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MLN 117.4 (2002) 858-886
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The Question of Community in Charlotte Delbo's Auschwitz and After
In September 1941, Charlotte Delbo was working as an assistant to Louis Jouvet during a theatrical tour of South America when she learned that a friend and fellow communist had been arrested for terrorism, condemned to death by a special tribunal, and guillotined in Paris. Feeling compelled to join her comrades in the Resistance, Delbo returned to France, despite Jouvet's concerns. On March 2, 1942, she and her husband, Georges Dudach, both involved in the production of anti-Nazi literature, were arrested in their Paris apartment by French police and turned over to the Gestapo. Imprisoned at la Santé, they were allowed to see each other for the last time on the morning of May 23. Later that day, Dudach was executed by firing squad at le Mont-Valérien. Delbo herself was subsequently transferred to Romainville, and then, between January 24 and 27, 1943, was deported through Compiègne to Auschwitz in a convoy of 230 women, only 49 of whom returned. She spent the next twenty-seven months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Raisko, and Ravensbrück, and at the end of June, 1945, was repatriated by the Red Cross via Sweden. 1 [End Page 858]
Although Delbo started writing immediately after the war, all of her work appeared between 1961 and 1985, the year of her death. During this period, she published, in addition to plays and essays, an historiographical account of her deportation, Le convoi du 24 janvier, 2 a trilogy of memoirs entitled Auschwitz et après (which includes Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Une connaissance inutile, and Mesure de nos jours), 3 and a volume closely related to the trilogy, La mémoire et les jours. 4
It is doubtless for Auschwitz and After that Delbo is best known, even though she has not yet found nearly as large a readership as the extraordinary eloquence and lucidity of this work might lead one to expect. To the extent that Auschwitz and After can be said to tell a single story, its most general outline would look something like this: the first volume begins with a scene of arrival at Auschwitz and ends while Delbo is still in Birkenau; the second begins in Birkenau and ends with the liberation of Ravensbrück; and the third, which tells initially of repatriation, consists thereafter almost entirely of testimonies attributed to certain of Delbo's fellow survivors. However, while the trilogy may lend itself to such a chronological summary, chronology constitutes neither its sole nor even its most important organizing principle. For not only does Auschwitz and After include poems whose interspersion disrupts any rigorous narrative continuity, but its prose [End Page 859] assumes the form of relatively short and discrete texts whose own narrative interrelations are not predominantly linear. In Auschwitz and After, Delbo engages in a fragmentary articulation of trauma and survival, and it is on this articulation that I would like to focus here.
In order to sharpen this focus, I will take my cue from Delbo herself and concentrate especially on the ways in which, at the very beginning of the trilogy, what I have just called the "articulation" of trauma and survival raises the fundamental question of community. In doing so, I do not mean to imply that this question arises only at the beginning or only in these ways, since in fact it recurs in many forms throughout Auschwitz and After. Nor is it simply that this question first arises in a particularly conspicuous manner, as convenient as that may be for the purposes of interpretation. The point is rather that, in the initial framing of her testimony, Delbo explicitly problematizes the frame itself, thereby calling into question, for the trilogy as a whole, the tacit agreement on whose basis "we" as a community would assume the intelligibility of traumatic experience and its aftermath.
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The question of community is raised by the very title of the first volume, None of Us Will Return. Since...