Delbo, Charlotte

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DELBO, Charlotte

Nationality: French. Born: Vigneux sur Seine, 10 August 1913. Family: Married Georges Dudach (died 1942). Career: Assistant to Louis Jouvet (actor and theater director); worked for the United Nations; assistant to philosopher Henri Lefévre. Editor, Cahiers de la Jeunesse.Died: 1 March 1985.



Auschwitz et aprés (trilogy). 1970; as Auschwitz and After, 1995.

Aucun de nous ne reviendra. 1965; as None of Us Will Return, 1968.

Une connaissance inutile [Useless Knowledge]. 1970.

Mesure de nos jours [Measure of Our Days]. 1971.


La Sentence. 1972.

Qui rapportera ces paroles? 1974; as Who Will Carry the Word? in The Theatre of the Holocaust, edited by Robert Skloot, 1982.

Maria Lusitania; Le coup d'état. 1975.


Les Belles Lettres. 1961.

Le Convoi du 24 janvier. 1965; as Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance, 1997.

La Théorie et la pratique, dialogue imaginaire mais non tout á faít apocryphe entre Herbert Marcuse et Henri Lefebvre. 1969.

Spectres, mes compagnons [Phantoms, My Companions].1977.

Le Mémoire et les jours. 1985; as Days and Memory, 1990.


Critical Studies:

"Literature, the Exile's Agent of Survival: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Charlotte Delbo," in Mosaic (Canada), 9(1), 1975, pp. 1-17, "Charlotte Delbo, a Woman/Book," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, 1988, and "The Triple Courage of Charlotte Delbo," in The Massachusetts Review, 41(4), 2001, pp. 483-97, all by Rosette C. Lamont; "Art and Testimony: The Representation of Historical Horror in Literary Works by Piotr Rawicz and Charlotte Delbo" by Lea Fridman Hamaoui, in Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, 3(2), Fall 1991, pp. 243-59; "From Sight to Insight: The Legacy of Charlotte Delbo" by Lawrence L. Langer, in Contemporary French Civilization, 18(1), Spring 1994, p. 64; "Charlotte Delbo: Theatre as a Means of Survival" by Claude Schumacher, in his Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, 1998; "Memory and Language: The Example of Charlotte Delbo," in Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies, 6, 1999, and A Literary Analysis of Charlotte Delbo's Concentration Camp Re-Presentation, 2000, both by Nicole Thatcher; "Body, Trauma, and the Rituals of Memory: Charlotte Delbo and Ruth Klüger" by Karein K. Goertz, in Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust, edited by Julia Epstein and Lori Hope Lefkovitz, 2001.

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Charlotte Delbo's style is taut and factual and marked by restraint of the highest degree. Delbo was motivated by the desire to let the world know what had happened in the camps, and yet her work is marked by the feeling that anyone who was not there could not really understand. The only way to get them to grasp what went on was to describe the camps in as calm and matter-of-fact a manner as possible. This was important, she argued, because what had happened was not so much evil as inconceivable, and the inconceivable cannot really be grasped in language. Some of her prose is not completely descriptive of external events but is more reflective; she contemplates what is taking place and what has taken place in the past, as though weighing what is happening in the scales of justice and finding it wanting. Her reaction is not rage but resignation, yet not a resignation that is equivalent to acceptance. It is a kind of puzzled resignation that people can behave so cruelly to each other and also admiration at the occasional acts of nobility that manage to exist within the context of the Holocaust.

Delbo interposes poetry occasionally with prose, and the poems provide her with a space in which she can be more openly emotional. This is an opportunity she readily accepts. There are not many poems in her books of prose, but they play an important role: the contrast between their display of passion and the apparent coolness of the prose is an important aspect of her style. The balance is well judged. There are just enough poems to provide the reader with evidence of the moral outrage and anguish of the author but not so much as to betray the principle that in describing the indescribable one has to steer close to the facts throughout and not go beyond them. Without the poems the reader might feel that the unremittingly descriptive style is meant to be ironic. Delbo desires to represent in her work her feeling that she really belonged with the dead, and, although in fact she survived, she really died, so there is a detachment in her prose that is the detachment of someone not really living in the contemporary world. She is both there and somewhere else, and this leads to a degree of detachment in her work, a feature not untypical of many writers who experienced the Holocaust personally.

Another aspect of Delbo's style is the absence of religious imagery or the idea of being part of a tradition of suffering and persecution. Delbo was not Jewish and was sent to the camps as a result of her opposition to German control of France and also due to the important role her husband played in the resistance. There was nothing in her cultural background to prepare her for what was being done to her or to others. This perhaps made her even cooler in her account of the camps, since her persecution along with that of so many others came out of the blue and could only be described, not explained.

—Oliver Leaman

See the essay on Auschwitz and After.

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Delbo, Charlotte

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