Remembering Charlotte Delbo on the 100th Anniversary of Her Birth

Stenographer and Playwright Staged Moliere at Labor Camp

One of the Survivors: Playwright and United Nations stenographer Charlotte Delbo was born in 1913 and died in 1986.
Eric Schwab
One of the Survivors: Playwright and United Nations stenographer Charlotte Delbo was born in 1913 and died in 1986.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published August 10, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

In 1943, at the forced-labor camp of Rajsko, an annex of Birkenau and satellite camp of Auschwitz, Delbo decided to stage Molière’s comedy “The Imaginary Invalid.” This production, performed entirely from memory because no text was available, had special irony, since the actors, her fellow non-Jewish women prisoners, had all just barely survived a bout of typhus.

Delbo was fond of Molière’s works, but in practice she may have had more in common with the French author and theorist Antonin Artaud’s pensive theater of cruelty — although for Artaud, “cruelty” was an adamant will to destroy false appearance, not Nazi sadism. As a survivor, Delbo recounted her experiences when immediate life and death issues were over, so her principal challenge, much like Artaud’s, was how to express herself.

In the 1966 title play of “Who Will Relate These Words?” set in a women’s concentration camp, the author compares and contrasts tragic theater and tragic reality. Referring to her fellow prisoners murdered by the Nazis, one of Delbo’s characters asks: “Can we perform a play whose characters died before we got a chance to know them? I did not get a chance to know them either.” The play concludes with a question, in verse, addressed to the spectator: “Why would you believe / these survivor stories / from survivors who return / but cannot explain why?”

Another play by Delbo, “Theory and Practice,” further examines the mysteries of historical destiny, staging a verbal exchange between two Marxist sociologists, the Frenchman Henri Lefebvre and the German-Jewish thinker Herbert Marcuse, in April 1968, amid France’s social upheaval. In Delbo’s 1970 play, “The Court Sentence,” one character implicitly likens Spanish victims of fascism with Europe’s Jews; the 1971 play “And You, What Did You Do?” makes a direct reference to Auschwitz.

After the war, Delbo worked as a stenographer at the newly founded United Nations, where her hopes for unifying humanity and philosophy took public precedence over theater. She was no longer from France; in this respect, she was from Auschwitz. Her writings remained a mostly private activity, in part because philosophical plays were unfashionable, as was the entire subject of the Holocaust in France. Only in the mid-1960s did Delbo start to publish poems and prose. In 1960, she accepted a job as clerical assistant to the same Henri Lefebvre, who later became a character in “Theory and Practice,” at the French National Center for Scientific Research. She retired in 1978 and died of cancer in 1985, with little idea of how her writings, mostly ignored by her contemporaries, would be treasured by later readers for their adamant courage and outspoken faith in the future of humanity, despite tragedies past and present.

Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.