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Without Pieties, With Gravitas

But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens —


Believe this book. Read it. Do not believe the newspaper stories that make you think it’s all about the rise of Anti-Semitism in France. Those stories are only a specious handle on which to hook a journalistic feature. The book is literature, written by a woman in her mid-eighties as a letter addressed to her father who did not come back from Auschwitz.

No, it’s not warmed-over stew. Like many others who are reading this commentary, I’ve read and seen memoirs and fiction and essays and movies and contemporary artworks and . . . and . . . about the Holocaust. I don’t believe in the claim for its exceptionalism; Cambodia’s killing fields live side by side with the Holocaust experience. And yes, comparisons are truly invidious.

This book is different — through passionate emotion and recall, we get to come acutely close to the experience of one who was there and, perhaps even more importantly for readers now, one who survived to tell us about the cost of survival.

You may know this woman if you’ve ever seen the film, Chronicle of a SummerChronique d’un Ete, 1961 by Jean Rouch and Jean Marin, with its cast of people (“non-actors” as we call them) who ask passers-by “Are you happy?” In a radical break from then -established documentary form, this group comes together to talk about the film, in conversations that layer the film with politics from Auschwitz to Algeria.


Remember Marceline? (And, Marceline, forgive my use of your first name; in your book, you’ve given your readers the opening to an intimacy of fellow feeling). She is the one who is sitting around a table with her cohort when the filmmaker asks two African young men, part of the group, whether they know the meaning of the number tattoo’ed on her arm. There is a moment of rupture as they good-humoredly speculate, “Her phone number?” The rupture is bandaged over in the film, but history (or the lack of it; the Africans have not heard the details of the Holocaust) undermines the moment so that we can have no illusions about an unearned bonhomie, a specious unity.

Or you may remember her as a slight and solitary figure walking alone through Paris, a microphone concealed in the pocket of a coat that she wraps around her as though its fabric is holding her together against a sharp wind. She walks through the Place de la Concorde, speaking voice-over about what has brought her to that moment: her time at Auschwitz, the death of her father in the camps. She walks on, to Les Halles, her shopping bag dangling from her arm, ever so slightly and somehow appealingly bow-legged, throughout her voice scratchy, halting, a little song out of nowhere, breaking on her memory of “c’est ma fille,” her heels sounding on the pavement, a sigh, the progress of thought, of memory. At the end of the sequence, the camera pulls back, and then back some more, leaving her standing, facing us in an archway, a cinematic moment which because it resists metaphorical pinning down, leaves us instead suffused with feeling for her.

One man in particular saw her in Chronicle of a Summer, and said to the filmmakers who were his friends, that if he were to meet Marceline, he would fall in love with her.



Jean Rouch, Marceline Loridan (her name then), Edgar Morin

He did. The man was the great Dutch film-maker, Joris Ivens, by then the director of important political films, among them The Spanish Earth made during the Spanish Civil War for the Republican cause, with commentary by Ernest Hemingway, music by Marc Blitzstein and arranged by Virgil Thomson, narrated by Orson Welles. By then too, he had made a number of highly poetic short films, among them La Seine a Recontre Paris, from a screenplay by Jacques Prevert. To his marriage with Marceline, he brought an engaged and lyrical sensibility as well as an international world that included some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Throughout their marriage until his death in 1989, Ivens and Loridan-Ivens traveled the world, making documentary films together, many of them about the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions whose ideals spoke to them.

One is tempted to see this story as high romance – two remarkable people forming an artistically and socially committed partnership. And it is – but one that is very far from a happy ending.

After her release from the camps and before she met Ivens, Marceline had twice tried to kill herself. Both her older sister and younger brother did kill themselves, even though they, unlike Marceline, had not been deported to the camps. Marceline writes about her brother, Michel the youngest, in his velvet pants, who comes to the railroad station hoping to see his father return and finds that it’s only Marceline instead. Michel became manic-depressive: “I was the one he targeted. He drew swastiskas on my mail box, or left messages on my answering machine, imitating the voice of an SS officer; he even had SS tattooed on his arm. He played at being the executioner to be closer to the victim, closer to you. He was sick from the camps without ever having been there.”

