When a Holocaust Memoir Becomes a Ghost Story

But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir
By Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Translated by Sandra Smith
Atlantic Monthly Press, 112 pages, $22

In 2015, more than 7,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel. A Jewish agency think tank began planning for 120,000 more, roughly a quarter of all the Jews in France. Jewish schoolchildren increasingly cannot attend public French schools safely. Under these circumstances, a new French Holocaust memoir cannot help but be a political manifesto. And indeed, Jewish, leftist filmmaker Marceline Loridan-Ivens includes some thoughts on France, anti-Semitism, Zionism and the like in her Holocaust memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back.”

But neither the European political context nor Loridan-Ivens’s direct response can explain why her book has sold so well or garnered so much critical praise. First, she has little that is new to say about the return of Europe’s Jewish problem. She is a Zionist, thinks progressives ignore the inconvenience of Jewish difference and worries about Islamic radicalism — reasonable ideas of no greater profundity or insight than, say, a Jeffrey Goldberg blog post.

But more important, and stranger still, the whole design of “But You Did Not Come Back” resists any application of its story to the present. The memoir is written as a letter to Loridan-Ivens’s father Shloime, from whom she was separated upon entering Auschwitz-Birkenau and who later died in the camps. When you read the first sentence of the book, “I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us,” you think the “you know” casually invokes you, the reader. Reading the rest of the paragraph, you feel you are being invited to meditate with Loridan-Ivens as to why she has recently lost that cheerfulness. But the second paragraph sharply corrects that illusion, beginning, “And so I think about you. I can picture the note you managed to get to me back there.”

The “you” is never the reader, always Shloime. She is writing because of the “stained little scrap of paper,” the note he managed to slip her in the camps. Implicitly, this note elicits her memoir, a belated and impossible reply. Further, the memoir’s title, “But You Did Not Come Back,” paraphrases Shloime, who tells her at the train station that while she might survive, “I will not come back.” Her memories reach backward in time toward his prophecy. Addressing and centering Shloime throughout the book sends a clear message: Loridan-Ivens will, quite literally, not speak to the present. We are permitted only to eavesdrop on her conversation with the past.

Loridan-Ivens’s correspondence with her father’s ghost also tells his story. Shloime fled Poland and the Nazis, believing France would offer safe harbor from the Nazis. He bought a lavish chateau in the south, but France denied him citizenship, and then the Vichy regime helped murder him. Deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Loridan-Ivens, he struggled to help her through the camps, even managing to smuggle her food. After his death, the town’s mayor, swept up in post-war nationalist amnesia, memorialized him as a fallen Frenchmen, a useless, bad-faith retroactive naturalization that Loridan-Ivens fought. She returned to a broken family, and her brother and sister eventually killed themselves. She married the leftist documentarian Joris Ivens, with whom she made important films in Vietnam and China.

Because Loridan-Ivens addresses Shloime and tells his story as well as her own, she not only reports but also conjectures and imagines what happened to Shloime and what could have been. For instance, when she is told, late in the war, that columns of men have been marched at gunpoint out of Auschwitz and Birkenau, she guesses, “You”—that is, Shloime—”were probably among them.” She cannot even remember the contents of the note he wrote her, and so she is forced to speculate, “You must have begged me to hold on.” These uncertainties give the book a spectral mood. Around the brutal facts of her suffering (as she is reconstructing her father’s march, she remembers also that she “rolled around in the snow naked to kill the lice and get warm”) hovers the penumbra of the counterfactual. Robbed of an adult relationship with her father, she imagines also those of his desires too complex or adult to have been visible to her as a child: Remembering, for instance the chateau her father bought when she was a child, she writes, “You would have liked to hear me cry out that I’d always dreamed of a house like that.” She thinks her family needed him to return, rather than her, and she writes, “My return is synonymous with your absence.” His absence haunts her life and is interwoven with it. The concrete facts she relates are far less memorable than the constant, lingering presence of what is not there.

Rather than the clichéd political declarations with which Loridan-Ivens concludes (“I know now that anti-Semitism is an eternal given”), this sense of the palpably absent is what makes the memoir so timely. Her style and obsession with past counterfactuals may result from trauma, but today they have an unexpectedly poignant resonance. The 87-year-old Loridan-Ivens is writing for an audience for whom the Holocaust is increasingly distant and spectral. Some of her youngest French readers could have grandparents who were born after the war. Moreover, for the millions of French Muslims, the Holocaust must seem a non sequitur, someone else’s history entirely. And although the French Jewish community is enormous and in many respects thriving, the ubiquitous reports of cautious contingency plans to depart make its non-existence at least a hypothetical possibility. In tomorrow’s France, the Holocaust might cease to be living, concrete history, becoming instead as slippery and ineffable as a ghost story.

Raphael Magarik studies English and Jewish literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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