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

Part II

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[i].

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[ii].  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 labelled “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.

As Elie Wiesel once stated in the course of a public lecture, “Words, simple every day words such as ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘sleep’ did not signify the same thing in camp as they did and do outside” (Lamont, Woman/Book 248).  The Holocaust writer is thus faced with the challenge to bridge the gap between her own referential universe and that of her reader.  The survivor who attempts to share her camp experience encounters the difficulty to communicate with language, a social tool, an experience that annihilated all social values and which lies beyond the reader’s imaginaire, that is to say, beyond all that the reader can imagine.  Or, according to Renée Kingcaid:

In Delbo […], it is not only the problem of referent, that is, the experience of atrocity, of deeds too horrible to recount in words, that threatens the verbal representation of that experience; it is, rather, the loss of faith in the process of signification itself, begun and completed at Auschwitz (103).

Delbo’s solution to the problem of communication inherent to Holocaust testimony, lies in her ability to draw her reader to the text, to allow the reader to identify with her, the “me” of outside Auschwitz, and through it, the Auschwitz “me”.  The vignettes, which Delbo has sketched, call out to the reader because they can be incorporated into her own imaginaire.

All chapters of the first volume of the trilogy have simple titles, most of which could refer to portions and aspects of our lives and of our routines: “Arrivées, Départs”—“Arrivals, Departures”--, “Dialogue”—“Dialog”--, “Les hommes”—“The Men”--, “Un jour”—“A Day”--, “Le même jour”—“The Same Day”—etc.   The use of flashbacks throughout her account often sends Delbo’s readers back to the normalcy of that “before” or “outside” Auschwitz, a world of references and life which author and readers share. In the story titled “Un jour”—“A Day”--, as she witnesses the agony of one of her comrades, she remembers the natural death of her dog, Flac, and she intertwines the two stories.

La colonne vertébrale arquée, Flac va mourir—le premier être que je voyais mourir.  Maman, Flac est devant la porte du jardin […] son corps est arqué et maigre comme celui de Flac qui allait mourir […].  La femme s’affaisse […].  Maman, Flac est mort.  Il a agonisé longtemps.  (46-9)
His backbone arched, Flac is going to die—the first creature I ever saw die.  Mama, Flac is at the garden gate […].  Her body is scrawny and arched like that of the dying Flac […].  The woman collapses […].  Mama, Flac is dead.  He was a long time dying.  (Lamont 27-9)

The reference to Flac, a dog, functions as a metaphor for the dehumanization of all victims.  It also allows the writer to counteract the banality of death in the camp and to experience the death of a comrade with the candor she felt as a child witnessing the death of her dog, the first death she witnessed.

Similarly, the narrator’s reactions to what she witnesses at Auschwitz are often familiar and spontaneous reactions. In the story titled “Le lendemain”—“The Next Day”--, she responds mentally to a dying woman crouching in the snow with “pas dans la neige, tu vas prendre froid(55) ‘Not in the snow, you will catch a cold’.  Further, in the story “L’adieu”—“Farewell”--, she begins the account “C’était un jour d’hiver sec et froid.  Un de ces jours d’hiver où on dit: ‘Il ferait bon de marcher.’” (80).  It was a dry, cold winter day.  One of those wintry days when people say: ‘It would be nice to take a walk’’  (Lamont 49).

These references to normalcy not only draw the reader to the text, they provide the writer with a reality-check, a way to contrast the aberration of Auschwitz.  However, the narrator constantly unsettles or deceives her reader as she moves her back and forth from such a familiar and predictable universe, to one of violence and death.  The first story of Aucun de nous ne reviendra gives a good example of this.  It is titled “Arrivées, Départs”—“Arrivals, Departures.”  It opens with a familiar scene, a train station and its usual comings and goings:

          Il y a des gens qui arrivent.  Ils cherchent des yeux dans la foule de ceux qui attendent ceu
          qui attendent ceux qui les attendent.  Ils les embrassent et ils disent qu'ils sont fatigués du voyage.

Il y a les gens qui partent.  Ils disent au revoir à ceux qui ne partent pas et ils embrassent les enfants.
Il y a une rue pour les gens qui arrivent et une rue pour les gens qui partent.
Il y a un café qui s’appelle “A l’arrivée” et un café qui s’appelle “Au départ”.
Il y a des gens qui arrivent et il y a des gens qui partent.  (9)
People arrive.  They look through the crowd of those who are waiting, those who await them.  They kiss them and say the trip exhausted them.
People leave.  They say good-bye to those who are not leaving and hug the children.
There is a street for people who arrive and a street for people who leave.
There is a café called “Arrivals” and a café called “Departures.”
There are people who arrive and people who leave.  (Lamont 3)

The impression of routine and normalcy of this scene is emphasized with the repetitions of common expressions “Il y a”—there is/are—,verbs “arrivent”, “partent”—arrive, leave—and with the simplicity of the sentences.  The reader is not prepared for the scene that follows this opening paragraph as the narrator zooms in and describes the train station awaiting the deportees at Auschwitz-Birkenau:

Mais il y a une gare où ceux-là qui arrivent sont justement ceux-là qui partent
une gare où ceux qui arrivent ne sont jamais arrivés, où ceux qui sont partis ne sont jamais revenus.  (9)

But there is a station where those who arrive are those who are leaving
a station where those who arrive have never arrived, where those who have left never came back.  (Lamont 3)

Delbo assures continuity between the two paragraphs as she maintains simplicity in the syntax and as she continues to use the repetitions of the words “il y a,” “arrivent” and  partent”.  The reader is called to reconstruct the meaning of the passage as she grasps the metonymy: the arrival as a departure, the non arrival or the no return all represent the death of millions in the gas chambers.  Auschwitz’ horror described by Delbo seeps into everyday words and common sentences.  The reader is taken by surprise, grasped from the banality of the first scene and thrown into the hell abstractly mentioned in the second.  The impact doesn’t come from the author’s words, from what they carry in their own meanings, but rather from the decoding the reader is forced to perform and which is activated by the title Auschwitz et après (Bracher 86).  The text forces the reader to face the violence.  I suggested earlier that normalcy-the world and life before or outside of Auschwitz for Delbo--is the common thread between narrator and reader.  Here, we see that she uses her reader’s historical knowledge and references to force him/her to reconstruct the horror of her experience.  This is what Nathan Bracher has called the “irony” of Delbo’s text: the success of her communication with the reader lies in large part, in the knowledge and the perspicacity of the reader.  As she says something, she ultimately expects the reader to understand the opposite because she operates under the principle that her reader knows the truth (Bracher, 90). The meaning of the text must be actively realized by a reader who confronts the codes one against the other, as she activates his/her historical knowledge.  Or as Umberto Eco would argue, Delbo’s text depends upon an extratextual competence and includes the addressee as part of its generative mechanism (Bouchard 8).  It is up to the reader to answer the questions, to fill the gaps, to proceed finally with a general interpretation.

[i] 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).

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

copyright © Dominique A.H. Linchet.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.