Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Daughter Remembers a Father: A French Jew and the Scars of Holocaust

"You might come back, because you're young, but I'll not come back." The father calmly prophesied to his 15 year old daughter as they waited in a transit camp at Drancy, near Paris, to be sent on trains that would take them to the heart of Europe and into a blackhole that would engulf the lives of 6 million Jews, amongst others. The daughter, as the father told, came back and as an octogenarian writer penned a memoir in the form of a letter to the father who "did not come back".

Marceline Loridan-Ivens' tender memoir "But you did not come back" is not just another tale of holocaust and Auschwitz but a very moving portrait that tells in brief prose of a very dark era and how families were not just torn asunder in the moment but carried the scars, if they survived, for all their lives.

France, then and now, remains a hot bed anti-semitism. Marceline is one of the "160 still alive out of the 2,500 who came back-76,500 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau". The collaborationist Vichy regime in France tapped into the anti-Semitism that prevailed and shipped tens of thousands of Jews to the ovens of Auschwitz.

Marlene's father, Schloime Rozenberg, a Polish Jew settled in France, bought an imposing chateau which he thought was a symbol of his having achieved a dream. French law prohibited him, as a Jew, from being the legal owner though. The chateau was registered in the name of his son. Marceline asks, "did you think that by becoming the owners of a chateu we would no longer be Jews in their eyes?" Rosenberg had originally thought of migrating to America but instead stopped in France. Marceline surmises that he was perhaps convinced by Emile Zola's J'Accuse and told himself "nothing could happen to us here" ('"J'Accuse" - I accuse- was a letter written by Emile Zola in defense of the anti-semitic prosecution of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus on trumped up charges. Theodor Herzl, who went on to become the founding father of Zionism, witnessed the humiliation of Dreyfus and in that moment was born the Zionist movement).

The cruelty of the French laws persists even in the death certificate awarded to Rozenberg. Since he was not a French citizen at the time of deportation his death certificate would become official only five years after the date on which the government stated he was probably dead. Marceline writes "You'd made many requests before the war to get the citizenship you dreamed of. In vain. You loved this country, I'm not sure it was mutual". "You were a foreign Jews, that was your only official title, according to the state". Even in a memorial that the township constructed to commemorate the war dead the city was loathe to mention that Rozenberg died in Auschwitz.

It could be argued if only the Nazis focused on the war and not in killing they might have won the war. The industrial scale of Holocaust is of biblical proportions. Millions were ferried from a vast theater of war that spread across the European continent. Nothing illustrates this more than the journeys taken by Marceline and her father. They both are sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau first. Later Marceline is sent to Bergen Belsen and from there to a ghetto in Czechoslovakia. All that while the allies were racing towards Berlin in a pincer movement and the Reich was being reduced to a rubble. Think about that for a moment. Auschwitz-Birkenau is at the heart of Poland. From Auschwitz, near Krakow, to Bergen-Belsen, in Northern Germany, is 800 KMs. From Bergen-Belsen to Thereseienstadt in The German-Czech border is 466 KM and one has to cross Leipzig and Dresden. Conveying and obsessively accounting for prisoners in war time is no joke. Thousands perished in the box cars. Rozenberg was moved from Auschwitz to Mauthausen in Austria and then to Gross-Rosen in Poland. A roundtrip journey in and out of Poland.

Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Gross-Rosen was liberated by the Red Army in February 1945. Official records that Marceline distrusts puts Rosenberg's possible death at Gross-Rosen. She imagines how her father might've died, "you looked just like all the corpses I saw scattered along the road as I returned","arms outspread, your eyes wide open. A body who'd seen death and then watched himself die".

