Seventy years have passed since Marceline Loridan-Ivens was liberated from Theresienstadt after nearly two years in the Nazi death camps. Yet her experience remains as raw as ever – which is part of the point of this searing, profoundly moving memoir, But You Did Not Come Back.
Loridan-Ivens was rounded up at age 15 along with her father, Solomon Rozenberg, from their chateau in southern France. They were deported together to Birkenau-Auschwitz, in Poland, the country whose anti-Semitism Rozenberg had fled as a young man. “You might come back, because you’re young,” she remembers her father telling her, “but I will not come back.”
He was, alas, right. Loridan-Ivens’s memoir, written all these decades later, takes the form of a heartbroken love letter to the father she never stopped missing.
Why has she written this now? Because even before this year’s terrorist attacks in Paris, she was alarmed and dismayed by the resurgence of anti-Semitism. “I see policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection,” she declares. But: “I’m often afraid because I know what’s happening.”
She assures her father that once she found her bearings after liberation, she’s been “quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. We were happy in our own way, as a revenge against sadness.” She describes her satisfying work, as an activist for Algerian rights and making films that championed others’ freedom – much of it with her second husband, documentarian Joris Ivens, who was her father’s contemporary.
“I’m slowing down,” she writes, “And so I think about you.”
Her mind travels back to the note that her father incredibly, at great risk, managed to smuggle to her in Birkenau, three kilometers from his cell block in Auschwitz. She’s unable to recall its exact words, but remembers that it began, “My darling little girl,” and was signed with his Yiddish name, Shloïme. “That may seem unimportant today,” she writes, “but that piece of paper, folded in four, your writing, the steps of the man walking from you to me, proved that we still existed.”
She assumes his note begged her to hold on, to live. But “Thinking about it too much meant letting in the loss, it made me vulnerable.”
She remembers the day they passed each other when her work detail was digging ditches for a new crematorium. They broke ranks and fell into each other’s arms, for which she was severely beaten. When she came to, “I found a tomato and an onion in my hand that you’d secretly slipped to me – your lunch, I’m sure.”
When their work details passed each other the next day, “we didn’t dare move.”
Even at a remove of seven decades and distilled to its bare minimum, Loridan-Ivens’s account is devastating. She writes of “the usual barbarity: hunger, beatings, sickness, the cold,” and evokes the unforgettable “stench of burnt flesh.”
She fills her father in on what he didn’t live to experience: the desolation of repatriation – one of 2500 of 76,500 French Jews sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau who came back. “I loved you so much that I was happy to be deported with you,” she writes. But she was not prepared to live without him, and to live among people who didn’t understand what she’d been through -- including her mother. (It’s unclear how her mother and siblings avoided deportation.)
She wishes her father had survived so “we could have divided our memories in two.” She reports that their family fell apart: her mother remarried in 1948, to a man who’d lost his wife and five children in the camps. Two siblings committed suicide. She herself tried twice, noting the irony after having done everything she could to stay alive in the camps. “Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in darkness, it was too intense.”
She found purpose and love when she met Ivens in 1962. They made films about Algeria, Vietnam, China. “I thought that by liberating other people, whether they were Algerian, Vietnamese, or Chinese, the Jewish problem would be solved at the same time. It was a terrible mistake, as the future proved, but I firmly believed it then.”
Now, deeply disillusioned, Loridan-Ivens finds the world “a hideous medley of communities and religions pushed to the extreme.” Anti-Semitism, she despairs, is “an eternal given … too deeply rooted in the world” to disappear.
Readers do not have to agree with Loridan-Ivens to appreciate the import of her work. Smoothly translated by Sandra Smith (who also translated Irène Némirovsky’s "Suite Française"), "But You Did Not Come Back" is a beautiful testimony to filial love that sounds a powerful, dire alarm. It is also a reminder that forgetting atrocity isn’t an option.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor.