Charlotte Delbo was a survivor of Birkenau and she was a great writer. If you
are interested in learning more, or perhaps even discovering what it was like
to live in Auschwitz, her Auschwitz and After will bring you close to
the edge. Its images and depth of understanding go far beyond testimony and
witnessing; important enough survivor tasks.
Erich Kahler described in The Tower and the Abyss, the "New Factuality"
that followed pre-WW I expressionism. It substituted, or rather overwhelmed,
the love of nature with brutally frank descriptions of the horror of the battlefield.
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes: "In literature... this crass, cold precision
suggests that a bitterness or profound sadness has replaced the reverent attitude
of the old realists toward the external world" (p. 50). The Holocaust and
other genocides have demanded a literature beyond what even Hemingway and the
Lost Generation created. Such literature grows from personal experience. Direct
battlefield experience in WW I innervated Hemingway's realism. The extreme of
concentration camp life under the Nazis, and, to be sure, the Soviets, drives
the literature of the extreme: Milosz, Borowski, Solzhenitsyn, Levi, Kosinski,
Dinur, Wiesel; as Ezrahi says: "...a reality stripped bare of images"
Borowski helped to create, and then stretch, the genre to the limit, narrowing
the gulf between the survivor and the rest of us, sitting in our softness and
warmth speculating about what it was like. It is difficult after reading him
to avoid being indelibly marked in some way, not to have one's view realized,
not to walk by a man begging on the street and be glad it isn't me. And then
Delbo ! Stretching the limits even further by combining the extremes of Auschwitz-Birkenau,
the "new factuality", with the old realism. That the camp was unable
to eradicate this perception demonstrates the power of Delbo's art. The fabric
alternatively woven with threads of life and death moves her poems and stories
into a realm torn between these two worlds, torn and joined. I stumble, my defenses
crumble, before her seething minimalist revelations. They come from the land
of the dead, from one who is both dying and alive. Dying by the day, Delbo still
feels life and spring and flowers and the sun, never lapsing into saccharine
description. Rather, the Nazi penetration never defeats. Even as she suffers
survival, she sees the struggle through the eyes of the artist.The counter-point
produces a horror I have rarely felt in any stories read or heard, and at the
same time, a deep sadness. Wanting to die, she feels love and compassion for
Freezing, she observes freezing and later, decribes it:
"The snow sparkles in the refracted light. There are no beams, light,
hard and glacial, where everything is etched in sharp outline . The sky is
blue, hard and glacial. One thinks of plants caught in ice. It must happen
in the Arctic region, when the ice freezes even under-water vegetation. We
are frozen in a block of hard, cutting ice, transparent like a block of pure
crystal. And this crystal is pierced by light, as if the light were frozen
within the ice, as though the ice were light. It takes a long time to be able
to realize we are able to move within the block of ice that encloses us. We
wiggle out toes within out shoes, stamp our feet. Fifteen thousand women stamp
their feet yet no noise is heard. The silence is solidified into cold. We
are in a place where time is abolished. We do not know whether we exist, only
ice, light, dazzling snow, and us, in this ice, this light, this silence."
She not only tells us she is freezing, she convinces us to freeze a little with
her, convinces that there is something here for us. In Delbo's hands, these
events shape the history of the camp into more than remembering. She forces
us to know by creating and leaving with us images that are at the same time,
horrible in content and beautiful in poetic construction. She paints with a
Stradavarian varnish, lengthening the instrument and deepening its tones. Borowski's
writing brutally reveals our own compromise with forces of destruction, Wiesel's
the depths to which concentration camp life could reduce one's moral perspective.
Each moves us, remains. Delbo infuses my everyday, the sun and snow and spring
and water and even making love with memories of the camp. I see and I feel her
in them, remembering and damning herself for doing so:
"....All the women were sitting in the dust of the dried mud, a miserable
swarm that made one think of flies on a dung heap. The odor was so dense and
fetid that we did not think that we were breathing in air, but a thick, viscous
fluid which enveloped and isolated this corner of the earth as though it had
its own atmosphere in which only specially adapted creatures could move. Us.
The stink of diarrhea and corpses. Above this stink a blue sky. And in my
memory spring was singing.
Why among all these beings have I alone kept this memory? In my memory spring
was singing. Why this difference?"
After typing the ISBN number I glance at Charlotte Delbo's photograph on the
cover of Auschwitz and After and see the 37567 tattooed there on, and
in, her arm. It reminds that her memory of the extreme, if not the experience,
is imprinted indelibly on our minds and in out hearts.
Adolf Gawalewicz, author of "The Anteroom to the Gas" thought we will
never be able to convey what it was like with more statistics, numbers, analysis.
We could only do it with images, pictures that people see in their minds and
feel in their bodies. Her images are in a different genre, one that combines
what Langer describes as "deep memory" of Auschwitz with the imagery
of her art.
