Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Yale University PressAuschwitz and After
Charlotte Delbo
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995

Reviewed by:
Beth Dutton

Windsor High School
Windsor, Vermont


Charlotte Delbo was born in Vigneux-sur-Seine, near Paris, in 1913. It is important to note that she worked as an assistant in a theater company, because her writing is intensely dramatic in a manner that only one steeped in the theater could produce. Though she was safely out of her country when Germany invaded France in 1940, working with the Louis Jouvet theatrical company in South America, she made her way back to Paris to join her husband there and to work with the resistance.

The French police arrested them in 1942 and turned them over to the Gestapo. Her husband Georges was executed and Charlotte was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 with a company of 230 French women, mostly non-Jewish resistance workers. Only forty-nine of them survived, Charlotte among them. She remained in Auschwitz or a satellite camp, Raisko, until 1944 when she was sent to Ravensbruck. At the end of the war she was removed to Sweden by the Red Cross to recuperate from severe malnutrition and illness.

She has written numerous plays, poems, and essays; but the trilogy which Auschwitz et après comprises is her masterpiece, and it contains her poignant accounts of the experiences she and the other women prisoners underwent in the camps. The three parts to the trilogy are: "None of Us Will Return," "Useless Knowledge," both of which recount the experiences in Auschwitz, and "The Measure of our Days," which lets us see how a survivor lives after such events and the obligation survivors have to "carry the word." 

One of the expressions she uses most often in her writings and in her conversations with others is "Il faut donner à voir," loosely translated as "they must be made to see." And make us see she does, in one of the most powerful works by a survivor I have ever read; and over the years I have read many and written two biographies of survivors. She has the effect of making me want to throw my computer and word-processor out the window and return to the slate and stone, or to writing in tidal sand, as befits my poor shadow of the kind of writing Delbo did. 

The experience of Auschwitz never left Delbo, remaining with her as she said like "a skin of memory, an impermeable skin...," and as many books as I have read before and since reading Delbo, what she has described in both prose and poetry remains with me like a skin of memory more powerfully than anything else has. After reading Delbo, one wonders if she could in fairness be called a survivor, for throughout everything she has written in her trilogy, we sense that never had she lived so intensely as when she was dying in Auschwitz and when she witnessed the awful deaths of the women with whom she was imprisoned. She said once in an interview- "I died in Auschwitz, and no one knows it." One of her short poems reads-

As far as I'm concerned
I'm still there
dying there
a little more each day
dying over again 
the death of those who died

Delbo manages with her superb prose and poetry, stunningly translated by Lamont, to create a new memory for those of us who are willing to take up the burden of being witnesses to the Holocaust and of painstakingly transmitting that burden to the students we teach; and she etches on that new memory scenes of such terror, pain, anguish, and loss as to make us changed persons forever. 

There is a special vision that Delbo had, and gives to us in her trilogy, of the enormous range of the Holocaust. Beginning with the very first page, she makes us see as she wanted us to see. It is here that she describes the "Arrivals" and "Departures" at Auschwitz, the place where trains pull into the station and disgorge their passengers, who then disappear in groups through the departure gates. There are groups carrying their pitiful bundles of belongings; groups with children, wives, old parents; groups of boarding-school girls wearing school uniforms; groups with shawls and tied up scarves holding pots; groups with varicolored sweaters from the Danube; a wedding party group with the people still in top hats and gloves, the bride in her veil, the women holding dainty handbags, all snatched from a festive occasion; doctors, furriers, architects, composers, children carrying dolls and trucks; two small children, all dressed up, who went out for a walk and were never able to go back home where parents were waiting for them; city people, peasants, farmers - all reaching that unknown station somewhere in the heart of Europe, "the largest station in the world for arrivals and departures." And surely the most terrible. 

So powerful and so evocative is Delbo's writing that one chapter, such as the first one, or one poem can provide the material for those of us who are teachers for a whole course of Holocaust studies. An example is the following untitled poem.

This dot on the map 
this black spot at the core of Europe
this red spot 
this spot of fire this spot of soot 
this spot of blood this spot of ashes
for millions 
a nameless place. 
From all the countries of Europe 
from all the points on the horizon
trains converged 
toward the nameless place 
loaded with millions of humans 
poured out there unknowing of where
poured out with their lives
small aches 
huge astonishment
eyes questioning
without knowing
where they were. 
Today people know 
have known for several years
that this dot on the map
is Auschwitz. 
This much they know
as for the rest 
they think they know.

Students reading this carefully always want to know and spend weeks in the computer lab, in the library, and among my books trying to find out: Where did they come from? What were the cities and towns and shtetles of the Jewish communities like, those thousands of places from which the Jews were torn?

What was Jewish culture like, the culture from which we have benefited so much since, particularly here In the United states, and which was the bright light of places like Budapest, Vienna, Kiev, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Venice, Rome, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Bialystok, Lublin, Rutki, Sambrowo, Lodj, and so many others. What were the arts, professions, crafts and everyday jobs of these people? What were their celebrations? What did they leave behind as they were snatched? How far did they have to travel and from what comers of Europe? What were the conditions aboard those trains which came from "all points on the horizon?" What must they have felt coming to this "nameless place"? 

And what were the others like, what were they thinking when they saw all this humanity, their old neighbors and friends, from all over Europe being loaded on trains and taken to known and unknown places? Who were the people and what were they like who made all the necessary and intricate arrangements for those millions to be transported from all over Europe? And so on and on and on. Little by little throughout her book, and even in just one poem, Delbo makes us see. 

And in her heart-breaking descriptions of the sufferings of the women in the camps, Delbo makes us see that the Germans and their willing allies not only targeted the Jewish women particularity as Jews but specifically as women in their biological capacity to bear children. Delbo does not compare pain, does not compare the deaths of men and women in the camps. All of the pain, all of the deaths are hideous, but we are helped to see how especially vicious and depraved the captors of the women were, making them stand naked, poking at their bodies with their whips and clubs, calling them bitches and whores, attacking their very femininity and deriding their ability now to produce the vermin which threatened the Nazi future. Delbo makes us see how the Nazi victimization of female inmates can be understood as a sustained attack on feminine identity - through the use of verbal abuse, forced labor under the most awful of conditions, forced sterilization, increased violence to those women who continued to have menstrual periods, neglect of their illnesses - a sustained attack upon the life force itself. 

Delbo makes us see something else, too. She makes us see the special responsibility we, the living, have to remember. In the last part of a long poem entitled, "Prayer to the Living, To Forgive them for Being Alive," she writes 

I beg you 
do something 
learn a dance step 
something to justify your existence
something that gives you the right 
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh 
because it would be too senseless
after all 
for so many to have died
while you live 
doing nothing with your life. 

I feel privileged to be acquainted with the translator, Rosette Lamont, professor of French and Comparative Literature at Queens College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she is also on the faculty of the doctoral program in theater. Her parents brought her to the United States as refugees from France during World War II when she was five years old. Lamont is a friend of Delbo's and calls her "a voice of conscience." 

I have just sufficient knowledge of French, having done translations from the French for MacMillan publishers, to know that this is a meticulously, beautifully, and faithfully done translation of Delbo's powerful work.



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