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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Auschwitz Before and After by Charlotte Delbo

I read Auschwitz Before  and After by Charlotte Delbo after I was sent it by Deborah Parkin. It was a battered old copy complete with annotations from when Deborah was doing Holocaust Studies. And it didn't exactly seem like cheery reading so I never quite got round to it.

But Deborah badgered me and so I started reading it. I've never read anything quite like it. As the title suggests, the book follows Delbo through different layers of suffering. At Auschwitz, Delbo (who was in the French Resistance) describes how survival is not something that happens but something you choose; and the longer time goes by and the more you suffer, the harder it is to choose - death is the easy choice, death is the human choice, the choice where comfort, release and all the soft emotions lie.

As Delbo says...

'They expect the worse, not the unthinkable.'

The more Delbo suffers, the more she becomes one with her surroundings; the land, the water, the mud, the cold, the sun. Her whole being seeps into the mud that she struggles to walk through when it's wet. Cold cuts through to the depths of her being in Winter, and when she gets a chance to wash herself in a stream, her feet and nails have merged with the socks she has not taken off for so many months. Even the salvation of spring sunshine comes at a cost with the realisation that it's much harder to die when it's hot. The Summer means a longer death with more suffering.

At the same time, Delbo also becomes one with those around her. She is both an individual who must reach into the deepest recesses of her mind to survive, but also part of an organic community identity. When the cold, fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain or despair get too much, it is the other women in the group that will save her, if save is the right word because the depersonalisation and pain ran so deep, the cruelty so all-encompassing as exemplified in this quote from the book.

"I was standing amid my comrades and I think to myself that if I ever return and will want to explain the inexplainable, I shall say: “I was saying to myself: you must stay standing through roll call. You must get through one more day. It is because you got through today that you will return one day, if you ever return.” This is not so. Actually I did not say anything to myself. I thought of nothing. The will to resist was doubtlessly buried in some deep, hidden spring which is now broken, I will never know. And if the women who died had required those who returned to account for what had taken place, they would be unable to do so. I thought of nothing. I felt nothing. I was a skeleton of cold, with cold blowing through all the crevices in between a skeleton’s ribs."

And then there is After Auschwitz when Delbo returns home to France and the suffering continues in psychological form. With the constant battle for survival gone, nothing is real anymore. The suffering she has experienced distances Delbo and her fellow concentration camp survivors from the remainder of society. Delbo visits her old comrades and they describe how they are surviving; in a half-life where questions are constantly asked of everyone they meet - what would this person have done in Auschwitz, how can this person possibly understand what I have been through, how can I laugh with my children when...

Strangely enough, the book wasn't depressing at all. It was horrific, compelling and illuminating but had overtones of life in it while still being brutally visceral. Anyway, if you are remotely interested in history, the holocaust, survival or landscape, or humanity in its broadest sense, Auschwitz Before and After is essential reading.

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