Readers of But You Did Not Come Back who are of a certain age, or who have followed French cinema, will be familiar with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, its first-time author. She made her debut in the 1961 film Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer). Directed by sociologist Edgar Morin and filmmaker Jean Rouch, it was a breakthrough cinéma vérité effort to capture the French postwar economic moment and the impact of the Algerian war.
Viewers meet Marceline as she stands holding a microphone on a Paris street and asks passersby if they are happy. The impact is stunning: Marceline’s air of casual commitment and the willingness of people to consider their answer before a camera, present a new kind of filmmaking and a new way to report on the everyday.
Marceline takes a central role in a later scene, sitting with her director and a group of French students. The talk focuses on colonialism, but shifts when the director asks one of the youths if he knows the meaning of the numbers tattooed on Marceline’s forearm. He thinks, he jokes, it is her phone number.
Marceline offers her compatriots a matter-of-fact interpretation of her Auschwitz tattoo, and the film veers away from France’s contemporary identity toward its responsibility in wartime for helping the occupying Germans deport some 75,000 Jews to death camps.
In But You Did Not Come Back, Loridan-Ivens fills in her backstory, while also depicting her postwar struggles and successes. She was 15 years old in 1939, deeply attached to her businessman father, who had left Poland to succeed in France, if not in his effort to gain French citizenship. He and Marceline are arrested by French police as their family property in rural Bollène is confiscated to be used as a Gestapo headquarters.
The centrepiece of But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline’s account of her love for her father before the war, through the deportation, even at Auschwitz, where they were in different parts of the camp. A crucial memory is of a note her father sent via another inmate. It began, “My darling little girl,” and left off with his name, “Shloïme.” Marceline struggles to remember the rest, but she cannot.
Loridan-Ivens’ memoir is an instructive presentation of camp experience and its aftermath. Its highly personal style is in sharp contrast to books by other major figures, including Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski. Loridan-Ivens is closest in her presentation to another Frenchwoman – the non-Jewish Auschwitz detainee Charlotte Delbo – but Delbo used an abstract, often poetic voice to convey the abuse of bodies, the numbing work and routines, and the ever-presence of death at Auschwitz.
Loridan-Ivens is a witness as hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews are funnelled to their deaths, and she is a witness, too, of the arrival of the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto.
The inmates’ involvement in the murderous projects of the camp continues to haunt her: “I saw them walking up to the gas chambers. I thought that relatives I didn’t know, my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, were probably among them. You were from Lodz. I kept working. I struck the ground without looking around me, with no memories, no future, exhausted by not having enough to drink or eat; I dug the ditches where the bodies of 50 distant relatives from Lodz would burn.”
Upon her return to postwar France, her father dead, Marceline is unmoored but open to her existential challenge: “Little by little, I allowed myself to be carried along by my generation, its chaos, and I felt what it was like to be young. I wanted to make something of myself, without really knowing what… to become part of a story that was greater than my own, discover the world, learn, laugh a little, join in the endless discussion in the bistros of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”
An important career as a filmmaker with her second husband leads to films on revolutionary movements, including Maoist China. In 2003 she made The Birch-Tree Meadow, in which the French actress Anouk Aimée stood in for herself in an enacted return to the remnants of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
But You Did Not Come Back closes on an unforgiving note, as Loridan-Ivens and a fellow survivor muse over a dark question: “‘Now that we are approaching the end of our lives, do you think it was a good thing for us to have come back from the camps?’
“‘No, I don’t,’ she replied, ‘we shouldn’t have come back.’”
The answers two aging friends provide, like much of Loridan-Ivens’ memoir, pushes our understanding of the war and its aftermath into new territory.
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.