Semprún, Jorge (b. 1923)

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SEMPRÚN, JORGE (b. 1923)


Spanish writer and political activist.

The son of an ambassador from the Spanish Republic who in 1937, during the Spanish civil war (1936–1939), chose exile in France, Jorge Semprún joined the French Resistance while still a teenager and was deported to Buchenwald in 1943. On his return to France he joined the Communist underground struggle against the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892–1975). After leaving the Communist Party in 1964, he produced a very rich literary oeuvre in which he analyzed his various combats. Five books retrace the experience of his deportation, in particular.

Jorge Semprún was born into one of Spain's great families on 10 December 1923 in Madrid. His father, Carlos Semprún y Gurrea, a jurist, diplomat, and liberal editorialist, sided with the Republic and became its chargé d'affaires at The Hague. As a result, Jorge followed his father into exile as a "Red Spaniard" at the fall of the Republic, to which he remained faithful ever after. Family contacts enabled him to avoid the Gurs deportation camp, in which a number of Spanish republicans in exile were imprisoned after Franco's victory; he studied in Paris at the Lycée Henri IV and then at the Sorbonne and was active in the movement surrounding the journal Esprit. He interrupted his studies in philosophy to join the Resistance, both as part of the British network headed by Maurice Buckmaster and as a member of the communist resistance groups Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) and Main d'Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI). At the age of twenty he was deported to Buchenwald.

Upon his release, stateless, he devoted himself to militant engagement in the Spanish Communist Party. Beginning in 1953 he coordinated underground resistance activities against the Franco regime on behalf of the Central Committee of the exiled Spanish Communist Party; he later joined the Central Committee and the politburo. From 1957 to 1963, he worked underground—at great danger (his successor was shot)—for the Communist Party in Franco's Spain, under the pseudonym Federico Sánchez.

After his expulsion from the not-yet-destalinized Communist Party in 1964 he turned toward his twofold vocation, as a screenwriter for two films by Alain Resnais, La guerre est finie (1966; The War Is Over) and Stavisky (1974), and above all as a writer. In his writing he returned to his experiences as an antifascist, resistant deportee, and as a militant communist. Twenty years after his deportation, writing at last made sense of his experience, and once he had begun he never stopped: he gave voice to the experience of the camp by writing a narrative that is also a novel, through the transformation of individual beings into other individuals, and through snatches of memory adapted to writing: "We have made this journey into fiction; I have thus obliterated my solitude in reality. What good does it do to write books, if one does not invent the truth? Or at least, what seems true."

The works L'évanouissement (1967; The blackout), Le grand voyage (1963; The Long Voyage, 1964), Quel beau dimanche (1980; What a Beautiful Sunday!, 1982), and Le mort qu'il faut (2001; The necessary dead man), together with L'écriture ou la vie (1994; Literature or Life, 1997), make up a coherent and fascinating collection of fictions, essays, and narratives. Jorge Semprún also collaborated on many television programs, including a dialogue with the writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (b. 1928) that was published under the title Se taire est impossible (1995; To remain silent is impossible), in which Semprún states:

And then, in this experience of Evil, the essential thing is that it will have been lived as an experience of death.…I say "experience" for a reason.…For death is not something that we might have brushed up against, or rubbed shoulders with, or escaped from, like an accident we emerged from unscathed. We lived it.…We are not escapees, but ghosts.… And this, of course, can only be said abstractly. Or while laughing with other ghosts.… Because it's not believable, not sharable, barely comprehensible.… And yet, we shall have lived this experience of death as a collective experience, and what's more, a fraternal one, merging our being-together … as a Mit-Sein-zum-Tode. (Translated from the French)

In Autobiographie de Federico Sanchez (1978; The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez and the Communist Underground in Spain, 1979) , Semprún does not shy away from self-criticism. As a member of the Communist Party, he had benefited from the protection of the Prominente (special prisoners) at Buchenwald. "Nowhere did I proclaim my innocence. I remained silent, sacrificing the truth on the altar of the absolute Spirit that, for us, was called the Spirit of the Party." Through writing, he tried to move beyond the contradictions of his experience.

When Spain again became democratic Semprún returned to politics, on the condition that it would be in the service of culture. He served as minister of culture from 1988 to 1991 in the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzales. He rose to great fame and received a series of prestigious European literary prizes.

See alsoHolocaust; Resistance; Spain; Spanish Civil War.


Primary Sources

Semprún, Jorge. The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez and the Communist Underground in Spain. New York, 1979.

——. Federico Sánchez vous salue bien: Roman. Paris, 1993.

Semprún, Jorge, and Elie Wiesel. Se taire est impossible. Paris, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Suleiman, Susan. "Historical Trauma and Literary Testimony: Writing and Representation in the Buchenwald Memoirs of Jorge Semprún." Journal of Romance Studies 4, no. 2 (summer 2004).

Annette Becker