At the end of "Suite Française," Irène Némirovsky's posthumous masterpiece about the Nazi invasion of France, fiction gives way to fact in the form of an illuminating biographical note. In it, we learn that Némirovsky was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and that after the war her two surviving daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, would wait anxiously every day on the platform of Paris' Gare de l'Est in hopes of spotting their mother among the returning deportees. In time they realized she wasn't coming home.
A similar tragic fate and parental absence is at the heart of Marceline Loridan-Ivens' profound and moving memoir "But You Did Not Come Back" — a book elegantly rendered into English by Sandra Smith, translator of "Suite Française."
Loridan-Ivens was 15 when she and her father were arrested in Nazi-occupied France and sent east, her father to Auschwitz and she to the neighboring camp of Birkenau. Defying considerable odds, he managed to smuggle a note to her, the contents of which she no longer remembers, only the opening line: "My darling little girl." He died in the Holocaust but she made it back to France. Her slim but powerful book is both a vital account of her survival and a tender reply to her father.
Loridan-Ivens' description of "the camp of industrial death" is, predictably, harrowing. She is tasked first with building a second railway line leading directly to the gas chambers and later with digging ditches in which to burn bodies.
"I served death," she writes. "I'd been its hauler." She serves death but also cheats it. After the camps are liberated she makes her way to Paris, passing hordes of people (including, perhaps, Némirovsky's children) who are waving signs and photos of missing loved ones. She is reunited with the remainder of her family but is unable to rejoice without her father. Horror and loss haunt her for the rest of her life.
Seldom do such short books make so big an impact. One tough, wrenching but always memorable section follows another. There is the brutal snapshot-detail of camp "life," from young Marceline rolling naked in the snow to kill lice and get warm to the sight of children walking to the gas chambers.
There is Marceline's painful period of readjustment in the family château, her lingering fear of showers and chimneys, plus her subsequent suicide attempts. "Coming home," she tells us, "didn't mean surviving." And there is her urgent, heartfelt one-sided dialogue with her father, where she fills him in on world events (the creation of Israel, 9/11) and developments in her own life, including her marriages and her career as a writer and director.
Today, in a climate of rising anti-Semitism, 87-year-old Loridan-Ivens admits to losing her convictions and feeling skeptical about the future. What she can be sure of, though, is that her important and miraculous testimony will endure.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.