Monday, April 11, 2016

True and Truthful

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading Charlotte Delbo's Auschwitz and After.  As I also mentioned in an earlier post, it's not an easy read.  For a lot of reasons.

When Charlotte Delbo returned to France in 1946, after surviving for fifteen months in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Raisko, and Ravensbrück, she wrote Aucun de nous ne reviendra (None of Us Will Return). Upon completing this work, which would eventually become the first volume in her trilogy, Auschwitz et après (Auschwitz and After), Delbo put the text aside until 1965, when she finally agreed to its publication. Delbo claimed that her silence stemmed from an aesthetic concern: she wanted to see whether her work could “stand the test of time.”

Delbo's memoir is not as well known as the works of other Auschwitz survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Some scholars have speculated that this is perhaps because of the style of her writing and because of the ways in which Auschwitz and After raises the inherent problem of representing the unspeakable atrocities that Delbo witness.

Delbo was a member of the French Resistance. In March, 1942, she and her husband, Georges Dudach were arrested in Paris for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets and reading material.  Dudach was executed by firing squad on the morning of May 23rd: Delbo saw him briefly beforehand when he was allowed to say goodbye to her.

Delbo remained in prison until January of 1943, when she and a convoy of 239 other women were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  They were the only convoy of female members of the French Resistance ever sent to Auschwitz, and of the 239, only 49 returned. Delbo was eventually moved to a satellite camp at Raisko, where conditions were slightly better, and then to Ravensbruck.  She was finally released to the Swedish Red Cross in 1945.

Delbo was acutely aware of her role as a voice for those who were silenced—specifically, those who “would not return” from the Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust. In her memoir, Delbo seeks to construct a poetic voice that is simultaneously personal and political in order to “show” her readers what she witnessed and endured in Auschwitz and afterward.

Delbo’s description of an early-morning roll call in Auschwitz highlights a problem of representing the traumas she witnessed and endured:
I am standing amid my comrades and I think to myself that if I ever return and will want to explain the inexplicable, I shall say, “I was saying to myself: you must stay standing through roll call. You must get through one more day.  It is because you got through today that you will return one day, if you ever return.” This is not so.  Actually I did not say anything to myself. I thought of nothing.  …if the women who died had required those who returned to account for what had taken place, they would be unable to do so.  I thought of nothing.  I felt nothing.  I was a skeleton of cold, with cold blowing through all the crevices in between a skeleton’s ribs. (Auschwitz and After, 64)
Delbo repeatedly insisted, “They must be made to see” («Il faut donner à voir»), a statement of aesthetic and ethical purpose that conceives of her traumatic witnessing as the construction of a lens on the past. Representing herself as "a skeleton of cold, with cold blowing through all the crevices in between a skeleton’s ribs," Delbo reflects on the experience of past and present—of “then” vs. “now”—as a paradoxical voicelessness. She wants to represent herself as capable of explaining the inexplicable in terms of human resilience, both then and now, but she cannot.

Even as she tries “to account for what had taken place”—to offer her own requiem for the millions who died—Delbo inscribes her inability to do so within the text itself. She often resorts to paradoxes, noting as an epigraph to None of Us Will Return, "I am not sure that what I wrote is true, but I am certain that it is truthful."

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