A French memoir of the Holocaust shows the courage of choosing to survive

 Marceline Loridan-Ivens's But You Did Not Come Back is a addressed to her father and tells the story of her time in the camps - and the years after.

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Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s father had bought a château in Provence; a grand place, with 20 rooms – an expensive but certain way, he seemed to believe, of ensuring that he and his children would be thought of as French. He had come to France from Poland in 1919 to find freedom from persecution, but there was no escape. In 1944 he was arrested along with his 15-year-old daughter, Marceline, and taken to the Drancy internment camp, and from there to Auschwitz. “You might come back,” he told his daughter, “because you’re young, but I will not come back.”

It was a prophecy: Szlhama Froim Rozen­berg did not come back. An official document from the French government confirmed his death – “missing and presumed dead” – following his “transfer” to Maut­hausen and Groß-Rosen. It took five more years for him to be declared finally dead – because he was not French, despite having petitioned the government for citizenship since his arrival. He was, his daughter writes, “a foreign Jew”.

Loridan-Ivens’s slender memoir is written as a letter to her beloved father. She is now 87, and lives in Paris; she made her career as an actress, a screenwriter and a director, taking the names of her two husbands because she found them more comfortable to bear – yes, even in postwar France – than “Rozenberg”. Barely 100 pages long, set in large, well-spaced type, it is devastating all the same. Loridan-Ivens writes in a plain, conversational style (the translation is by Sandra Smith, who has translated the work of Irène Némirovsky, among others) that flows as memory does, observation and recollection in balance. It can be read at a sitting; and then asks to be read again.

For even at this distance, when we think we know what happened, and what history tells us, the truth, as seen through Marceline’s clear-eyed gaze, astonishes and horrifies. (Those words have become clichés – but what else is there to say?) The book asks us to imagine not knowing what would happen next: and ignorance is frightening, because it opens the possibility that history can repeat itself. “Other words you said haunted me then,” she writes, of the time just before she and her father were taken to the camps in the east. “Those words were more important than anything. You said them at Drancy, when we still didn’t know where we were going. Like everyone else, we said over and over again: ‘We’re going to Pitchipoï,’ that Yiddish word that stands for an unknown destination and sounds so sweet to children.”

It is her father’s words to which she clings – or tries to. Somehow, when she is in Birkenau and he in Auschwitz, he manages to smuggle a note to her, but the words he wrote have vanished from her memory and will not return, no matter how hard she tries to recall them. They have been crowded out by the memories of trains full of emaciated prisoners, by the sight of a tattoo on her left arm (number 78750), by work digging ditches beside a road leading to a crematorium, by the brutal recollection of a girl who falls as she carries a crate of potatoes with Marceline; Marceline is forced forward by a Nazi guard and shunts into the girl, who collapses, and the Nazi kills her off with the butt of his rifle. “I killed her,” Loridan-Ivens writes.

There is kindness, too, and courage in this book: not least the author’s courage in choosing to live. Two siblings committed suicide, though neither of them had been deported; of her younger brother, Michel, she writes that “he was sick from the camps without ever having been there”.

Her mother is an elusive figure here; she was not deported, either, and after the war lives in willed forgetfulness. She does not meet her daughter at the station when she returns to Paris; she does not understand the force of the awful memories that threaten to devour her daughter. “You have to forget,” her mother says to her. But it was not only her mother who willed away the past: “No one wanted my memories.”

Loridan-Ivens is one of 160 still alive out of the 2,500 men, women and children who returned to France after the war; 76,500 had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. “You had chosen France,” she says, addressing her lost father, but “she isn’t the melting pot you’d hoped for. Everything is getting tense again.” She sees a resurgent anti-Semitism in a country increasingly fractured by sectarian violence, as the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Paris attacks in November showed. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled,” she says. Perhaps there is no consolation other than survival. 

But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens is published by Faber & Faber (100pp, £12.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie