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Authors: Marceline Loridan-Ivens

But You Did Not Come Back

BOOK: But You Did Not Come Back
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BUT YOU
DID NOT
COME
BACK

MARCELINE
LORIDAN-IVENS

WITH JUDITH PERRIGNON

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY
SANDRA SMITH

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. People liked that about me. But 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 often afraid because I know what’s happening. I don’t belong here anymore. Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.

And so I think about you. I can picture the note you managed to get to me back there, a stained little scrap of paper, almost rectangular, torn on one end. I can see your writing, slanted to the right, and four or five sentences that I can
no longer remember. I’m sure of one line, the first: “My darling little girl,” and the last line too, your signature: “Shloïme.” But what came in between, I don’t know anymore. 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. So I concentrate on other things: Where did you get that paper and pencil? What did you promise the man who brought me your message? That may seem unimportant today, but then, that piece of paper, folded in four, your writing, the steps of the man walking from you to me, proved that we still existed. Why don’t I remember? All I have left is Shloïme and his darling little girl. They were deported together. You to Auschwitz, me to Birkenau.

Afterwards, history linked those two places with a simple hyphen. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people just say Auschwitz, the largest death camp of the Third Reich. Time obliterates what separated us, it distorts everything. Auschwitz was built behind a little town; Birkenau was in the countryside. It was only when you went out through
the large gate with your work detail that you could catch a glimpse of the other camp. The men from Auschwitz looked toward us and thought: That’s where our wives, our sisters, our daughters died; and that’s where we’ll end up, in the gas chambers. And I, I looked toward you and wondered, Is it a camp or a town? Has he gone to the gas chamber? Is he still alive? Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable uncertainty of what was happening to us all. It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers. The books say it was barely three.

There were very few prisoners who could move between the two camps. He was an electrician; he changed the odd lightbulb in our dark prison block. He appeared one evening. Or it might have been a Sunday afternoon. Anyway, I was there when he came, I heard my name, Rozenberg! He came in, he asked for Marceline. That’s me, I replied. He handed me the scrap of paper, saying: “This is a message from your father.”

We only had a few seconds, we could have been killed for that simple act. And I had nothing to answer you with, no paper, no pencil, objects no longer existed in our lives—they formed mountains in the storehouses where we worked, objects belonged to the dead. We were slaves: all we had was a spoon wedged into a seam, a pocket, or a shoulder strap, and a band tied around our waist—a bit of fabric torn from our clothes or a thin rope found on the ground—to hang our metal bowl from. So I took out the gold coin I’d stolen while I was sorting out the clothes. I’d found it in a hem, hidden as if it were some poor man’s treasure, and I’d wrapped it up in a piece of cloth; I didn’t know what to do with it, or where to hide it, or how to trade it on the camp’s black market. I handed it to the electrician, I wanted him to give it to you, I knew he’d steal it, everyone stole in the camp; in our block, you could always hear people crying: “Someone stole my bread!” So I stammered in a mixture of Yiddish and German I’d learned in the camp that if he intended to keep it, he should give
you half. Did you get it? I’ll never know. I read your note right away, I’m sure of that. I didn’t show it to anyone but I told everyone there, “My father wrote to me.”

Other words you said haunted me then. Those words were more important than anything. You said them at Drancy, when we still didn’t know where we were going. Like everyone else, we said over and over again: “We’re going to
Pitchipoï,”
that Yiddish word that stands for an unknown destination and sounds so sweet to children. They would use it when they talked about trains as they set off: “They’re going to
Pitchipoï,”
they’d say out loud, to reassure themselves after the adults had whispered it to them. But I was no longer a child. I was a big girl, as they say. In my bedroom at the château, I’d redecorated, put a stop to my dreams, got rid of my toys, drawn many Crosses of Lorraine on the wall, and hung pictures above my sky-blue desk, portraits of generals from the first war—Hoche, Foch, Joffre—left in the attic by the previous owner. Do you remember when
the principal of the school in Orange asked to see you? She’d found my private diary that was full of dark rumors and reproaches about the chief supervisor and certain teachers, but most importantly, a fierce defense of de Gaulle. “Your daughter will have to appear before the disciplinary committee; it would be better if you withdrew her from school,” she’d said, in order to protect us. She gave you my diary. You probably read it and found out I was in love with a boy I met on the bus that took us back to Bollène after school; I gave him my bread ration tickets and in exchange, he did my math homework. He wasn’t Jewish. You didn’t speak to me for two months after that. We’d reached the age when we would fight, a father and his fifteen-year-old daughter.

