Reading the World: ‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens ****

In 1944, when she was just fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and her father were arrested in occupied France, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At the concentration camp, the pair were forcibly separated, and she was only able to speak to her father once more.  But You Did Not Come Back is a letter to the father whom ‘she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life.  With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world’.  Le Parisien calls Loridan-Ivens’ memoir ‘one of the most beautiful books of the year’, and promise that ‘you will read it in one sitting’.  But You Did Not Come Back has been translated from its original French by Sandra Smith, who handles all of the Irene Nemirovsky translations.  It was first published in 2015, and in English last year.

9780571328024But You Did Not Come Back begins in the following way: ‘I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. …  But I’m changing.  It isn’t bitterness, I’m not bitter.  It’s just as if I were already gone. …  I don’t belong here anymore.  Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will.  I’m slowing down.’  She goes on to harrowingly describe the situation which she and her father were thrust into, and how their separation affected her: ‘Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable certainty of what was happening to us all.  It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers.’

Loridan-Ivens meets her father once more, quite by chance when returning from a work detail.  When the pair embrace, she describes the following: ‘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.’  The next day, she passes him again: ‘You were there, so close to me, very thin, wearing a baggy striped uniform, but still a magician, a man who could astonish me.’  She is just as honest about what being imprisoned in such a notorious concentration camp does to her, and those around her: ‘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.’  Whilst detailing her experiences within the camp, Loridan-Ivens often writes using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’; through this narrative choice, she demonstrates just how many were in the same situation as her, and the collective feelings which were shared.  Her voice continually speaks to her father; she addresses questions to him, and aches to know his opinions.

Loridan-Ivens was eighty-six when she chose to write But You Did Not Come Back, and it is clear that doing so was a very painful experience.  She describes her isolation when the war ends and Bergen-Belsen, where she is transported to, is liberated; returning home, she finds that nobody but her father understood what she went through in the camps, and the majority of people around her forbid her to talk of her experiences.  She writes: ‘I wasn’t running away from ghosts, quite the contrary, I was chasing after them, after you.  Who else could I share anything with?’

But You Did Not Come Back is incredibly moving and poignant; it is as heartfelt as it is heartbreaking.  Just one hundred pages long, it can be read in a relatively short time, but its messages are unlikely to be forgotten.  Loridan-Ivens demonstrates in her beautiful and brave memoir, which has been seamlessly translated, that the bond between father and daughter can never truly be broken.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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The Book Trail: The Holocaust Edition

I begin today’s edition of The Book Trail with a poignant memoir, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back.  As ever, I have followed the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ link on Goodreads to come up with an interesting list of tomes.

1. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens 9780571328024
In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again.  But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline’s letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life. With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world.  This is a breathtaking memoir by an extraordinary woman, and an intimate and deeply moving message from a daughter to her father.


2. The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val (preface by Jonathan Safran Foer) 8302861
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetls—Jewish communities connected to larger towns—images of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Brimming with life and tradition, family and faith, these shtetls existed in the shadow of their town’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Not Trochenbrod.  Trochenbrod was the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. It began with a few Jewish settlers searching for freedom from the Russian Czars’ oppressive policies, which included the forced conscriptions of one son from each Jewish family household throughout Russia. At first, Trochenbrod was just a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, yet for the next 130 years it thrived, becoming a bustling marketplace where people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business. But this scene of ethnic harmony was soon shattered, as Trochenbrod vanished in 1941—her residents slaughtered, her homes, buildings, and factories razed to the ground. Yet even the Nazis could not destroy the spirit of Trochenbrod, which has lived on in stories and legends about a little piece of heaven, hidden deep in the forest.


6197853. Wallenberg: Missing Hero by Kati Marton
A fearless young Swede whose efforts saved countless Hungarian Jews from certain death at the hands of Adolf Eichmann, Raoul Wallenberg was one of the true heroes to emerge during the Nazi occupation of Europe.


