I haven’t cried this much at a book in a while. I haven’t cried this much at a non-fiction book ever (possibly) and I haven’t read anything so overwhelming beautiful and heart-breaking in months.
But You Did Not Come Back is a brand new publication, written by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, a French screen-writer, director and actor, and translated into English by Sandra Smith. It is gaining acclaim across the world and – though it is only January – being widely touted as one of the best books of the year. In every “books to look out for in 2016” list I read, it was included. And I can see why. Oh I can see why.
Loridan-Ivans is a survivor of Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp. She is in her late ‘80s, and wrote this beautiful, short, memoir at the age of 86, reflecting on a life horribly overshadowed by being a victim of one of the most disgusting acts of mass violence ever committed: the Holocaust. Loridan-Ivans was the affluent fifteen-year-old daughter of a Polish immigrant who had moved to France to make his fortune, which he had. The family lived in a chateau (is that as fancy as it sounds?) and, when France was occupied by the Nazis, her, her father and many other people she knew were rounded up and deported. She was close to her father, and reaching the age where their relationship was changing from one between a child and its parent to one between an adult and its parent. At least two of her siblings managed to hide with their mother and avoid the incarceration, but soon Marceline and her father were separated. He told her, prophesised to her, the result of their capture: she would survive, because she was young and strong and driven and clever; he would die. Marceline’s father knew he would not make it back alive as soon as he understood the tone and the ideology of his captors.
Obviously, it was horrible. Horrendous and painful and dehumanising. Prisoners were treated like animals, and the inability of others to understand the awful lived experience haunts Loridan-Ivans her whole life. On return from the camps, the first thing her mother asked was if she was raped: of course she wasn’t, she replied, because they did not see us as human. Loridan-Ivans recalls Mengele staring at her naked body deciding if she was strong enough to be kept alive tow work a little longer, or if should be sent immediately to the gas chambers. But Mengele’s eyes had no sense of humanity in them: the Jewish prisoners were animals, things, the German word “Stucke” is what the guards called them, which translates as “item”. The guards didn’t rape the young women because they didn’t see them as women, but instead as animals: dirty and disgusting and inhuman. And this is what struck me as most heart-breaking: what is often considered the worst type of violence a person can suffer was not even a threat, the psychological damage came from this dehumanisation. The Nazis wanted their prisoners to be degraded, they wanted them to accept and acquiesce to their degradation, to subsume it. And lots did. Lots of people lost hope, and which that the mental strength required to survive: they would trip or fall because they had no longer the force of mind to continue, as until the moment when it became clear that Germany was losing the war (prisoners were not so ignorant of the world outside as the guards would like to have thought) it appeared that death was the only escape. All the people Marceline saw escape were dragged back and killed. Were dragged back and killed.
Once, in the roads between Auschwitz and Birkenau, she saw her father, and he then sent her a letter through an electrician who worked at both camps. She remembers how the letter started, and how it ended – her father signing off with the Yiddish name he had not used for years – but she cannot remember the rest, and for this she is racked with guilt. Her father sent a message of love and hope, her father loved her and understood, he was the only person in her family who-
Afterwards, Loran-Ivans felt her brother was envious of the fact that she got to share this experience with her father. Loridan-Ivans then describes the seven decades that followed her release and how the ripples of the Holocaust could be felt by everyone she knew. She knew people who killed themselves because of their memories of internment, as well as people who killed themselves because they didn’t want to live in a world where that was possible, or where that was possible and others suffered but they didn’t. Of one person, she says, “He was sick from the camps without ever having been there.” Physically, psychologically, mentally, all of Europe was corrupted by what it did, by what it did within living memory.
And I suppose this is the real horror of But You Did Not Come Back. That this book is new, these memoirs have been written and collected by someone who is still alive, now. That means that when I was born in the late ’80s, the world contained hundreds of millions of people who had had first hand encounters with the Holocaust, in varying forms. This gross act was recent, is recent. There are survivors of Birkenau and Auschwitz and all the others who are still alive, who still have the tattooed numbers on their arms. Though Nazis are something we think of as little more than pantomime cinema villains, there are people who lived through there horrors still alive. Until every last person who fought in that war or lived through it with the consciousness of adulthood has died – which will have happened in about 20 years – it is something we should not ignore, something we should not pretend happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away/happened in another country and besides the wench is dead. These things happened here in our modern, industrialised, internationalised Europe, and it happened within memory.
But You Did Not Come Back is written as if a letter to the father who never made it back, to a man dead 70 years. Loridan-Ivans has written a gently stylised memoir – 100 pages long but weightier, heavier, than any WW2 memoir published since the ‘60s – that holds great humanity and great warmth. There is true love within here – the familial, the love for her father, and the romantic love she found with her husband, Joris Ivans, in the years that followed. Loridan-Ivans has had a full life: she has travelled the world and contributed to culture and human understanding through the films that she made and, now, through But You Did Not Come Back. I cried and cried and cried, because this beautiful text is harrowing, is heart-breaking, but reaffirms something deeply important: that we are all human, and what we have in common are our bonds with other people. Respect and love, I conclude hippyishly, respect and love are what we owe to people around us, strangers and those we care about.
We cannot and will not live in a better world whilst this is denied, and when horrors crafted by those with opposite ideologies are allowed to continue. The Second World War was fought to save the lives of millions of people, and without that conflict, the Europe ruled by racist, bigoted bastards would’ve remained. People should help people when they can. But I do worry that if it happened again now, would the UK bother stepping in before there was a direct threat to its borders? Certainly, its laissez faire attitude towards the events in Syria implies it wouldn’t. If a Central European dictator decided to start annexing countries a long way away, would the UK care? Probably not, if they still accepted our imports. Probably not.
And Germany, just like Syria, doesn’t have any fucking oil.
But You Did Not Come Back is a beautiful (I’ve used that word many times) text. Highly recommended. You will cry like a waterfall at Loridan’s emotive and evocative language. I want to watch some of her films, because if she can do with cinema even a fraction of what she can do with prose, they will also be great works of art.