In the poem "Prayer to the Living To Forgive Them For Being Alive"
she reminds of the gulf between there, and here. At the same time the
poem is written to us, revealing what it was to have a body in the camp, to
have to bring the damn dying thing along with you, everywhere. And to remember
it after you are out and back and looking at the rest of us:
"You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
clothing which suits you well
or just about
you who are passing by
full of tumultuous life within your arteries
glued to your skeleton
as you walk with a sprightly step athletic awkward
laughing sullenly, you are all so handsome
so commonplacely like everyone else
so handsome in your commonplaceness
with this excess of life which keeps you
from feeling your bust following your leg
your hand raised to your hat
your hand upon your heart
your kneecap rolling softly in your knee
how can we forgive you for being alive..."
Earlier I was in bed reading Lawrence Langer's deep and undramatic introduction
to this powerful book. I was trying to find some way to convey the mark this
woman has made in me over many years. In 1982 I read "None of Us Will
Return" (Beacon Paperback, 1978) , what is now the first of three sections
in this book, and her words, like the tattoo in her arm, are etched in my mind.
They are inked indelibly in four parts of me: the conscious, in that I now know
something about the other side, and realize the meaning of humanness; the kinesthetic
in that I have often felt cold and sick, sad and stupefied at the silent sound
of her voice as it rings off the page; in dreams, the only place I can experience
what she could not awaken from; and in the esthetic, struggling to touch. She
"touches" like only a very few other writers of what Sartre called
"a literature of extreme situations" (What is Literature, 216).
My arm tickled and I moved to scratch, discovering a long, slender yellow thread
there. Trying to remove it, I felt a tug and followed its course to the neck
of my T-shirt. It is a very old, worn, soft cotton shirt that always comforts
when I put it on. Because of what I was reading just then, I realized the shirt
is slowly unravelling, slowly coming apart and disintegrating, dying slowly;
a metamorphosis from bright, fresh garment worn in the sun, to undergarment,
nightshirt, and then rag used to wipe one's hands, or clean dirty surfaces.
Ultimately it dies, so old and bedraggled it isn't worth washing anymore and
is stuffed in a crevice to protect from moisture or the weather. And there it
stays compressed and disheveled `till someone finally discovers it quite by
accident and, revolted, removes it, unopened, filthy, stained and rumpled as
it, avoiding even a small encounter with the shirt's cadaver. It will simply
be discarded, thrown in the waste, lost forever. Even worse, some will say it
Just before I begin these notes, I tear off the thread and shake it from a thumb
and forefinger into the waste basket, like it was dental floss. Then I reached
in the basket and extract the thread, no longer a simple strand, as part of
it is impossibly balled. I place the strand, the straight and the knotted in
between the pages of this book, paying homage to the gods of superstition, lest
the beauty of her words recede into the recesses of merely ordinary horror.
Like my shirt, the story of the Camps is slowly disintegrating in a series of
Hollywood productions, academic careers, literary speculations, museums, and
moments. It is the way of the world. But Delbo strives to leave her tattoo in
us with this exquisitely tender and horrifying book, ultimately a mere thread
to be preserved as best we can. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I can find a needle,
sew a button, or weave together the frayed edges of a small tear, reminding
that it can be used to preserve the memory, even if only incompletely, the emptiness
of Auschwitz, the sadness, and the lesson.
This thread is all that one who was not there can grasp of the tapestry. Delbo
weaves this thread into the entire body of disjointed horrors I carry like a
filthy rag in some dark recess as I shop for groceries at "Treasure Island",
ride a bicycle, walk with Krysia, talk with Jesse, read "philosophy"or,
ha ha, "history". I lap up luscious chicken corn chowder with a piece
of freshly cut fresh farmer's bread, thinking of "Seven Beauties":
Giancarlo Gianini, dumping the soup into a hollowed-out loaf of bread; slurping
and dripping and grunting and utterly delicious. She forces me to connect here
and there, now and then:
"We pay attention only to our feet. To walk in rank formation creates
as sort of obsession. You tend to look at feet moving in front of you. You
have these feet going forward heavily in front of you."
The camp experience forced prisoners attention to such basic things as eating,
defecating, cold, exhaustion, fear, resignation, friendship and thirst. Sensing
the minutiae of existence, Delbo brings what we take for granted as our right,
into question. Her attention to ordinary things translates the camp experience
for us, gives it language and form. She writes, perhaps pleads:" Try to
look. Try to see" and her poetry not only forces us to do these things,
but also invites with its terrible beauty; compelled by the horror and the lyricism:
"Nothing heard these cries from the edge of dread. The world stopped
far from here. The world that says, `It would be lovely to take a walk'."
Because of Delbo I know walking, talking, swallowing, shoes, coats, toilets,
beds, and, and friends, are lucky... I don't feel ashamed for not being there,
just for not knowing
Ezrahi, S.D. (1980). By Words Alone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kahler, E. (1957). The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation
of Man. New York: Viking.
Levi, P. (1978). Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York:
Wiesel, E. (1960 ). Night. New York: Avon Books.