When I talk to you

November 22, 2016

The first page of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir may put you off for its darkness. She confesses she has changed, that she is no longer the cheerful person she has been throughout her adult life (she is now in her late 80s). There’s no bitterness, she says, rather a recognition she knows what’s happening. “I don’t belong here anymore,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.”

The book is only 100 pages, and she’s not writing it to you, the reader. She’s writing to her father, and that keeps the emotional burden from pulling you in too close. It’s like secretly overhearing Marceline talk to him in the next room, safely hearing difficult material without demands. So I wouldn’t put the book down just yet.

but-you-did-not-come-backMarceline is a Holocaust survivor. When she was 15 years old, she and her father were arrested by the Vichy government’s militia at their château in southern France and deported to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the book is concerned with telling a Holocaust story, it is also firmly in the realm of doing what books do so well: putting us in someone else’s life to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.

Marceline’s one-way conversation with her father, who never returned from Auschwitz, accomplishes this with meaningful clarity. She tells her father about her time in Birkenau, with particular emphasis on the small note he managed to get to her via a messenger. She remembers only the salutation and closing, not the essence of the message, and that torments her. She recalls the time they saw each other, when she marched by his camp. And she explains how she left Birkenau, spent a short time at Bergen-Belsen and then worked in a factory at Raguhn near Leipzig, Germany. When the war ended, she describes walking toward the Americans in Prague, and away from the Russians. “Where were you? All I could think about was you. But I didn’t try to find you among the others. That’s not how we’d be together.”

The effort here is not a capturing of facts, rather an intimate sharing. She knows her father will understand her life, when so many others have not understood it. That’s particularly true about coming home to a mother who wanted life to continue normally for Marceline, with a wedding and children. “If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear her questions, you would have told Mama to be quiet. You also would have told her to let me sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anymore.”

The adult years take Marceline into a career as a documentary film-maker, giving her purpose, and she finds a deep connection with her second husband, giving her the love she needs. In the last pages of the book, there is concern that “everything is getting tense again,” referring to “threats that sounded like echoes from the past” and “policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”

This is profoundly moving literature, with the last pages expressing a trust Marceline brings to her telling of the story. This trust allows her to be vulnerable — and us to be immersed in an important life story. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled. But I release what is clasped tightly in my heart.”

A friend of mine mentors a student through a program with local schools. At a recent event, mentors and their students played “guess the historical person” game.

Everyone wore names on their backs to be guessed by each other.

My friend stepped in to help another mentor who wasn’t getting her student’s clues.  To ease mounting frustration, my friend offered “Amsterdam, attic, diary, Nazis,” or some variation thereof.

The mentor, somewhere in midde-age, still couldn’t guess the name.

When finally given the answer, the woman expressed astonishment, but, according to my friend, it was fake, bewildered astonishment. The kind that’s obvious the person doesn’t know a thing about the subject matter. The kind that said she doesn’t know who Anne Frank is.

A Lucky ChildPan now to A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal published this spring. 

Burgenthal recounts the miraculous story of his survival in Auschwitz as a 10-year-old separated from his parents.  One of the most horrific scenes is the Auschwitz death march. (Staying alive during the march became a game the young Burgenthal played to win against Hitler and the SS.)

I had just finished reading Buergenthal’s memoir when I heard my friend’s story. What came to mind was this, written by Buergenthal in his Acknowledgements. Buergenthal, BTW, currently serves as the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“This book does not have the usual publishing history. I wrote it in English, but it was first published in more than half a dozen other languages. While this is not a unique situation, it is rather rare unless political, religious, or other reasons bar the publication of an author’s books in his native country or language. That was certainly not true in my case. My problem, as I learned on more than one occasion from publishers in the United States and in the United Kingdom, was that ‘Holocaust books don’t sell.’ It is therefore ironic that this book was first published in Germany in 2007 and that it remained on that country’s bestseller list for quite a number of weeks.”

These two stories individually make separate statements. The one about education (how did this woman miss reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl?) and the other about the responsibility of publishers.

Together, though, they say something of a greater magnitude, which words can only insufficiently grasp. It has to do with an insidious, slow-moving disregard for the Holocaust that could settle in over time in the United States. It could inch up on us. Signs will appear akin to one person getting a flu virus, the one before the many.

Like one person ignorant of Anne Frank.

But it could be so gradual, so unremarkable, we won’t know it’s happening. And then there we’ll be — Holocaust books won’t be in bookstores, and  new generations won’t even know to miss them, let alone what they could learn from them.

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