4. The Diary of Mary Berg by Mary Berg
After 60 years of silence, ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ is poised at last to gain the appreciation and widespread attention that it so richly deserves, and is certain to take it’s place alongside ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ as one of the most significant memoirs of the twentieth century. From love to tragedy, seamlessly combining the everyday concerns of a growing teenager with a unique commentary on life in one of the 556980darkest contexts of history. This is a work remarkable for its authenticity, detail, and poignancy. But it is not only as a factual report on the life and death of a people that ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ ranks with the most noteworthy documents of the Second World War.   This is the personal story of a life-loving girl’s encounter with unparalleled human suffering, a uniquely illuminating insight into one of the darkest chapters of history. Mary Berg was imprisoned in the ghetto from 1940 to 1943. Unlike so many others, she survived the war, having been rescued in a prisoner-of-war exchange due to her mother’s dual Polish-American nationality.  Berg’s diary was published in 1945 when she was still only 19, in an attempt to alert the world to the Nazi atrocities in Poland, when it was described as “one of the most heartbreaking documents yet to come out of the war.


5. Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel by Gotz Aly
1839242When the German Remembrance Foundation established a prize to commemorate the million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, it was deliberately named after a victim about whom nothing was known except her age and the date of her deportation: Marion Samuel, an eleven-year-old girl killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Sixty years after her death, when Götz Aly received the award, he was moved to find out whatever he could about Marion’s short life and restore this child to history.  In what is as much a detective story as a historical reconstruction, Aly, praised for his “formidable research skills” (Christopher Browning), traces the Samuel family’s agonizing decline from shop owners to forced laborers to deportees. Against all odds, Aly manages to recover expropriation records, family photographs, and even a trace of Marion’s voice in the premonition she confided to a school friend: “People disappear,” she said, “into the tunnel.”  A gripping account of a family caught in the tightening grip of persecution, Into the Tunnel is a powerful reminder that the millions of Nazi victims were also, each one, an individual life.


6. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman 458673
One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on diaries, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters, whose inspired defiance would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.


Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

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‘Survivor’ by Sam Pivnik ****

9781444758399‘Sam Pivnik’s life story is a classic testimony of Holocaust survival. In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Sam Pivnik’s life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz’s notorious Rampkommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.’

My sister purchased this as a gift for me when she visited Auschwitz back in August.  It is a Holocaust account which I hadn’t heard of before; I do not remember seeing any information about it upon its release, and have come across no reviews on Goodreads or blogs regarding the thoughts of its previous readers.  Regardless, as a History nerd, the premise appealed to me immediately, and I only waited for a couple of weeks before reading it.

Pivnik’s account is thorough, and all the more heartbreaking for it.  Usually with collaborative memoirs like this, I do not usually find that the prose style is quite up to scratch, but here it was refined, and read beautifully.  The prose style is fluid, and very much suits the piece.  Survivor is brutal in places; I expected this to be the case, but some of Pivnik’s descriptions were far more chilling than I had anticipated.

Pivnik’s bravery is paramount to his account; he survived conditions which millions did not.  The very fact that he writes so humbly of his own efforts is extraordinary.  It was astounding to discover how much he went through, and yet still came out of the other side eager to live and contribute.  Survivor is an incredible memoir, which is sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of the Second World War.  There is so much to think about whilst reading, and so much to get choked up about too.  Survivor is an incredibly important book, and one which I wish I had heard about sooner.

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One From the Archive: ‘I Am Forbidden’ by Anouk Markovits ****

I Am Forbidden is the first of Anouk Markovits’ books to be written in English. The novel opens in Szatmár, Transylvania, on the eve of the ‘five un-photographable years’ of the Second World War. We are introduced to the character of Zalman Stern, a very devout Jew, who was ‘not only a wonder of Torah knowledge, he also had the most beautiful voice east of Vienna’.

The second chapter then focuses on a young Jewish boy named Josef Lichtenstein and his baby sister, Pearela. His mother and sister are brutally murdered in his home by a smith ‘who often bragged about joining the Romanian Iron Guard’. He is rescued by the family’s housekeeper, a Christian woman named Florina, who tells him: ‘Your name is Anghel. Your father left for the Odessa front before you were born. You are my son’.

The violent and brutal occurrences throughout are made even more shocking by the sometimes deceptively simple prose which Markovits uses. When Josef as a young boy sees a pregnant woman killed and her husband tortured, the author states: ‘it was impossible to see; it was impossible not to see, where the legs met, the split flesh where blood spurted through crusted blood’. The couple have a young girl named Mila with them, whom they instruct to ‘go to Zalman Stern’, an old friend of theirs, to be looked after.

When Mila finds the family, four-year-old Atara, Zalman’s eldest daughter, befriends her. The girls are just a year apart in age and, despite not being related, they form a sisterly bond with one another. Both Mila and Atara, segregated in a world in which books are forbidden, struggle against aspects of their faith which both taunts and hurts them. Atara becomes rebellious, going against what she knows she should be doing.

