Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After

Normally, I get distracted by books whose narrative arc ends in triumph. Pick up and read, carried along by prose and arc until the denouement returns me to myself and I realise how much time has passed: until the moment of triumph brings me back to all the work I should have done.

Delbo’s tripartite memoir allows of no such literary catharsis.

I bought Auschwitz and After once I had read Elizabeth Wein’s novel Rose Under Fire, spurred by a half-remembered fragment of prose – and by the realisation that it had been years since I read an account of the enormity of suffering that is fast passing out of living memory. “Try to look,” Delbo writes. “Just try and see.”

A corpse. The left eye devoured by a rat. The other open with its fringe of lashes.

Try to look. Just try and see.

There is no bearing witness to horror that seems ghoulish now but was everyday reality for tens – hundreds – of thousands as they died. All that can be done to honour those dead is to hold the words of the survivors a while longer.

To try and see, and remember.

Not one of us will return is the title of the first part of Delbo’s memoir. Stark. That’s one word for it. Vignettes and poems. Snapshots and images, their bleak brutality transmuted by Delbo’s pen into a lasting literary testament that nonetheless bears a searing kind of beauty.

Delbo finishes one such vignette with, “And now I am sitting in a café, writing this text.”

One has the sense that no real return is possible.

The Measure of Our Days is relentless in revealing how very far one has to come, how very different life becomes, in the aftermath of such an enormity. “I do not know,” Delbo writes, in a poetry made all the more savagely affecting by its plainness:

“I do not know
if you can still
make something of me
If you have the courage to try…”

Of the three books that comprise Auschwitz and After it is this last, this after, that is the hardest to read.

At one point, Delbo describes her pubic hair as “matted with diarrhoea,” after seventy-seven days without washing.

It is only then that I realise I haven’t even begun to comprehend.