The Schmooze

Henri Borlant on Language that Destroyed and Saved Lives

In 1995, Serge Klarsfeld described Henri Borlant, a French Jewish doctor born in 1927, as “the sole survivor out of 6000 French Jewish children under age 16 who were deported to Auschwitz in 1942.” On March 3, Borlant published a lucidly eloquent memoir from Les editions du Seuil, “Thanks for Surviving” (Merci d’avoir survécu).

The book’s title reproduces a student’s comment to Borlant after a school presentation, part of his many efforts towards remembrance, including the much-praised 2005 French TV documentary, “The Survivors,” directed by Patrick Rotman. Woven through “Thanks for Surviving” is a discussion of the uses and misuses of language during the Holocaust, to facilitate persecution and as a defensive weapon for survival. Describing his 1942 arrival at Birkenau, Borlant notes that as soon as a prisoner was tattooed with a number, it was essential to learn that number “very quickly, in all the camp’s languages. If we did not understand immediately, our torturers brandished a sick which they derisively termed “the interpreter” (der Dolmetscher) with which they beat us. That’s how I started to learn foreign languages.”

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Henri Borlant on Language that Destroyed and Saved Lives

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