Delbo, Charlotte (1913–1985)
Delbo, Charlotte (1913–1985)
French author whose books have been critically acclaimed for providing some of the most profound insights into the Holocaust era and whose masterwork, the trilogy Auschwitz and After, has steadily grown in reputation, first in France and then in the English-speaking world. Name variations: Charlotte Dudach. Born on August 10, 1913, in Vigneux-sur-Seine, Seineet-Oise, France; eldest of four children; father was a civil engineer; died in Paris in 1985; married Georges Dudach.
Born in a Paris suburb on the eve of World War I, Charlotte Delbo grew up in a France that had won a pyrrhic victory in 1918 and was now a deeply divided nation and society. Like many in her generation, she believed Marxism to be the only correct response to the injustices of her time, and in the 1930s she became an ardent supporter of the French Communist movement. Joining the Young Communist League in 1932, two years later Delbo met Georges Dudach, a Marxist intellectual whom she would eventually marry. With her strong literary and artistic interests, it was only natural that she would find work in the theater. In 1941, she was on tour with the Theater de l'Athenee in South America working as an assistant to the theater's impresario Louis Jouvet. Despite the fact that German armies had invaded France and now occupied much of its territory, Delbo was determined to return home to be with her husband, who had joined one of the first cells of the Résistance. She was particularly angered by the news that one of her close friends, the architect and Communist activist André Woog, had been arrested by French authorities and guillotined for possession of anti-Fascist propaganda materials. Although Louis Jouvet had strongly argued against her trying to return, Delbo was able to travel an indirect route via Portugal, Spain, and the Unoccupied (Vichy) Zone of France. She met her husband at Pau on the French-Spanish border, and returning separately via different routes to avoid capture, the couple finally arrived back in Paris on November 15, 1941.
As a collaborator with her husband in his underground activities, Delbo shared the great risks he had assumed by producing anti-German leaflets. The Communist resistance network of which they were members took great precautions to help them elude arrest, and during the four months the couple worked together they lived in a number of Paris apartments using various assumed names. Their luck ran out at noon on March 2, 1942, when they were arrested in their apartment by French police. Soon turned over to the German Gestapo office in Paris, wife and husband were incarcerated in different prisons. Only once, on the morning of May 23, 1942, did Charlotte Delbo see her husband. On that occasion, she was escorted to his cell at Mont-Valérien prison to say farewell to him. A few hours later, he was executed by a firing squad. Georges Dudach was 28 years old.
Delbo remained in prison in Romainville in German-occupied France until January 24, 1943. On that day, along with 229 other French women, she was deported to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp. Here she was tattooed with the number that would be indelibly imprinted on her left forearm for the rest of her life: 31661. Delbo remained in Auschwitz for a time, being eventually transferred to a satellite camp called Raisko. In January 1944, along with a small group of her compatriots, she was transferred to the allwomen's camp of Ravensbrück. A few weeks before the total collapse of Nazi Germany, Delbo was released to Red Cross officials, who transported her to Sweden to begin the process of physical and psychological rehabilitation. Of the group of 230 women in Delbo's group, most of whom were, like herself, not Jewish and had been arrested for anti-Nazi political activities, only 49 returned alive from the various German camps and prisons in the spring of 1945.
Back in Paris after the war, Delbo did not waste time grieving but instead wrote down her memories of the horrors she and others had experienced. Although None of Us Will Return, the first section of her memoir, had been completed by 1946, she chose not to publish her manuscript until it had proven it could withstand "the test of time, since it had to travel far into the future." Realizing every day how utterly transformed she had been by her experiences, Delbo wrote of herself soon after the war, "I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz but no one knows it."
Delbo resumed working in the theater and wrote a number of plays during the next decades. Not until 1965 did she finally publish Aucun de nous ne reviendra (None of Us Will Return) as the first part of what would be the trilogy Auschwitz et après (Auschwitz and After). The second volume, Une conaissance inutile (Useless Knowledge), much of which was written as long ago as 1946–47, appeared in print in Paris in 1970. The trilogy's third and concluding volume, The Measure of Our Days, was published in 1971. Critical reviews in the Francophone press of the world was positive, and by 1990 a German translation of the trilogy had been published in Basel, Switzerland. The English-speaking world began to discover the unique and powerful voice of Charlotte Delbo in 1968 when None of Us Will Return was published by Grove Press. The full text of the trilogy was published in an excellent translation in 1995 by Yale University Press to laudatory reviews.
Charlotte Delbo's ambition as a writer was to find her own unique voice in order to communicate the essential truths—her phrase is "to see the unthinkable"—about what she had experienced in the Nazi death camps. Readers of her works are made immediately aware of the stylistic originality and visual intensity of her writing, which is an artful combination of prose and free verse. The juxtaposition of prose and poetry, moving through a fragmentary and nonchronological narrative, serves to draw the reader into the terror and dehumanization that was the system of Nazi genocide. Small details tell of a larger tale of merciless racism and annihilation: in "The Teddy Bear," a section in Auschwitz and After, the inmates find a fluffy pink toy, which had once been held "in the arms of a little girl who will leave her toy with her clothing, carefully folded, at the entrance to the 'showers'." The reality she had known before her arrival at Auschwitz and what another author has called the "concentration camp universe" is a basis for the many contrasting impressions in her books. In None of Us Will Return, Delbo contrasted the scenes of greetings and farewells taking place at a normal train station with what happened daily for years at Auschwitz, "a station where those who arrive are those who are leaving … where those who arrive have never arrived, where those who have left never came back." None of Us Will Return ends with a deeply moving "Prayer to the Living to Forgive Them for Being Alive," an injunction to us all to justify our existences:
because it would be too senseless after all
for so many to have died while you live
doing nothing with your life
In Charlotte Delbo's last book, La mémoire et les jours (Days and Memory, 1985), she made her final attempts to "explain the inexplicable." Here, as in her other works, she hoped to be true to the sovereign principle of her art, Il faut donner a voir ("they must be made to see.") The immense efforts Delbo made to create works of art that would speak to her own and future generations led her to plumb the deepest recesses of her own and her comrades' sufferings. She would speak of her two selves, the one that existed before Auschwitz, and the one that emerged after Auschwitz. The image of a snake shedding its skin was, she believed, most appropriate for conjuring up the reality of her "new" nature after the camp years. Unlike the snakeskin, however, which shrivels, disintegrates and vanishes, the skin of Auschwitz was now a permanent part of her being: "Auschwitz is so deeply etched on my memory that I cannot forget one moment of it. So you are living with Auschwitz? No, I live next to it. Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self. Unlike the snake's skin, the skin of memory does not renew itself. … Thinking about it makes me tremble with apprehension." Delbo was willing to endure the pain of recalling and artistically recreating the most painful years of her life because to the end of her career as a writer she believed passionately that the death and suffering of those years had meaning. She ardently hoped that her writings would enable coming generations to see what had happened in order to prevent such deeds of degradation and inhumanity from ever taking place again.
Charlotte Delbo never remarried after losing her husband to the Nazis in 1942. From 1945 until her death in 1985, she played an active role in the literary life of Paris. In her final years, she lovingly nursed her dying, widowed father. Delbo was tall and physically striking. On first meeting her, some described her appearance as being that of Electra in the classic Greek play. This was a telling visualization, in view of the fact that one of her favorite plays was Jean Giraudoux's Electra in the production staged by her lifelong friend and theater colleague Louis Jouvet. The final poem of her trilogy, entitled "Envoi," in fact refers directly to the Giraudoux play. Viewing the Holocaust as much from an artistic as an historical perspective, Charlotte Delbo described it as "the greatest tragedy of the 20th century." Charlotte Delbo is increasingly regarded as one of the most eloquent survivors from the Holocaust's nightmare universe.
——. Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance. Translated by Carol Cosman. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
——. Days and Memory. Translated by Rosette Lamont. Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1990.
——. None of Us Will Return. Translated by John Githens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.
Haft, Cynthia. The Theme of the Nazi Concentration Camps in French Literature. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
Jones, Judy. "None of Us Will Return: A Musical Narrative" (Master's thesis, Washington State University, 1984).
Kessler-Harris, Alice and William McBrien, eds. Faith of a (Woman) Writer. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Rittner, Carol, and John K. Roth, eds. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. NY: Paragon House, 1993.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Who Will Carry the Word?," in The New York Times. November 10, 1993, p. B6.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia