Charlotte Delbo, by Violaine Gelly and Paul Gradvohl

Times Literary Supplement, August 28th, 2013

In January 1943 a convoy of 230 female resistants was deported from Drancy, near Paris, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only forty-nine survived, returning to France at the end of the war. Amongst them was Charlotte Delbo, who would become well known in the English-speaking world two decades later for her books and plays, including her three-part memoir, published in France in 1965, known in English as Auschwitz and After (None of Us Will Return, Useless Knowledge and The Measure of Our Days).

Surprisingly, Delbo is not so well known in the country of her birth, something that Violaine Gelly, editor of the French women’s magazine Psychologies, and historian Paul Gradvohl, the authors of a new, immensely readable, biography attribute (with, it is irresistible to imagine, a very Gallic shrug) to the fact that she was a woman: ‘Men were heroes, women were victims.’ Whilst this might well be part of the reason, it is certainly more complex than that, as they acknowledge. As historian of post-war France Henry Rousso has written, the political need for unity in the fractured landscape of post-France prompted continuous reformulations of the national memory of ‘les annees noires,’ to reinforce the image of a united, ‘eternal’ France and play down the significance of the Vichy collaboration. Delbo, like many of the original members of the Resistance, had links with the Communist party; the consequence of this, against the background of the Cold War, meant that whilst the heroism of the French Resistance was idealized, its leaders were denied political power. The mythmaking and continued renegotiation of this history throughout the 1950s and 60s in France were a source of deep frustration for Delbo, and probably contributed to a muting of her reputation at home until relatively recently.

Published to coincide with the centenary of her birth, this new biography of Delbo draws on her own published writing, surviving correspondence, and testimonies of her fellow survivors, as well as archival evidence, filling out the ellipses, particularly in the early part of her life, with a combination of careful if sometimes superfluously meticulous research, and the occasional tendency to slightly arch fictionalisation that takes the place of evidence, which is periodically scant, particularly up to the end of the 1930s. Gelly and Gradovohl speculate, for example, from a single phrase in Delbo’s play Une Scène Jouée dans la Mémoire, that George may have gone to fight in Spain in 1936-7. The biographers’ linear narrative and straightforward language contrasts with Delbo’s own writing, notable for its audacious mixing of register, its fragmented lyricism and poetic subjectivity combined with visceral descriptions of suffering and the horrors of the concentration camp universe. The third volume of her Auschwitz trilogy is written almost entirely in monologues spoken in different voices, giving voice to the dead as well as to the living. ‘I don’t believe that anything cannot be spoken of,’ she said. ‘I believe that words have the power to touch everyone’s heart.’

Delbo, born in 1913 into a modest family with Italian origins, was, despite a relative lack of education, clearly possessed of both ferocious intelligence and remarkable poise. In 1937, after conducting an interview with the celebrated theatre director Louis Jouvet for the Cahiers de la Jeunesse, the Young Communist newspaper, the great man summoned Delbo to the theatre to tell her how impressed he was with her work and to offer her a job as his stenographer. Some years later, during the early years of the Occupation, Jouvet had the opportunity to take his entire company, including Delbo, on a tour of Latin America, which would have allowed him to sit out the war in relatively uncompromised safety. According to Delbo’s memoir, it was on learning of the execution of a young architect and fellow resistant André Woog whilst the company was in Rio in 1941, that she determined to return to Paris and to her husband, the Communist resistant Georges Dudach. Gelly and Gradvohl can find no evidence of the existence of André Woog, leading them to speculate that either she mistook his name (a Jacques Woog is known to have been executed in 1941) or that there may have been another reason for her return, perhaps even a top secret mission. This seems unlikely, for the simple reason that by the 1960s, when Delbo decided to publish her memoir, there was obviously no risk of compromising either a mission or a person by revealing the facts. Whether Delbo’s recollection was a lapse of memory or a cover for the fact that she wanted to return to France to see her husband, it serves as a salutary reminder of the instability of memory and an important caution that personal memoir must be considered with scepticism rather than relied on as a historical document.

Delbo, not yet 30, was already a widow when she was deported on Convoy 31000 to Auschwitz; she and Dudach had been arrested in March 1942 by the French police and imprisoned in Paris. Dudach was amongst a group of resistants executed by the Gestapo in May 1942. A strong bond developed between the women on the Convoy, many of whom had also lost their husbands to the Gestapo and already knew each other from their time underground, distributing leaflets and organising meetings. Amongst them were Danielle Casanova, an intellectual and a militant communist who died of typhus in the camp, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a former journalist who was to become a Communist politician after the war and Geneviève de Gaulle. These women, who apart from Casanova all survived the war, provided ineffable support to each other during their imprisonment, and just as importantly after the war ended, when they each had to find ways of dealing with the burden of memory.

After the war Delbo returned to work with Jouvet at the Théatre Athenée, but by the beginning of 1946, diagnosed with a heart problem, she left the company to spend several months in a Swiss convalescent clinic, where she drafted the first part of her memoir, Aucun de nous ne reviendra. After a period working with the newly-established United Nations, in 1960 she became the assistant of the philosopher Henri Lefebre. She was, by all accounts and evidence, a generous, remarkably independent and brilliant woman; when her body was taken from the Hotel Dieu hospital in Paris after her death from lung cancer in 1985 (she was a lifelong Gauloise smoker), she was accompanied by a phalanx of friends and colleagues, fellow survivors, actors, directors, Henri Lefebre, and Yad Vashem researcher Cynthia Haft, who came from Jerusalem. It is fitting testimony to a remarkable woman that her portrait was one of nine put up in the Pantheon on International Women’s Day in 2008 (alongside amongst others Simone de Beauvoir, Marie Curie, Colette, Georges Sand and Louise Michel) alongside the ringing declaration ‘Aux grandes femmes, la patrie reconnaissante.’

 

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