Friday 5 January 2018

But You Did Not Come Back

I must really have wanted to read this book because I've managed to buy it twice in the past few months. Though each purchase was during a buying frenzy at Basement Books. Entirely explainable. A French sounding author name, and once you pluck this tiny morsel from the shelf you see the cover picture of Paris (a wintry shot of Place de la Concorde by Robert Doisneau) and a blurb from Le Parisian.

One of the most beautiful books of the year ..... you will read it in one sitting.
And on a day when I'm casting about looking for three books I'm guaranteed to finish to reach my Goodreads goal for the year, then this is the time, this is the moment to read But You Did Not Come Back. It was a great, if sobering choice. I did read it in one sitting, albeit somewhat broken by a nap. 

But You Did Not Come Back is a letter written to her father. Marceline and her father were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. A father she lovesHer father wrote her a note whilst in the camps and managed to have it delivered to her. But Marceline can only remember a few words of what he wrote "I try to remember and I can't. I try, but it's like a deep hole and I don't want to fall in."

Marceline lives to return to France after the war, but her father does not, fulfilling his words of prophecy.

"You might come back, because you're young, but I will not come back."
Decades later Marceline is writing to her beloved father. Marceline describes the unimaginable horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
From my cell block, I could see the children walking to the gas chambers. I remember one little girl clinging to her doll. She looked lost, staring into space. Behind her were probably months of terror and being hunted. They'd just separated her from her parents, soon they'd tear off her clothes. She already looked like her limp, lifeless doll. 
More surprising to me perhaps was her account of returning to France. That she needed to sleep on the floor because she couldn't stand the comfort of a bed. That her family did not survive her father not returning, that her siblings and friends died from the camps without ever having been there. Marceline herself fought so hard to stay alive during the war and yet after she was to attempt to end her life twice. 

Naturally she talks a lot of life and death. 
As children, we knew about death and its rites: the black flag, the hearse that moves slowly down the street. We would encounter death and respect it, we were much stronger than people are today, they're so afraid of death...
After the war Marceline marries twice, her second husband is prominent Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. She becomes a film maker too, which gives her life a purpose.  
But in order to live, the best thing I could find to believe in, to the point of obsession, like my uncles before me, was that it was possible to change the world. 
Her thoughts on the current world situation are sobering.
I know that anti-Semitism is an eternal given; it rushes in waves along with the crises in the world, the words, the monsters, and the means of every era. Zionists like you predicted it: Anti-Semitism will never disappear. It is too deeply rooted in the world.
She talks of the creation of Israel, 9/11 and the troubled world in which we now all live. 
... I'm changing. It isn't bitterness, I'm not bitter. It's just as if I were already gone. I listen to the radio, to the news, so I'm afraid because I know what's happening. 
Which makes me even happier with my decision to stop watching the news nearly two years ago. It doesn't help. And all of which makes her opening words even more astounding to me.
I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. We were happy in our own way, as a revenge against sadness, so we could still laugh.
An image of Marceline sporting her beautiful smile in her author photo on the back of the dust jacket.

Translated by Sandra Smith

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