January 21, 2016
A runaway bestseller in France, But You Did Not Come Back is the deeply moving memoir of a survivor of the Holocaust.
If you are afraid of pain, stay clear of this book. Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s But You Did Not Come Back is a life-story, a profoundly moving memoir that takes the form of a long letter from a daughter to her father. They were both victims of the holocaust, the father dead, the daughter still living. It will remind you of the horrible atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jews in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It also tells you of the aftermath of the holocaust, how it coloured and conditioned what remained of the lives of those who survived.
But You Did Not Come Back takes the form of a monologue written in lyrical prose. The sincerity and the earnestness of the daughter to stay close to her father’s memory is evident in every sentence of this book. The narrative circles around a prophecy made by the father when they were being deported to Poland: ‘ You’ll come back Marceline, because you’re young’. Loridan-Ivens returns to those prophetic words of her father and feels a sense of guilt: ‘my return is synonymous with your absence’. For the writer, her father’s prophetic statement ‘became a terrifying companion’ for it contained words that ‘separated us, seemed to offer up your life in exchange of mine’.
The description of the concentration camps comes alive in startling visual images. Here’s one that describes the apparels of the women who were sent to the gas chambers: ‘Death regurgitates so many clothes….’ or ‘I find flesh and its elasticity horrifying’. The horrors also take the form of stark perceptions as she speaks of the uniforms they were made to wear: ‘…perhaps it is the feeling of belonging that uniforms give you….and also that one day you might be able to take them off…’ or ‘objects no longer existed in our lives — they formed mountains in the storehouses where we worked, objects belonged to the dead’.
Yet the pain felt later is no less intense. But You Did Not Come Back is not merely a story of the suffering of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. It is also the story of the absence of a father: ‘Still today whenever I hear the word “papa”, I’m startled…..That word disappeared from my life so early that it hurts.’ If the father survived and then died that would have ‘given us the same single image of death’. These words indicate obsessive thoughts about a lost father, whose presence, having remained ever fresh in the daughter’s mind, probably inspired her to write this memoir about a period of history so many others only wished to forget. The sense of loss is made more poignant by the timing of the father’s death: ‘We were separated at the very moment when we would have begun to find about each other’.
The events described in But You Did Not Come Back move back and forth over all the decades in the author’s life. Past and present crisscross in the novel and the writer seems to rush from one to the other like a woman demented. That way it is also a chronicle of a survivor’s perception of history — a survivor who desires to run away from that history and escape into a pristine childhood, a childhood that suddenly plunged from the naivety of the world of a 15-year-old girl to a scene of inhuman brutality. The momentous effect of that sudden leap conditioned the rest of the author’s life and left her alone ‘in the ruins of the twentieth century’. One momentous event of human history shattered her life which she never could rebuild completely.
But You Did Not Come Back is a poignantly sad tale beautifully told by the author in French and remarkably well-translated into English by Sandra Smith. It reveals the character of the first-person narrator who is also the writer of this soul-stirring letter from a daughter to her father. The book has a beautiful cover and can easily be read in one sitting. You should not miss this slim volume.
The reviewer is obligated to let the readers know that he received a free copy of the book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.