Auschwitz and Birkenau are now referred collectively as a hyphenated word but to the prisoners a world separated them both. Marceline was at Birkenau while her father was at Auschwitz. While they were marched up and down to their slave jobs they could see each other but could not walk over and get a hug. Once Marceline and Rozenberg do break that rule and they were severely beaten for that. Amidst the melee the father slips a tomato to his daughter. "His lunch". The haunting theme of the book is a letter that the father manages to slip to the daughter. Try as she might Marceline is unable to recall the contents of the letter. She remembers wondering how he got paper to scratch a note, because she can barely find material to wipe after defecating.

Two depictions in this memoir brought to my mind similarities with the slavery experience of Blacks that Colson Whitehead portrayed in his gut wrenching narration "Underground Rail Road".

Prisoners, of all kinds, always yearn for freedom. Concentration camp prisoners and slaves knew that attempts to escape would, if failed, lead to gruesome death. Choosing the manner of death was the last act of defiance that many could have. An escapee from Birkenau slashes her wrists and cheats the gallows even as she was dragged to one.

Whether it was the slave girl in South Carolina or a Jewish girl in Auschwitz they suffer ignominies that are uniquely inflicted on women in any conflict. Nudity was never by choice and more often clinical and equally often it was asexual and as such sex and nudity loose their interconnectedness. After a tender teenage girl whose womanhood is blossoming is made to stand naked, in her emaciated condition, along with tens of others to be examined by Dr. Mengele it is natural for the girl to never look at her naked self ever again in the erotic sense. Remember that the girl also later learns what a grotesque and sick monster Mengele was. One can only imagine what that must mean to the girl who was clinically examined by that monster while being naked.

When Marceline is eventually rescued and reacher her home, her mom and others, except the father, had all been free for a year. She is a misfit. The home is fractured and Marceline tells her father that in his absence there's too much screaming and too little listening to one another. Her brother commits suicide, her mom remarries and Marceline drift away from her family but clings to the sisterhood of survivors who meet on a regular basis.

While at the camp Marceline desires to be alive but as survivor the guilt of survival, as Levi Strauss wrote of it, weighs on her, like remembering her unwitting and reluctant part in the death of a girl at the camp, feeling guilty about sleeping on a soft mattress and more.

Even after such an event as Holocaust the soul of France remains stained by anti-Semitism. Marceline hides her Jewishness by adopting the French surnames of the men she married consecutively. Witnessing 9/11 and the victims jumping from the towers of the World Trade Center Marceline's memories of the horrors she suffered and never could leave behind, well up within herself and she realizes that "up until that day, I'd been avoiding the fact that being Jewish is the strongest thing about me".

Marceline records her perspective on Israel too. "You dreamed of Israel, it exists." "Wars normally end, but not this one, for the Jewish state has never been accepted by the Arab countries that surround it; its borders are never fixed, ever-changing, violent. And the longer this goes on, the more suspect Israel becomes, in the opinion of Europeans as well."

Anti-Semitism, Marceline thinks, is here to stay. "Anti-semitism is an eternal given." "Anti-Semitism will never disappear. It is too deeply rooted in the world"

While filming the movie "Birch-Tree Meadow" ('Birkenau' means Birch tree) Marceline asks an actress to lie down on a cot, stretch out her hand and say, as Marceline would say to her father if he was there, "I loved you so much that I was happy to have been deported with you".

The most interesting omission in the book is the mention of the most famous victim of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the camps where Marceline was interned, Anne Frank. Anne Frank died, aged 15, along with her sister at Bergen-Belsen a few months before the camp was liberated by British forces. As always, being the father of a child, now 11, such tales give a gut punch to even contemplate how the children, separated from parents learn to survive until they truly survive or succumb to the pestilence of disease that often swept such camps. The human instinct for survival is amazing even in children. Let us hug our children a little tighter and teach them that fighting injustice and hatred is a moral duty of all. Stories like that of Marceline tell us once more of our moral duty in opposing hatred however small and whoever it is aimed at.


Some book Reviews.



3. (NYT's feature of the author has some parallels to incidents I've cited and my choices of excerpts).

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