So at Drancy, you knew very well that nothing escaped me when I saw you and the other men looking so serious, grouped together in the courtyard, united by a whisper, by the same premonition that the trains were headed far away to the east and the lands you all had fled. “We’ll work
over there and we’ll see each other on Sundays,” I’d said. And you’d replied: “You might come back, because you’re young, but I will not come back.” That prophecy burned into my mind as violently and definitively as the number 78750 tattooed on my left arm a few weeks later.

That prophecy became a terrifying companion, in spite of myself. I clung on to it sometimes; I loved those first words when my friends, and the ones who weren’t my friends, disappeared one by one. Then I rejected your prophecy, I hated the words “I will not come back,” words that condemned you, separated us, seemed to offer up your life in exchange for mine. I was still alive—were you?

Then there was the day when we passed each other. My work detail had gone to break up stones, pull along small trucks, and dig ditches along the new road for Crematorium number 5, and we walked in rows of five, as always; we were going back to the camp. It was about six o’clock in the evening. Do you know that this moment
we shared doesn’t belong to just us? That it is part of the memories of the people who survived and is mentioned in their books? For all the dreams of being reunited burst forth in the camp of industrial death, the bodies of all our family who were still alive shuddered when we saw each other, when we broke free from the ranks and ran toward one another. I fell into your arms, fell with all my heart—your prophecy wasn’t true, you were alive. They could have judged you useless from the moment you’d arrived, you were in your early forties, a bad hernia in your groin meant you had to wear a belt, there was a long scar on your thumb from when you were injured at the factory. But you were still strong enough to be their slave, like me. You were meant to live, not to die. I was so happy to see you! Our senses came alive again, the sense of touch, the feel of a body we loved. That moment would cost us dearly, but for a few precious seconds, it interrupted the merciless script written for us all. An SS officer hit me, called me a whore, for the women weren’t allowed to talk
to the men. “She’s my daughter!” you cried, still holding me tightly in your arms. Shloïme and his darling little girl. We were both alive. Your logic didn’t hold up anymore, age had nothing to do with it—no logic existed in the camp, the only thing that counted was their obsession with numbers. We’d either die right away or a little later, but we wouldn’t make it out alive. I had just enough time to give you the name of my prison block: “I’m in 27B.”

I was beaten so hard that I fainted, and when I came to, you were gone, but I found a tomato and an onion in my hand that you’d secretly slipped to me—your lunch, I’m sure—and I hid them right away. How was it possible? A tomato and an onion. Those two vegetables hidden beside me made everything possible once more, I was a child and you were my father again, my protector, the one who kept me fed, the head of a business that manufactured sweaters in his factory in Nancy, the slightly crazy man who bought us a little château in the south, in Bollène, and took
me there in a horse-drawn carriage, looking all mysterious, so happy about your surprise that you asked: “What do you wish for most in the world, Marceline?”

The next day, our work details passed each other again. But we didn’t dare move. I saw you in the distance. You were there, so close to me, very thin, wearing a baggy striped uniform, but still a magician, a man who could astonish me. Where did you get the tomato and onion that brought such joy to my stomach and a friend’s? All we were given was some murky, warm liquid when we got up, a little of which I kept to wash myself with, then soup at noon, a piece of bread in the evening, and once a week either a grayish slice of imitation sausage, a teaspoon of beet jam, or a bit of margarine to spread on two slices of bread. Where did you get the paper to write to me? We had nothing to wipe ourselves with in the latrines. I used to tear off little strips of material from a pair of stained men’s underpants that was thrown in my face when I arrived, only too glad to use it
up a little at a time to wipe my bottom, but I felt embarrassed and ashamed.

