But You Did Not Come Back

Marce­line Lori­dan-Ivens; San­dra Smith, trans.
  • Review
By – February 22, 2016

Who is a sur­vivor? What does a sur­vivor remem­ber? How does a sur­vivor con­tin­ue to strug­gle through­out his or her life? Marce­line Lori­dan-Ivens pow­er­ful­ly and hon­est­ly answers these ques­tions in her short but graph­ic vol­ume of painful remembrance.

Marce­line and her fam­i­ly are liv­ing in a château in Vichy-ruled south­ern France. In 1942, she is 15 when she and her father are seized, tak­en to the Dran­cy intern­ment camp, and then on to Auschwitz-Birke­nau. Her father tells her, You might come back, because you’re young, but I will not come back.” This prophe­cy haunts Marce­line her entire life. He is placed in Auschwitz and she in Birkenau.

Marce­line presents her strug­gle to sur­vive in per­son­al, forth­right, and raw prose. She details all she expe­ri­ences in the camp, and tes­ti­fies that sur­viv­ing meant los­ing your hope, feel­ings, and soul. The threat of the near­by gas cham­bers ruled every moment. 

One day Marce­line and her father catch a glimpse of each oth­er as their work details pass. He is alive! Marce­line runs to him and is sub­se­quent­ly beat­en to uncon­scious­ness. Weeks lat­er anoth­er pris­on­er man­ages to smug­gle her a note from her father. The let­ter is addressed, To my dar­ling lit­tle girl,”and signed with his rarely used Yid­dish name. The risk he has tak­en is pun­ish­able by death, but this note keeps Marce­line deter­mined to live.

Yet it is this very note that also haunts her for her entire life. Marce­line has to make the note dis­ap­pear imme­di­ate­ly so that it won’t be found on her per­son, and lat­er she can­not remem­ber the con­tents of the mes­sage. Marce­line feels guilt and anguish at her father’s fail­ure to return after the war. But You Did Not Come Back is writ­ten as a poet­ic response to her father’s smug­gled note, an inti­mate diary in which she opens her wound­ed and shriv­eled life to him.

Although Marce­line is even­tu­al­ly freed, the emo­tion­al impact of her camp expe­ri­ence remains with her through­out her life. Her return to the out­side world is dif­fi­cult and she finds her­self inca­pable of liv­ing as oth­ers wish her to. No infor­ma­tion is giv­en as to how her moth­er sur­vives the war, but Marce­line finds her cold, unin­volved, and unques­tion­ing. Fam­i­ly mem­bers won’t share their sto­ries, and many don’t under­stand her angst and despair. She attempts sui­cide, but even­tu­al­ly mends her unset­tled life with mar­riages and work, although nev­er with chil­dren. She finds her way back into the Paris social scene and finds solace in caus­es and activism.

Marce­line and her sec­ond hus­band, Joris Ivens, are respect­ed doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers who spot­light the down­trod­den of the world. They live a ful­filled life, but the effects of sur­viv­ing are always present. The 86-year-old Marceline’s dis­may and sad­ness at the cur­rent rise of anti-Semi­tism fills her with pes­simism and doubts that are chill­ing­ly con­veyed in this dev­as­tat­ing account of her life. 

But You Did Not Come Back has been a best­seller in France and has been trans­lat­ed into 16 lan­guages. This is an impor­tant and pierc­ing first-hand testimony.

Relat­ed Content:

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions