AbstractPart I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Biography | Bibliography

Part I

In her last work titled La mémoire et les joursDays and Memory,-- French writer and Holocaust survivor, Charlotte Delbo, speaks of two selves: the “me” of now--the post-Auschwitz self--, living under the control of what she calls mémoire ordinaire—common memory--, and the “me” of then, the Auschwitz “me”, living under the dominion of mémoire profonde, or deep memory.  Common memory, she says, urges us to regard the Auschwitz ordeal as part of a chronology, which we can easily conceptualize intellectually.  Deep memory, on the other hand, reminds us that the Auschwitz past is not really past and never will be[i]. Delbo uses the image of a snake shedding its skin to conjure up a sense of her “new” nature emerging after the camp years.  Unfortunately, unlike the snake’s skin, which shrivels, disintegrates, and disappears, what Delbo calls the skin of Auschwitz memory remains.  “Auschwitz is so deeply etched on my memory,” she wrote, “that I cannot forget one moment of it.  So you are living with Auschwitz?  No, I live next to it.  Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self” (Langer xi).

As Michel Pollak as noted, traumatic situations posit individuals in rupture with their familiar environment and create a crisis of identity. The act of witnessing must then be considered as expression of the desire to overcome this crisis by allowing the witness to name and describe the acts, which caused it.  The testimony should be viewed as an attempt to reconstruct an identity whose development the camp experience interrupted and sometimes destroyed forever (3).

Before Auschwitz, Charlotte Delbo’s identity was constructed around and defined by her relationship with literature.  She was born in Vigneux-sur-Seine, near Paris, in 1913.  By the mid-thirties, she was an intellectual engaged in the political life of her country: she joined the Young Communists and married Georges Dudach, one of its leaders and editor of Cahiers de la Jeunesse, an artistic, theatrical and literary communist journal.  While following courses of philosophy at the Sorbonne, Delbo wrote theatrical reviews for this journal.  Impressed by the article she published on the interview he had granted her, Louis Jouvet, the actor and theatrical director, offered her employment as his assistant.

She was in South America with Jouvet’s theatre company when the Germans occupied her country in 1940.  She decided to return home after learning that the Gestapo had executed an acquaintance and she made her way back to Paris via Portugal and Spain, to rejoin her husband who was already working with the resistance.  In March 1942, French police arrested them in their apartment, where they were editing and producing anti-German leaflets.  The French turned Delbo and her husband over to the Gestapo, who imprisoned them.  Georges was executed by firing squad in May (Langer ix).  She was incarcerated in La Santé, then Romainville prison, before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a convoy of women, in January 1943.  From the 230 women who were part of Delbo’s convoy, only 49 returned. 

The testimonial work of Delbo reflects the various stages of her concentrationary experience. Of her numerous plays and essays, critics agree that Delbo’s masterpiece is the trilogy Auschwitz et après--Auschwitz and After). Although out of her two and a half years in Nazi camps, Delbo spent only one year in Auschwitz-Birkenau, her experience in that camp occupies the whole of the first volume of her trilogy (Aucun de nous ne reviendra-None of Us Will Return), a great part of the other two volumes (Une connaissance inutile-Useless Knowledge- and Mesure de nos jours-Measure of our Days), and is subject of the play Qui rapportera ces paroles?--Who will bring these words back?  The disproportionate length given to the time in the death-camp can be seen as testifying to its traumatic effect on Delbo  (Thatcher 3).

          Of Aucun de nous ne reviendra, the first volume of her trilogy, Delbo wrote:

C’est un livre qui me tient à la peau du ventre.  J’avais la volonté de le faire et surtout le besoin de le faire.  Un besoin que tous ont eu là-bas.: dire, dire au monde ce que c’était.  J’ai écrit, écrit d’un jet.  Portée.  Et le livre est sorti de moi dans une inspiration profonde. (Prévost 41)
It’s a book that belongs to me intimately.  I had the will to write it, the need to write it.  A need that everyone had over there: to tell, to tell the world what it was.  I wrote, wrote in one stretch.  Carried.  And the book came out of me from a deep inspiration.

My analysis of Delbo’s work focuses on this first volume of the trilogy, Aucun de nous ne reviendra.  I chose to concentrate my analysis of Delbo’s work on this first volume, because of the spontaneity in which it was written[ii] and because it is the foundation on which lay the rest of her work.  More importantly, the relationship which Delbo’s first text establishes with the reader on the onset attempts to communicate and to try to reconcile in the exchange between writer and reader, the split between “deep memory” and “common memory”, the Auschwitz and pre/post Auschwitz selves.

Charlotte Delbo’s testimony is less historical than literary.  It is less a matter of reconstructing and transmitting what she knows and witnessed in the past, than showing through the tension of the concentrationary universe, the damages and the long-term consequences the camp experience inflicted to each individual (Pollack 19).  Moreover, the return to literature, the construction of narratives, of poetic pieces, and of vignettes describing scenes, episodes and individuals from the camp, allowed Delbo to re-construct her identity, an identity which, before Auschwitz, thrived and developed around intellectual activities, whether philosophical, political theatrical or literary. 

This re-construction was possible only within effective communication between writer and reader, for testimony demands the presence of a listener/reader and in the case of a testimony, which focuses on a traumatic experience, the role of the listener/reader takes place within a healing process.  To elaborate on the nature of the exchange between writer and reader, Julia K. DePree reminded us in a recent lecture on her reading of Rousseau, how psychoanalysis provides us with a framework and helps us understand this relationship.  Psychoanalysis emphasizes the crucial nature of the dyad: parent-child, analyst-analysand, subject-object.  Scholars of literature have grasped the importance of the dyad in their effort to understand what happens in the interplay between writer and reader.  Psychoanalysis posits the creation of an analytic third, meaning a new understanding that comes from out of the struggle of transference, that is, according to Freud, an exchange constituted by re-experience.  The text awakens the repetition of emotion in the reader in the form of a response.  The text becomes the meeting point between writer and reader, the point of confrontation, or emotional encounter.  As DePree notes, the reader, like the analyst, becomes a participant-observer rather than a detached and disinterested observer[iii]. 

For Delbo, we can say without hesitation, that writing is transferential in the sense that it becomes a space for re-experience (Freud’s term), for inscribing—making present on the page—the trauma that so greatly marked her life.  Like the patient in an analytical setting, who is able to read the text of her life by first speaking it, Delbo re-organizes her experience and reunifies her split self through a written transference[iv].  Relying on both common and deep memory, and thus reconciling both paths to remembrance, both selves, she invites us to share with her the vision that a journey through Auschwitz has since etched on her/our memory.  (Langer xvi)

In order to accomplish this, Delbo creates a text, which calls to a benevolent, attentive and engaged reader.  The reader must be an “other” one, who provides Delbo with immediate and constant reminders of the normal world of outside Auschwitz: a world from which Auschwitz has removed her forever but which must continue to provide her with references against which she can measure the magnitude of the horror,  and rebuild her post-Auschwitz self.  The text is a tool, which allows writer and reader to connect and in Delbo’s case, it is a bridge, which re-unifies her split self. 

I will show how Delbo’s effectiveness in communicating her Auschwitz experience lies precisely in the fact that through this exchange, she forces her reader to engage in various ways with the text.  First, the reader is drawn to the text and is led to identify with the narrator’s common memory and experiences, that is, Delbo’s memory of before Auschwitz, or what I have called “normalcy”.  Through a process which I have labeled “deception”, the reader is then led to reconstruct an ordeal almost palpable and recalled through deep memory.  The reader is thus called to participate actively in the remembrance, and to share with Delbo the memory of a self deeply affected and damaged by Auschwitz, and which she—and now the reader—will have to live with forever.  Finally, through a vocative style, Delbo expresses her moralistic stance and exhorts her reader to react and to live according to what the post-Auschwitz era demands of her.

[i] On the issue of deep and common memory, Saul Friedlander in chapter VII of Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), explains that similarly, Lawrence Langer “distinguishes between various categories of memory, each corresponding to a specific relationship between the remembered self and the surrounding world of destruction, as well as between the perceptions the present self has of the contemporary world of the past.  The gist of Langer’s argument is that a fundamental difference remains between a deep memory totally centered on the years of the Shoah and a common memory that ‘restores the self to the normal pre- and postcamp routines, but also offers detached portraits, from the vantage point of today, of what it must have been like then.’  Deep memory and common memory are ultimately irreducible to each other.  Any attempt at building a coherent self founders on the intractable return of the repressed and recurring deep memory (119).

[ii] Despite this spontaneity, Delbo’s first work was not published until 1965.  To explain this, she said (my translation) in her interview with Claude Prévost.:

Having finished it, I thought, I got scared: so here we are in front of the greatest tragedy humanity has ever known, a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and I would have the audacity to feel above this tragedy?  I would have the audacity to account for it?  How would I know if I had succeeded?  I had to write immediately, in the palpitation, the tremor of the present.  But at the time, how would I be able to evaluate it?  It seems to me that the only way to judge it was to wait fifteen or twenty years.  (41)

It is also fair to speculate that Delbo waited until she felt that the French public was ready to welcome her testimony.  The 1960’s seem to mark a turn in collective memory of the occupation, in France.  It is probably not a coincidence either that her first work was published a year after the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, Germany. 

[iii] Stanley Coen notes that contemporary literary criticism has been shifting its focus from the interpretation of meanings embedded within a text to the processes of writing and reading.  This is true of the French structuralists and post-structuralists (e.g., Barthes, Derrida), of certain psychoanalytically influenced critics (e.g., Holland, Schwartz, Bleich), and of other proponents of reader-response criticism (e.g., Rosenblatt, Fish, Iser, Gadamer, Poulet).  Philosophical approaches to the phenomenology of reading have moved criticism away from attempts to determine objective meanings hidden within a text, meanings the reader needs to exticate.  In this context, it is valid to consider how a reader reads a text and what happens to her as she does so, and to equate this with the “meaning” of the text (12-13).

[iv] For further reading on the concept of transference, see Esman, Aaron H.


copyright © Dominique A.H. Linchet.