The characters merge and drift apart in interesting ways. Josef, ‘the boy with the wood-nettle eyes’, is taken from Florina by Zalman Stern, and is swiftly restored to the status of a practicing Jew again. He is consequently sent to a ‘holy community’ in the United States. Throughout, the reader feels much sympathy for the majority of the characters but Zalman Stern, who believes that ‘it was essential for children to fear their father so they would grow into God-fearing Jews’, is not a likeable individual in any way. He is cruel to his family, preferring to uphold Jewish laws and punish even those who innocently and naïvely go against them.

Markovits has used a third person omniscient perspective throughout, which allows her to follow more than one character at any time. The narrative style has been very well constructed, and the use of the narrative voice itself is certainly one of the novel’s strengths. Her writing is often descriptive – leaves are ‘flame shaped and autumn red’ and the eyes of the religious icons are described as ‘furry bees’. The balance of long and short sentences has been well thought out, and Markovits is able to build up strong passages of tension and unease whilst using this technique. This is particularly true with regard to the first few pages in the novel, in which the following passage occurs: ‘Soldiers. A tug on Zalman’s sleeve. Two more buttons snapped. A muzzle lifted his hat.

The history of the period, from the Holocaust up until the present day, has been woven into I Am Forbidden, which gives the novel a wider sense of place and allows the story to be historically grounded throughout. Moral questions regarding Judaism have also been included throughout the text. ‘Must a Jew repent for smothering a crying infant if it was done to protect other lives?’ is perhaps the most harrowing.

I Am Forbidden is an incredibly sad and poignant novel in which death and destruction find prominence. The story is incredibly engrossing and absorbing, and as violent as it is moving. The storyline itself an unpredictable one, filled with twists and turns at every juncture, rendering it impossible to guess in which direction it will lead the reader. I Am Forbidden provides a real insight into Judaism and secular society, and the characters and storyline merge to create an unforgettable novel.

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One From the Archive: ‘After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945’ by Ben Shephard ****

First published in November 2012.

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 is the newest offering from historian Ben Shephard. The book begins with a short yet informative prologue which outlines the state of the world just before Belsen’s liberation, and an introduction in which the author states his reasons for writing such a book. Rather than an exclusive history about the camp, Shephard is concerned with the aftermath. He has aimed to present the story of all those who helped the 60,000 people in the camp to overcome typhus, starvation and dysentery ‘with only the most primitive drugs and facilities available’.

All who know just the slightest crumbs of what occurred in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Second World War will be able to comprehend just how horrific the conditions for and treatment of its prisoners were. ‘When British troops entered [the camp] in 1945,’ Shephard says, ‘they uncovered scenes of horror and depravity that shocked the world’. Upon its discovery by the Allied forces, the camp was seen as ‘a humanitarian disaster, a challenge to the conscience of the world’. The British people involved ‘regarded their conduct at Belsen as one of the great epics of medical history’. And so the book begins.

Unlike many of the concentration camps which included a majority of Jewish prisoners, Belsen was split into several different sections which also housed ‘criminals’, ‘neutrals’ and political prisoners. The most famous of its inmates was Anne Frank, who sadly died of typhus just weeks before the camp was liberated. By using so many different sources – ‘contemporary military records, the diaries of those who worked at Belsen and the testimony of survivors’ – the author has successfully built up a full picture of what occurred in April and May 1945, those pivotal months for all involved. A wealth of diaries and letters have been included throughout which help the author to reinforce points and illustrate the horrors of the camp, all taken from accounts and testimonies of individuals from all walks of life. These begin with the diary of a schoolteacher from Sarajevo and go on to include a lawyer from Amsterdam, a French musician, British colonels involved with the liberation, speeches from various members of the British Government, stretcher bearers and Red Cross volunteers, amongst others.

Along with his main body of text, Shephard has included two appendices which state the death toll in Bergen-Belsen and the evacuation of its prisoners, a section of notes which expand upon things mentioned in the book, and a far-reaching bibliography made up of dozens of consulted sources. Shephard has aimed to make After Daybreak accessible to a wide readership, rather than creating a purely scholarly or academic text. Here, he succeeds. His account is incredibly informative and is presented as a very readable history book. Shephard does not involve himself with long, laborious sentences, but with the presentation of facts, which he has presented in an accessible and fully explained manner.

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