August 10 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the non-Jewish French writer Charlotte Delbo, who was deported to Auschwitz and survived to bear witness. Delbo’s prose and verse writings were reprinted by Yale University Press under the title “Auschwitz and After,” while her plays — including some never previously printed — were recently published by Les Editions Fayard as “Who Will Relate These Words?” Delbo’s sustained rage and will to remember atrocities won her respect from readers far and wide.
The French Jewish war correspondent Jean Hatzfeld praised Delbo as a “writer who proves that the worst destructive forces can never defeat verbal beauty.” In his 2012 memoir of the Khmer Rouge killing fields “The Elimination,” Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh wrote: “I wish I’d known her. And filmed her. I would have wished to make a portrait of her. I believe that her presence would have encouraged me.”
Delbo’s vignettes, blank verse and philosophical dramas have been called memoirs, but they are really closer to the impressionistic literary statements by other non-Jewish writers who were imprisoned in concentration camps as enemies of fascism. These include the Spanish-born French-language author Jorge Semprun, the Frenchman Robert Antelme and Poland’s Tadeusz Borowski, courageous writers who suffered lifelong health consequences from the brutal Nazi camp regime, although all were fully aware that their own treatment was relatively easier compared to that which was meted out to Jews and other targeted minorities.
The simple fact that Delbo survived was evidence of this. As she wrote in one poem: “Because I am returning from where no one returned / You think I know things / and you hurry to me / bursting with questions / with your unspeakable questions. / You think I know the answers. / I only know what’s obvious: / Life Death Truth.”
Delbo’s highly dramatic style was honed during her prewar years when she served as secretary to the French actor Louis Jouvet, who had a gift for incarnating metaphors. When Jouvet played a mortally ill character, he could appear to be Death himself onstage. Likewise, Delbo’s writings, whether in poetry or in plays, is powerfully metaphorical, with only one real character — herself as monologist.