Note: This is a repost from my old, now-defunct book blog. It was originally published 23/7/2016.
IN 6 WORDS: gut punch, real, father-daughter tragedy
For many years, I have avoided books and memoirs about the Holocaust. Not out of sensitivity or disinterest, but because of too many instances of unnecessary melodrama. Too often, writers ply for emotion and empathy that the reader simply cannot fathom, an attempt at pathos in understanding a world where there was none. The story is lost, swept up in the melodrama. So, what made me pick up this memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back” by Marceline Loridan-Ivens? This particular quote, printed on the back of the dust jacket:
“In literature, every so often, there comes a miracle, a book, a text, an author, a writing style, a way of recounting something, refusing any pathos and any exposition, saying things about life and death.”
It perfectly encapsulates the particular quality of Marceline’s work that separates it from other books, a quality that had me lying awake in bed long after I’d turned the lights off. Marceline speaks bluntly but with feeling, plainly but with insight; she recounts life without hope and full of profound loss with stark words and honest emotions, whether they are expected or not (often, her reactions to the events in her life surprise, only for the reader to quickly understand why they were as such). She refuses pity, or to pull at heartstrings. Her story is hers, and we are simply here to listen.
From the blurb (2016, Faber & Faber):
‘I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us.’
In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again.
‘But You Did Not Come Back’ is Marceline’s letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life. With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world.
This is a breathtaking memoir by an extraordinary woman, and an intimate and deeply moving message from a daughter to her father.
The text itself is a beautifully, simply articulated meditation of her life before, during, and after the war, presented as a letter to her deceased father.
It is a story of many stories, grandiose and minute in turn. The hope that comes from a single tomato and onion that her Father manages to slip her in a death camp, and the solitude of passing through the devastation of the twentieth century, alone. The fear of showers and chimneys, but the desire to change the world. She has no hope, and yet still she survives. All is told with stark honesty, rejecting attempts to connect with the reader and simply speaking from the heart and soul of terrible, cavernous memory and history.
She often returns to muse on the letter he smuggled her in the camp, and the words within that she has lost. That, and his words of prophecy, that he wouldn’t survive the ordeal of the camps, and she would. The shadow of both these incidents hovers over her thought throughout the text, returning and returning until the final understanding that her father’s story has become inextricably and eternally linked to hers. The relationship of father and daughter is the heart of this novel, the sun from which the other rays of the story fan out, each little event and evolving perception of the world, before and after. She “lived because [he] wanted [her] to live”. And she laments on telling stories to a dead man, explaining a world he cannot hope to understand, living the life of his dreams even as the cracks begin to show in the experiences. Her life comes to revolve around the bleak truth that stands as the book’s title – but you did not come back.
To me, the book truly shines in its final third, when Marceline describes her life after the war, and the legacy of her Father. She pulls no punches and doesn’t give any illusions about the world she returned to after the camps, one in which anti-Semitism was still rife, her family fell apart, and her loyalty to France was shot. There is no idealism, no ‘tomorrow is another day’. Her sense of duty to right the wrongs of the world sprang from a desire to liberate others, to feel paid back, to feel a sense of belonging in a world so committed to leaving outsiders hanging. But she comes to feel, instead, that the world has taken her, leaving her longing for a time when it was simply her and her father.
I would place this as one of the best memoirs I have read, simply for its integrity and its beautifully tragic construction, for that centrepiece of a relationship of pure love between father and daughter, and its past and future snatched up and lost to the ruins of the last century.