But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

 

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The European response to the ongoing Syrian migrant crisis has been, at times, devoid of compassion or humanity. There can never be a bad time to read But You Did Not Come Back but now seems particularly pertinent. Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir of the Holocaust is one of the clearest, most humane pieces of writing – brilliantly translated by Sandra Smith – that I have read. As a 16-year old girl, Loridan-Ivens and her father were deported from Vichy France in April 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She survived. He did not. There is no direct correlation between the fall-out from the ghastly civil war in Syria and the systematic murder of six million Jews, except to say that it was – and is – possible for most people to simply ignore events as they happen. It is also much easier to do this when people are demonised and de-humanised. Loridan-Ivens, now in her nineties, said in publicity interviews that recently her talks in French schools on the Holocaust have been met by children with indifference or hostility – proof that when it comes to preventing a repeat, it may be prudent for society not to let its guard down. She has never wanted children of her own – perhaps not so hard to understand given she has seen first hand what can happen to them. Like other survivors (Primo Levi wrote of experiencing the same thing) she doesn’t want to sleep in a comfortable bed after coming home, preferring the floor. Her mother doesn’t understand this – in fact, she doesn’t seem to understand very much about what Marceline wants – but then, really, how could she? How could anyone? The author’s sense of guilt is overwhelming. Her one meeting at the camp with her father is heart-breaking, unimaginably so. He gets a letter smuggled to her but she cannot now remember what it said. Loridan-Ivens became a documentary maker after her survival. This may be why she doesn’t waste any words: But You Did Not Come Back is only 100 pages long but there is a simple clarity to her prose. It is the work of a lifetime and it is a beautiful book. An apparently odd thing to say given the subject matter, but true.

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