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

Part IV

This is accomplished also through Delbo’s vocative style, a switch from the dominant “je”—I--to “vous”—you, and in the passage just mentioned, an occasional “nous”—we.  These direct addresses are as many attempts by Delbo at communicating, at making contact.  As Thatcher as noted, she summons the reader, the friendly the hostile, the present and the future, and she shows them, makes them think about what they did not want to see/think (183).  Delbo addresses the reader with vehemence or anger; she raises her tone against the self-satisfied reader.  She challenges the virtual reader, the one who pretends to know all about the camps but who, in fact, cannot begin to approach the reality of the experience (Thatcher 163).  She forces the reader to re-think the meaning of basic words.  Here is what Delbo writes:

O vous qui savez

saviez-vous que la faim fait briller les yeux

que la soif les ternit


Saviez-vous que la souffrance n’a pas de limite

l’horreur pas de frontière

Le saviez-vous

Vous qui savez  (21-22)

O you who know did you know

that hunger makes the eyes sparkle

that thirst dims them


Did you know that suffering is limitless

that horror cannot be circumscribed

Did you know this

You who know.  (Lamont 11)

 In another passage, Delbo challenges the Christian reader:

Vous qui avez pleuré deux mille ans 

un qui a agonisé trois jours et trois nuits 

quelle larmes aurez-vous pour ceux qui ont agonisé 

beaucoup plus de trois cents nuits et beaucoup plus de trois cents journées


Ils ne croyaient pas à résurrection dans l’éternité

Et ils savaient que vous ne pleureriez pas.  (20)

You who have wept two thousand years 

for one who agonized for three days and three nights

what tears will you have left for those who agonized far more than three hundred nights and far more than three hundred days


They did not believe in resurrection to eternal life 

and knew you would not weep.  (Lamont 10)

The last passage reveals Delbo’s moral stand as well as her deep belief in humanistic values[i] to which the vocative form gives the appearance of public utterances  (Thatcher 164).  For Delbo does not allow her reader to be complacent.  She challenges him/her and forces him/her to react and to live according to the lessons learned from the war.  In an interview with François Bott, Delbo said “Je pose aux lecteurs et aux spectateurs une question: qu’avez-vous fait, que faites-vous de votre vie?  Qu’ils éprouvent l’envie de chercher une réponse me donnerait le sentiment de ne pas écrire en vain.  Je n’écrirais pas si cela me paraissait inutile.” (22) ‘I put a question to readers and spectators: what have you done, what are you doing with your life?  If they feel the desire to look for an answer, this would give me the feeling of not writing in vain.  I would not write if it appeared useless to me.’

Like many survivors, Delbo wanted to write in order to make known what had happened in the camps, to maintain the memory of those who did not return, and to assure that such events would never happen again.   In her trilogy, Delbo relies both on common and deep memory to elaborate a discourse in which she attempts to reunify her split self.  Critics have commented on the shattering of one’s identity and humanity stemming from the concentration camp experience.  Holocaust survivors, whether oral witnesses or writers, have admitted the difficulty to reconstruct one’s life and self, upon the return.   For Delbo, literature provides a venue for re-experience.  Her written discourse posits a benevolent reader whose active participation allows the writer to bridge the gap between her pre-Auschwitz and her Auschwitz selves, and thus to re-unify her identity.  Through this exchange, Delbo allows us to experience the physical and psychological realities inherent to her Auschwitz self and held by her deep memory. And as a result, we are not only moved, we are changed (Bott).

[i] As Nicole Thatcher has noted, Delbo’s interest in human rights and justice were broad.  In her first work, Les Belles Lettres, she deals with the atrocities committed during the colonial war by both French and Algerians (59).  Five of her plays deal with violent events and tyrannical power of her day: La Sentence is about the trial of Basque militants in Burgos; Maria Lusitania and Le Coup d’état deal with the situation in Portugal and in Morocco; La Ligne de démarcation concerns the Prague uprising and La Capitulation the Hungarian one (6).  In the sketches of her posthumous book, La Mémoire et les jours, the empathy with other victims is once again evident: in it, she describes the crushing of the Warsaw uprising at the end of the war, the sufferings of the Argentinian mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or the Greek men being marched to concentration camps (59).

copyright © Dominique A.H. Linchet.