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A lifelong lover of provocation, she survived Auschwitz and sought to make the Holocaust visible

Charlotte Delbo was a non-Jewish French writer who was active in the anti-Nazi Resistance movement during World War II, which led to her being imprisoned in Auschwitz extermination camp. Her books and plays about surviving that experience, including “Auschwitz and After”; “Convoy to Auschwitz”; and “None of Us Will Return” have won admiring readers. A highly personal, impressionistic overview of Delbo’s writings by the French novelist Ghislaine Dunant, has recently appeared in English translation.

Benjamin Ivry recently spoke with Dunant about the enduring allure of Charlotte Delbo’s expressions of solidarity with Jewish prisoners during wartime.

Benjamin Ivry: The Hungarian Jewish Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész once said that Auschwitz was his school. Kertész was 14 years old when he was imprisoned at Auschwitz, whereas Charlotte Delbo was around 30 when she was deported there; was Auschwitz also an educational place for her?

Ghislaine Dunant: No, I wouldn’t say that [Auschwitz] was a school for her. To answer your question, she once told a journalist who asked why she had become a writer: “Because I was deported, because Auschwitz existed, and to make Auschwitz and Birkenau visible.” Being equal to the task of doing that was her lifelong challenge.

In France, it’s been said that Delbo is seen as the “equivalent of Primo Levi” or even the “female version of” Primo Levi. Delbo wasn’t Jewish, a scientist, or Italian, so are these comparisons well-founded?

Absolutely not. Everything is different between the experiences of Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo. First, they didn’t arrive at Auschwitz at the same time. Primo Levi arrived in 1944, but she was already there the previous year. She survived Birkenau, an almost unheard-of feat, as physical conditions there were possibly even worse than at the Auschwitz main camp. Primo Levi was assigned as an assistant in IG Farben’s Buna Werke laboratory, whereas Delbo was forced to do hard labor in the mud. There was nothing similar in their personalities either. Delbo was self-taught and from a very modest family background.

After the war, when she received galleys of her book “None of Us Will Return” from the French Jewish publisher Jérôme Lindon, she wrote to him angrily: “I don’t understand why you are showing this much disdain, and how you dare to do so.” Why was she so rough with Lindon, the publisher of Samuel Beckett, Nathalie Sarraute, and Jacques Derrida?

Lindon’s daughter once wrote to me about Delbo that “she didn’t keep her tongue in her pocket.” Delbo always said what she thought loudly and that didn’t always make life easy for her. But she had a lot of esteem for Jerome Lindon. She replied in a quasi-violent way because of her relationship to language, which was her life and breath. She was precise about all her corrections, which were entirely justified linguistically. Each word in “None of Us Will Return” had a certain weight.

You note that Jewish organizations didn’t help promote Delbo’s books when they started appearing in the mid-1960s, although they focused on the Holocaust and the fate of Jewish fellow prisoners. Yet what could have been done, considering that books by Jewish survivors such as Elie Wiesel weren’t bestsellers?

I was struck that the Jewish press in France took no notice of Delbo’s books when they were published. Perhaps because she wasn’t Jewish. But her description of the treatment of Jews who arrived from East Europe was crucial and she discussed the subject at length. Delbo was mentioned at The Shoah Memorial in Paris for the first time only in 2017, when I was invited to speak about her. She was very poorly-known and is still untranslated in Israel.

In 1972, Delbo was angered by an article in Le Monde about a visit to Auschwitz by the literary critic Pierre de Boisdeffre who declared that “Auschwitz needs no literature.”

I myself find Boisdeffre’s comment rather shocking. In the 1960s and 70s when her first books were published, [French] readers were completely disconnected from what happened at Auschwitz. Delbo found the public unwilling to listen. Boisdeffre’s phrase was rather stupid, to say that the catastrophe was horrible enough, so let’s not add words to it. But literature is there, like all the arts, to convey the experience of living. Delbo didn’t explain; she allowed readers to see, and worked on their awareness. Describing inhuman events, she managed to find images of beauty with the ability to move readers in a context devoid of references to humanity.

Why, in the 1960s, did Delbo support The Red Army Faction, known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang, a far-left German militant organization which, according to historians, used antisemitism as an expression of anti-capitalism?

I don’t think she knew much about the Baader–Meinhof Gang. She responded to the term terrorist that was applied to them and recalled that in her day, French Resistance fighters were also called terrorists. This advocacy was part of her volcanic personality, a bit like [Italian actress] Anna Magnani, to make things explode. Provocation was something she could love, I think.

Delbo complained that the 1978 US TV miniseries “Holocaust,” with teleplay by Gerald Green was mediocre and full of errors, but she was impressed by its reception.

I found her reaction to “Holocaust” very interesting. She pinpointed historical mistakes committed by Hollywood, but said it was extraordinary that in France, where it was shown one year after Americans saw it, the miniseries gripped so many people. She interpreted this as proof that the show affected the public’s consciousness, and viewers were ready to be moved by the subject. So “Holocaust” was important for her.

Delbo loathed Simone de Beauvoir who, she claimed, cared little about others during the war. Was Delbo especially irate because Beauvoir misleadingly presented herself, like her friend Jean-Paul Sartre, as having been active in the Resistance?

Listen, I have reread the relevant pages from Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age” which merely notes about Beauvoir’s university assistant that she was “never seen again,” without even mentioning that she was murdered at Auschwitz. For Delbo, it was dreadful that while Jews were being killed, Beauvoir and Sartre didn’t do anything about it. For them, wartime was mostly about cafés and bicycle rides rather than worrying about the deaths of Jews and others opposing the Nazis.

While praising Delbo, the author Jean Hatzfeld stated: “Reading her, you won’t learn much about the concentration camp nightmare that you didn’t know before.” Would you agree?

Not at all. I find that precisely, Delbo created something truly gripping that connected me with the events in a way I had not found in other books. She did not write sociological or historical works, but literature that is at the heart of human experience. Her books don’t describe things in chronological order. We learn emotionally, esthetically, symbolically from Delbo, from the art she created as we experience the humane, moral emotions she felt. She doesn’t offer judgments about the Nazis, but shows what they did, and lets readers draw their own conclusions. That’s why her writings are so powerful.

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