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May 1, 1996 -- Vol.1, no.1

Charlotte Delbo: Auschwitz and After
by Alan Jacobs

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo.
Translated by Rose C. Lamont; Introduction by Lawrence Langer
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
xvii + 355 pp. ISBN 0-300-06208-7.
Part I: None of Us Will Return, pp. 1-114.

Charlotte Delbo was a survivor of Birkenau and she was a great writer. If you are interested in learning more, or perhaps even discovering what it was like to live in Auschwitz, her Auschwitz and After will bring you close to the edge. Its images and depth of understanding go far beyond testimony and witnessing; important enough survivor tasks.

Erich Kahler described in The Tower and the Abyss, the "New Factuality" that followed pre-WW I expressionism. It substituted, or rather overwhelmed, the love of nature with brutally frank descriptions of the horror of the battlefield. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes: "In literature... this crass, cold precision suggests that a bitterness or profound sadness has replaced the reverent attitude of the old realists toward the external world" (p. 50). The Holocaust and other genocides have demanded a literature beyond what even Hemingway and the Lost Generation created. Such literature grows from personal experience. Direct battlefield experience in WW I innervated Hemingway's realism. The extreme of concentration camp life under the Nazis, and, to be sure, the Soviets, drives the literature of the extreme: Milosz, Borowski, Solzhenitsyn, Levi, Kosinski, Dinur, Wiesel; as Ezrahi says: "...a reality stripped bare of images" (p. 50).

Borowski helped to create, and then stretch, the genre to the limit, narrowing the gulf between the survivor and the rest of us, sitting in our softness and warmth speculating about what it was like. It is difficult after reading him to avoid being indelibly marked in some way, not to have one's view realized, not to walk by a man begging on the street and be glad it isn't me. And then Delbo ! Stretching the limits even further by combining the extremes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the "new factuality", with the old realism. That the camp was unable to eradicate this perception demonstrates the power of Delbo's art. The fabric alternatively woven with threads of life and death moves her poems and stories into a realm torn between these two worlds, torn and joined. I stumble, my defenses crumble, before her seething minimalist revelations. They come from the land of the dead, from one who is both dying and alive. Dying by the day, Delbo still feels life and spring and flowers and the sun, never lapsing into saccharine description. Rather, the Nazi penetration never defeats. Even as she suffers survival, she sees the struggle through the eyes of the artist.The counter-point produces a horror I have rarely felt in any stories read or heard, and at the same time, a deep sadness. Wanting to die, she feels love and compassion for her friends.

Freezing, she observes freezing and later, decribes it:

"The snow sparkles in the refracted light. There are no beams, light, hard and glacial, where everything is etched in sharp outline . The sky is blue, hard and glacial. One thinks of plants caught in ice. It must happen in the Arctic region, when the ice freezes even under-water vegetation. We are frozen in a block of hard, cutting ice, transparent like a block of pure crystal. And this crystal is pierced by light, as if the light were frozen within the ice, as though the ice were light. It takes a long time to be able to realize we are able to move within the block of ice that encloses us. We wiggle out toes within out shoes, stamp our feet. Fifteen thousand women stamp their feet yet no noise is heard. The silence is solidified into cold. We are in a place where time is abolished. We do not know whether we exist, only ice, light, dazzling snow, and us, in this ice, this light, this silence."

She not only tells us she is freezing, she convinces us to freeze a little with her, convinces that there is something here for us. In Delbo's hands, these events shape the history of the camp into more than remembering. She forces us to know by creating and leaving with us images that are at the same time, horrible in content and beautiful in poetic construction. She paints with a Stradavarian varnish, lengthening the instrument and deepening its tones. Borowski's writing brutally reveals our own compromise with forces of destruction, Wiesel's the depths to which concentration camp life could reduce one's moral perspective. Each moves us, remains. Delbo infuses my everyday, the sun and snow and spring and water and even making love with memories of the camp. I see and I feel her in them, remembering and damning herself for doing so:

"....All the women were sitting in the dust of the dried mud, a miserable swarm that made one think of flies on a dung heap. The odor was so dense and fetid that we did not think that we were breathing in air, but a thick, viscous fluid which enveloped and isolated this corner of the earth as though it had its own atmosphere in which only specially adapted creatures could move. Us.

The stink of diarrhea and corpses. Above this stink a blue sky. And in my memory spring was singing.

Why among all these beings have I alone kept this memory? In my memory spring was singing. Why this difference?"

After typing the ISBN number I glance at Charlotte Delbo's photograph on the cover of Auschwitz and After and see the 37567 tattooed there on, and in, her arm. It reminds that her memory of the extreme, if not the experience, is imprinted indelibly on our minds and in out hearts.

Adolf Gawalewicz, author of "The Anteroom to the Gas" thought we will never be able to convey what it was like with more statistics, numbers, analysis. We could only do it with images, pictures that people see in their minds and feel in their bodies. Her images are in a different genre, one that combines what Langer describes as "deep memory" of Auschwitz with the imagery of her art.

