But You Did Not Come Back review – a Holocaust survivor’s love letter to her father

Marceline Loridan-Ivens

Marceline Loridan-Ivens was 15 when, in April 1944, she was arrested along with her father by the Nazis and sent from occupied France to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Marceline would make it home. Her father would not.

But You Did Not Come Back is Loridan-Ivens’s extraordinary, unflinching and deeply moving memoir of the year she spent in Birkenau, her liberation by the Russians and her return home to France. She describes her experiences with a resolute commitment to detail; there is the brutal, visceral truth about her enforced labour in the camp – “I dug the ditches where the bodies of 50 distant relatives from Lodz would burn” – and there are harrowing stories of murdered children and savage violence. But there is no room for sentimentality in Loridan-Ivens’s honest and self-aware prose: the facts of her incarceration speak emotively enough.

The book is much more than a Holocaust memoir, though; it is a love letter to the father who never came back: “I loved you so much that I was happy to be deported with you,” she declares. And it is also a rallying call for remembrance, for recognition, for her voice to be heard and her experiences learned from: “I know now that antisemitism is an eternal given… but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”

Loridan Ivens’s inability to remember the content of her father’s note haunts the novel as it has clearly haunted her
When Loridan-Ivens and her father first arrived in Poland, she was sent to Birkenau and he to Auschwitz: “Afterwards, history linked those two places with a simple hyphen. Auschwitz-Birkenau… Time obliterates what separated us, it distorts everything.” She was just able to glimpse her father’s camp from hers: “Between us stood… the unbearable certainty of what was happening to us all.” Somehow, her father persuaded an electrician to bring her a letter, “a stained little scrap of paper… four or five sentences”. Despite the initial hope this letter brought with it, Loridan-Ivens subsequently mislaid it and can no longer remember what it said: “I try, but it’s like a deep hole and I don’t want to fall in.”

Her inability to remember the content of her father’s note haunts the book as it has clearly haunted the author all these years. But this forgetting is beautifully juxtaposed with her determination that her memories should not be ignored. On returning home after the war, her emotionally distant mother, who had evaded capture, instructs her: “‘You have to forget’… She didn’t understand where I was coming back from, or didn’t want to.” In later life, Loridan-Ivens becomes a documentary-maker, and there is a sense of both purpose and defiance in her chosen career: “I wanted to become part of a story that was greater than my own.” She married twice, the second time to the Dutch film-maker Joris Ivens, a man old enough to be her father, but she never had children: “Motherhood had no meaning any more: babies were the first to be sent to the gas chamber.”

But You Did Not Come Back is indisputably a story of survival – “I have a story. I do. I’m the survivor” – and yet it is also a story of how trauma impacts through the generations. Both Loridan-Ivens’s younger brother and older sister eventually took their own lives by “the same cocktail” of pills and alcohol: they were “sick from the camps without ever having been there”.

Very occasionally a book comes along that demands to be published, to be read, to be talked about. A book about pain and suffering, about cruelty and humanity, about grief and love. But You Did Not Come Back is an exquisitely written, beautifully translated and unwaveringly honest testimony; a story we will all do well never to forget.

Originally published HERE.