"You might come back, because you're young, but I will not come back." (Marceline Loridan's father to her, 1944) A runaway best seller in France, But You Did Not Come Back has already been the subject of a French media storm and hailed as an important new addition to the library of books dealing with the Holocaust. It is the profoundly moving and poetic memoir by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, who, at the age of 15, was arrested in occupied France along with her father. Later, in the camps, he managed to smuggle a note to her, a sign of life that made all the difference to Marceline - but he died in the Holocaust while Marceline survived. In But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline writes back to her father, the man whose death overshadowed her whole life. Although her grief never diminished in its intensity, Marceline ultimately found her calling working as both an activist and a documentary filmmaker. But now, as France and Europe in general face growing anti-Semitism, Marceline feels pessimistic about the future. Her testimony is a memorial, a confrontation, and a deeply affecting personal story of a woman whose life was shattered and never totally rebuilt.
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"My darling little girl..." So begins the short note from father to daughter, scrawled on a torn scrap of paper at great personal risk to its writer and to its bearer, and smuggled out of Auschwitz to young Marceline in her cell block in Birkenau. Much as she treasures the note for as long as she is able to hold on to the physical object itself, she can never afterwards recall the remainder of her father's last words to her. "I try to remember and I can't," she says. "I try, but it's like a deep hole and I don't want to fall in." This haunting memoir (written as one long letter from daughter to the father she lost) is lean and spare, lyrical and lovely even in the horror it describes. It pulls no punches, while overstating nothing. There is no redundancy, no repetition even though it is nonlinear, like poetry, moving fluidly from past to present. That is its only flaw, if the book has one; while the narrator is excellent and does ample justice to the material, a listener may feel a little lost at times. I found it beneficial to review chapters I'd listened to using a print copy, in order to see what exactly had taken place during some of the more fleeting transitions between sections.
One of the things that makes this unique memoir so unforgettable is the perspective of the author, looking back from the vantage point of so many years later upon events that seared their imprint on her mind and on her flesh, both literally and figuratively. "I’m an elderly lady now," she tells the father who never lived to see half the years she has attained, "I'm not afraid to die, I don’t panic. I don’t believe in God, or that there’s anything after death. I’m one of the 160 still alive out of the 2,500 who came back—76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Six million Jews died: in the camps, killed and thrown into mass graves, gassed, shot at point blank range, massacred in the ghettos. Once a month, I have dinner with some friends who survived, we laugh together, even about the camp, in our own way. And I see [a childhood friend and fellow survivor] too. I’ve watched her take teaspoons in cafés and restaurants and slip them into her handbag; she’d been a minister, an important woman in France, an imposing person, but she still hoards worthless teaspoons so she doesn’t have to lap up the terrible soup of Birkenau. If you only knew, all of you, how the camp remains permanently within us."
Heartwrenchingly, spoon-stealing is not nearly the most devastating lasting legacy of the Holocaust among its victims. "I never had children. I never wanted any," she tells her father. After the camps, "motherhood had no meaning any more: Babies were the first to be sent to the gas chamber." The camp leaves its mark even on those who never saw its horrors firsthand. Marceline tells her father that two of his other children who escaped capture later went on to take their own lives; they "died from the camps without ever having been there." Perhaps most striking of all are the author's reasons for telling her story now; she does sense that the past is about to repeat itself. "You had chosen France, she isn’t the melting pot you’d hoped for. Everything is getting tense again. We’re called “French Jews”; there are also French Muslims, and here we are, face-to-face—I who had hoped never to take sides, or at least, to simply be on the side of freedom."
Although "writing to you has helped me," she tells her father, the gaping hole that his disappearance left in her spirit can never be filled. She is forced even to admit that "deep down, I don’t know what kind of man you would have been. I feel as if I didn’t really know you. We were separated at the very moment when we would have begun to find out about each other.” The ending is a gut-punch that I cannot quote without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that you will never forget it.
- Gretchen SLP "Avid listener on my daily commute!"
A book for everyone
This book is a must-read. It gets at the very core of what it is to be human and what it is to suffer, to feel pain like most of us have never known. It's imperative that we don't forget, that we immerse ourselves regularly in these types of person-told histories so that we can continue, as conscious individuals, to move forward toward humanity. The author's words are poignant such as only someone who experi