘You might come back, because you’re young,’ he told her, ‘But I will not come back.’

Loriden-Ivens is now 87 and living in Paris; her slim memoir of the Holocaust and its after effects, is written as a love letter to the father whose prediction was true.

It’s ‘devastating’, wrote Erica Wagner in the New Statesman: ‘It can be read at a sitting; and then asks to be read again.’ The ‘letter of a lifetime,’ agreed Helen Davies in The Sunday Times. ‘It is profound, compelling, effortless, searing. Almost every sentence is a distillation of the human capacity for suffering and survival.’

The author tells of fear, hunger, disease and despair experienced at the camps she was sent to. ‘Nothing could give us hope any more. Hope was dead.’

She recounts being beaten and knocking down a girl in front of her: ‘The Nazi finished her off with the butt of his rifle. I call her a little girl, but she was no younger and no smaller than me, but so fragile, thinner than me, so I remember her as a child, and I killed her.’

Her two siblings have since committed suicide, and she has twice attempted to do so; for years after returning, showers and undressing made her panic; and she still shivers at train stations. She ends by warning of the enduring hatred which Jews face.

Her work is in a tradition of personal accounts of suffering during the Holocaust. Both Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel’s Night have sold millions of copies. Subsequent genocides have inspired similar work, such as Leah Chishugi’s A Long Way from Paradise, about the Rwandan genocide.

The right to condemn

At the book’s terrible heart, though, is a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who survived Auschwitz have the right to forgive or condemn, the author intimates, and even they are not fit to do so, for, as Primo Levi wrote, those who fathomed the depths of human degradation ‘did not come back to tell the tale’.

Not so, respond others. Those who survived have a hugely important role, yes. And it is easy to be facile. But the rest of us too can understand and condemn. That is the power and the gift of human imagination. Imagination means we were all there.

You Decide

  1. Which details of this story are you most likely to remember?
  2. Are personal accounts the best way to learn about the Holocaust, or objective history?

Activities

  1. Write to a friend, who is also your age. Explain why we should learn about the Holocaust, and what you think they should read to find out the most about it.
  2. Read one of the life stories on the Holocaust Memorial Day website (under Become An Expert). Prepare a two-minute presentation to your class about what that person experienced and what we can learn from it.

Some People Say...

“I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is the Holocaust just history?
Genocide has been a tragic feature of human history for centuries. One Yale scholar calls the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC at the end of the Punic Wars the ‘first genocide’. Since the Holocaust there have been genocides in countries including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Unfortunately it is still being perpetrated today — in northern Iraq, Daesh’s murders of Yazidi Christians have been described as genocide.
Can I take anything heartening from this book?
Sometimes appalling crimes can evoke the best in humanity, as well as the worst. After the only time she met her father (from whom she was separated) at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the author found a tomato and an onion in her hand. ‘Those two vegetables made everything possible once more,’ she writes.

Word Watch

Marceline Loridan-Ivens
She is now 87. Since the Holocaust she has worked as an actress, a screenwriter and a director.
160
76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Just 2,500 of them returned.
Fear
She writes: ‘the gas chamber hung over us, menacing’.
Hatred
Yesterday, a report on anti-Semitism in Europe stated that almost 9,900 Jews from western Europe had migrated to Israel last year — the highest number on record. Most came from France. Noting that the rise of Islamism has been associated with intolerance of Jews the report also blames the rise of far-right parties.
The Diary of a Young Girl
The Anne Frank Centre in the USA says this book has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, aged 15.
Night
Wiesel’s book has sold over 10 million copies. He is an 87-year-old Romanian Jew who survived Auschwitz.
Rwandan genocide
On 6 April 1994, the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s aeroplane was shot down. Murderous attacks followed by the ethnic majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died.

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