Auschwitz and after (Auschwitz et Aprés)

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AUSCHWITZ AND AFTER (Auschwitz et aprés)

Memoir by Charlotte Delbo, 1970

Charlotte Delbo wrote Auschwitz and After (published in French in 1970 and in English translation in 1995) in the style of the new factuality, a type of realism where the cold precision of language shows that a profound sadness has replaced the admiring attitude of the former and older styles of realism. The structure of the text is superficially confusing, consisting of factual accounts and poems, but her method is effective. She brings out the beauty of the horrible, and many of the accounts of the extreme cruelty and hardship that she and her companions had to endure are written in incandescent language. A clue to her ability to write in this way can be seen by her occasional reference to her thinking of herself as already dead, someone who died and yet is still alive, in a sense, and who has set herself the task of describing what took place. The book is the opposite of dramatic: it is so concerned not to highlight or emphasize anything that happened that everything is viewed as extraordinary. But there are references to drama itself, to the author's previous experience of drama before she was sent to the camps, and she sometimes analyses what happened in terms of the highly artificial strategies of the stage and explains in this way how particular participants made themselves noticed. The occasional reference to artifice brings out the artificiality of the whole system of the camps, as does the stray reference to her life in France before her arrest, a time of normalcy that seems from the perspective of the camps to be surreal rather than normal.

The interspersing of poems between the chapters of prose sounds rather complicated, but it represents a way of varying the presentation of what is constantly grim descriptive material. The poems are a pause in the unremitting recitation of the horrors of the camps and the impression that she gives that the camps are real and everything else is illusory. This point is repeated when the author reflects that she really is dead, although legally she is alive. The sections of the book that relate her life after the rescue from the camps are similarly so concentrated and descriptive that they are evocative of the extraordinary nature of the ordinary given the backdrop of the experience of the camps and the fact that survivors often felt that they had to pay particular attention to what was happening to them to keep a grip on the reality of the situation and stop slipping back into the thinking of the camps. In short, they needed to remind themselves constantly that they were really alive and not dead, something that runs right through the content of the book.

—Oliver Leaman

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Auschwitz and after (Auschwitz et Aprés)

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