Physician Suzanne Koven in a recent review* writes about the inadequacy of taking a conventional “family history,” a kind of checklist of information about specific diseases visited upon a person’s immediate family. “In recent years,” she writes, “our concept of how illnesses are inherited has expanded. The new field of epigenetics explores the ways people’s experiences and exposure to environmental factors affect their health, as well as their children’s and grandchildren’s, on a cellular level. One study found a higher incidence of stress-related disorders among the offspring of Holocaust survivors and, more remarkably, demonstrated corresponding mutations in their chromosomes. I’ve wondered, though, whether we still underestimate how profoundly one person’s health can affect the wellbeing of future generations, in forms undetectable by the X-ray, microscope, or analyst’s couch. How illness and trauma can derail a family’s story such that it may take generations to set it right.”

It is a family history that Loridan-Ivens has written, knowing there is no way to set it right. There is not even a next generation. Her book is full of the kind of detail one would otherwise never know. In the Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail, the Art Nouveau pile of a hotel that the Germans had made their defense headquarters, and which was then converted into a center for returning deportees, Marceline slept on the floor with two or three others because they were unable to bear the feel of a mattress. “Our backs were still there, on the wooden slats of our prison beds” — these survivors with whom she felt a greater kinship than she did with her own family when she later had to go back to her mother’s house.

”Maman couldn’t understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anyore. “You have to forget,” she’d say.” Writing now to her vanished father, Marceline imagines her father if he had returned. ”Maybe you would have found it difficult to lie in a bed beside her. You would have wanted to sleep on the floor like me, you would have run away from the nightmares that catch up to us and punish us when the sheets are too soft.”

That profound alienation from normal life continues with her throughout all the years of creating and the accolades that have followed. And not only her; she tells the story of her friend from the camps who became a government minister but in restaurants slips teaspoons into her bag, so that she “doesn’t have to lap up the terrible soup of Birkenau.”


Before and after she met Ivens, and now when she is eighty-six and has just published her memoir, Marceline has never been able to lay the ghosts of the Holocaust to rest; if she were to read this, I imagine her saying, “Ghosts don’t rest.” In 2002, she directed a feature film, La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux  (The Little Meadow of Birches, a translation of Birkenau), in which Anouk Aimee plays a Holocaust survivor living in New York who is compelled to return to the concentration camp. Having only seen the trailer, I’m nevertheless struck by images of Aimee walking down a path that leads to the former barracks of the camp; Marceline is returning to the past that has never left her.

Feted, awarded, microphones handed to her so that audiences can hear her words, she is a grande dame who does not know – still – whether it was worth it to survive. At the very end of her book, she writes, “Two years ago I asked Henri’s wife, Marie: ‘Now that we are old, 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. But what do you think?’ I couldn’t say whether she was right or wrong; all I said was ‘I’m starting to think like you.’ But I hope that if someone asks me that questions just before I’m about to die, I’ll be able to say, “Yes, it was worth it.”

What are we to make of this? We want to array the love, the creative accomplishments, the good life she seems to have made for herself, against the burden of inextinguishable memory. We want to come out saying, “The evidence stacks up: the good life weighs more heavily on the scale of goodness, of worthiness.”

But Marceline shows us that we can’t take refuge in easy pieties. In her obdurate refusal to listen to the platitudes of the “get-over-it” peddlers of the past-as-burden-that-must-be-shed-if-you-know-what-is-good-for-you, Marceline Loridan-Iven is the burden, and the bearer.

She doesn’t ask us to bear it with her, but such is the power of this book and of Marceline, we do. She redefines the meaning of the word “survivor” and in so doing, she is superb.



*Excerpted from a  review (Los Angeles Review of Books, October 23, 2015) of this author’s WHITE MATTER: A Memoir of Family and Medicine    https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/family-history    — Janet Sternburg


  1. What a stunning story. Janet Sternburg’s review makes me want to read this book, despite its painful message. Thank you for shedding new light on the survivor’s plight. Your compassion and insight, thanks to your own situation (so eloquently described in WHITE MATTER), are vital to this exceptional review.

  2. Janet’s review is not only compassionate and convincing; it proofs she truly loves and respects literature. Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ book has been widely reviewed, also in Germany. But this one is the most empathetic and insightful I have so far read. Thank you.

  3. Jean Rouch and Joris Ivens in one package? Being a survivor myself and having interviewed many others, I find Janet Sternburg’s review insightful as always. Indeed we continue redefining the meaning of the word survivor. Her review inspired me to read Marceline’s book.

  4. I’m ordering this. The review is terrific. I just finished reading WHITE MATTER last night, and highly recommend it for its depth, nuance, poise in the telling — and the author’s voice. Gorgeous.

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