In the poem "Prayer to the Living To Forgive Them For Being Alive" she reminds of the gulf between there, and here. At the same time the poem is written to us, revealing what it was to have a body in the camp, to have to bring the damn dying thing along with you, everywhere. And to remember it after you are out and back and looking at the rest of us:

"You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
clothing which suits you well
or badly
or just about
you who are passing by
full of tumultuous life within your arteries
glued to your skeleton
as you walk with a sprightly step athletic awkward
laughing sullenly, you are all so handsome
so commonplace
so commonplacely like everyone else
so handsome in your commonplaceness
with this excess of life which keeps you
from feeling your bust following your leg
your hand raised to your hat
your hand upon your heart
your kneecap rolling softly in your knee
how can we forgive you for being alive..."

Earlier I was in bed reading Lawrence Langer's deep and undramatic introduction to this powerful book. I was trying to find some way to convey the mark this woman has made in me over many years. In 1982 I read "None of Us Will Return" (Beacon Paperback, 1978) , what is now the first of three sections in this book, and her words, like the tattoo in her arm, are etched in my mind. They are inked indelibly in four parts of me: the conscious, in that I now know something about the other side, and realize the meaning of humanness; the kinesthetic in that I have often felt cold and sick, sad and stupefied at the silent sound of her voice as it rings off the page; in dreams, the only place I can experience what she could not awaken from; and in the esthetic, struggling to touch. She "touches" like only a very few other writers of what Sartre called "a literature of extreme situations" (What is Literature, 216).

My arm tickled and I moved to scratch, discovering a long, slender yellow thread there. Trying to remove it, I felt a tug and followed its course to the neck of my T-shirt. It is a very old, worn, soft cotton shirt that always comforts when I put it on. Because of what I was reading just then, I realized the shirt is slowly unravelling, slowly coming apart and disintegrating, dying slowly; a metamorphosis from bright, fresh garment worn in the sun, to undergarment, nightshirt, and then rag used to wipe one's hands, or clean dirty surfaces. Ultimately it dies, so old and bedraggled it isn't worth washing anymore and is stuffed in a crevice to protect from moisture or the weather. And there it stays compressed and disheveled `till someone finally discovers it quite by accident and, revolted, removes it, unopened, filthy, stained and rumpled as it, avoiding even a small encounter with the shirt's cadaver. It will simply be discarded, thrown in the waste, lost forever. Even worse, some will say it never existed.

Just before I begin these notes, I tear off the thread and shake it from a thumb and forefinger into the waste basket, like it was dental floss. Then I reached in the basket and extract the thread, no longer a simple strand, as part of it is impossibly balled. I place the strand, the straight and the knotted in between the pages of this book, paying homage to the gods of superstition, lest the beauty of her words recede into the recesses of merely ordinary horror. Like my shirt, the story of the Camps is slowly disintegrating in a series of Hollywood productions, academic careers, literary speculations, museums, and moments. It is the way of the world. But Delbo strives to leave her tattoo in us with this exquisitely tender and horrifying book, ultimately a mere thread to be preserved as best we can. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I can find a needle, sew a button, or weave together the frayed edges of a small tear, reminding that it can be used to preserve the memory, even if only incompletely, the emptiness of Auschwitz, the sadness, and the lesson.

This thread is all that one who was not there can grasp of the tapestry. Delbo weaves this thread into the entire body of disjointed horrors I carry like a filthy rag in some dark recess as I shop for groceries at "Treasure Island", ride a bicycle, walk with Krysia, talk with Jesse, read "philosophy"or, ha ha, "history". I lap up luscious chicken corn chowder with a piece of freshly cut fresh farmer's bread, thinking of "Seven Beauties": Giancarlo Gianini, dumping the soup into a hollowed-out loaf of bread; slurping and dripping and grunting and utterly delicious. She forces me to connect here and there, now and then:

"We pay attention only to our feet. To walk in rank formation creates as sort of obsession. You tend to look at feet moving in front of you. You have these feet going forward heavily in front of you."

The camp experience forced prisoners attention to such basic things as eating, defecating, cold, exhaustion, fear, resignation, friendship and thirst. Sensing the minutiae of existence, Delbo brings what we take for granted as our right, into question. Her attention to ordinary things translates the camp experience for us, gives it language and form. She writes, perhaps pleads:" Try to look. Try to see" and her poetry not only forces us to do these things, but also invites with its terrible beauty; compelled by the horror and the lyricism:

"Nothing heard these cries from the edge of dread. The world stopped far from here. The world that says, `It would be lovely to take a walk'."

Because of Delbo I know walking, talking, swallowing, shoes, coats, toilets, beds, and, and friends, are lucky... I don't feel ashamed for not being there, just for not knowing


Ezrahi, S.D. (1980). By Words Alone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kahler, E. (1957). The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation of Man. New York: Viking.

Levi, P. (1978). Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Collier Books.

Wiesel, E. (1960 ). Night. New York: Avon Books.

Copyright © 1996, Alan Jacobs