I don’t know how much time passed between those two moments, those two gestures, the last between us. Several months, I think. Perhaps less. You remembered my block number, the first in the row closest to the crematorium, and you had the message brought to me. You didn’t sign it “Papa” but your first name, in Yiddish, “Shloïme,” that became Solomon in France. You had returned to the land where you were born, which hadn’t waited for the Nazis to persecute the Jews; you surely needed to affirm your identity, your Jewishness, in this universe where we were nothing more than
Stücke
: things. Perhaps you even found some of your relatives again in the camp, cousins from Poland who always called you Shloïme. Still today, whenever I hear the word “Papa,” I’m startled, even seventy-five years later, even when it is spoken by someone I don’t know. That word disappeared from my life so early that it hurts, and I can only say it deep in
my heart, never out loud. And I certainly couldn’t write it down then.

In your message, you must have begged me to hold on, to live. Such ordinary words, words used instinctively, the only words reasonable men have left when they can’t imagine the future. You must have used the imperative form of those verbs. But I probably didn’t believe what you wrote to me. Not as much as I believed in a tomato or an onion. Words had deserted us. We were hungry. The massacre had started. I’d even forgotten Mama’s face. So perhaps your message had too much warmth at once, too much love; I drank it in as soon as I’d read it, like a robot that is hungry and thirsty. And then I erased the memory of it. Thinking about it too much meant letting in the loss, it made me vulnerable, brought up past memories, made me weak, brought death. In life, real life, we also forget, let things slide, make distinctions, trust our feelings. But there, it was the opposite. The first things we lost were the feelings of love and sensitivity. You freeze inside so you
don’t die. There, you know very well how the spirit shrivels, the future lasts for five minutes, you lose who you are.

I never called out for you to help me. And whenever I thought of you, I pictured you with my baby brother; he was four and I couldn’t remember his name anymore. Michel. He never left your side for a second before we were arrested; wherever you went, he was in your arms or at your feet, his hand in yours, as if he were afraid of losing you. Perhaps I hid a little bit of myself in his tiny form. That was another way of calling out to you. I was your darling little girl. Even at fifteen. At any age. I had so little time to save enough of you within me.

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. I
watched her. I knew what chaos and anguish runs through a little girl’s mind, knew how determined she was, clutching her doll in her hand. Not long before, a few years earlier, I too had left with a suitcase that had a baby doll inside it, and a little box to keep fishing flies in.

You must have told me you were still alive in that letter, and not very far away. And promised that soon the war would be over and we’d be free. When was that letter? Summer of ’44? A little later? We knew about the landings and the battles. The news came into the camp with the latest convoys. Every time, one of us would try to slip into Cell Block A,
*
where the new arrivals were still in quarantine, living on borrowed time, between the gas chamber and hard labor. We’d look for familiar faces. We always came back with information. That was how we found out that Paris had been liberated, that General Leclerc’s troops had
paraded down the Champs-Élysées; and the next day, we’d all very quietly sung the “Marseillaise” as we passed the orchestra that played military marches and pieces of classical music when we left for work every morning and when we returned at night.

But hearing news from a world we didn’t belong to anymore wasn’t really important. The gas chamber still hung over us, menacing. We were all on the brink. We only lived in the present, minute by minute. Nothing could give us hope anymore. Hope was dead.

The Hungarians had arrived. Hundreds of thousands of them—you remember that flood of people, as if entire cities were pouring into the camp. Everything increased, both the numbers and the pace. They undressed them, sent them to the gas chamber—the children, babies, and old people first, as usual. The ones death would claim a few days later were penned up in a part of the camp that had just been constructed, the
first section of a new camp, close to the crematorium. We called it Mexico.

We walked by it every day on the way to work. We were going to Canada, which is what the Polish women had named the place where we sorted through the clothes, because it was the least difficult job, the one we all hoped for, where we might come across an old crust of bread in a pocket, or a gold coin sewn into a hem. The French women among us would have called it Peru. Strange geography in the miniaturized world of the camp, in Polish. I didn’t know why, but Mexico implied impending death.

BOOK: But You Did Not Come Back
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