Book Review: But You Did Not Come Back

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“Because there was no family without you.”

Thank you to Penguin Random House (Canada) for drawing my attention to this beautiful and haunting memoir. It was something they were offering to read, and it was something that I knew I would want to read, for certain. And now that I have had the privilege (really) to have read it, it will be something that I want to return to again and again, and it will be something that I want to press into everyone’s hands. It’s an important read, and it’s something that will change you.

Once I started But You Did Not Come Back, it was very difficult to put it down. It can be read in one sitting, for sure, but you need to take the time to pause and reflect often too. This beautifully written, and oh so terribly heartbreaking slim read is just 100 pages, and it is a stunning piece of translation as well. Lordian-Ivens has written this as a letter to her father in response to the letter he was somehow able to pass onto her while they were housed in separate concentration camps. They were separated by a distance of under 3 km (he at Auschwitz and she at Birkenau) and it is in response to his telling her, “You might come back, because you’re young, but I will not come back.” (page 7.) 

Loridan-Ivens is now 87 years old but the loss of her father, the horrors of the concentration camps and the struggle at being happy to be alive has never ever left her. “I don’t belong here anymore.” (page 1.) She also writes about the rise of  anti-Semitism,  she writes this memoir in full-stop, with a little-to-no breaks manner that is exquisitely beautiful as it is haunting and heartbreaking. I will re-read this I’m most positive of that.

It has been a few days since I finished reading this, and it has not left my mind once. I cannot stop thinking about so many parts of this very special and life changing read. The most striking part that hasn’t left my mind (among the so many) is the very end. First, she mentions the charged climate of France. The country her father chose to love, wanted to belong, bought that Chateau so he could raise his family there. But, as she notes, France did not love him. “France sent you to your death. You were wrong about her.” (page 60.) Then,

“You had chosen France, she isn’t the melting pot you had hoped for. Everything is getting tense again. We’re called “French Jews”; there are also “French Muslims”, and here we are, face-to-face, I who had hoped to never take sides, or at least, to simply be on the side of freedom. I’ve listened to threats, that sounded like echoes from the past, I’ve heard people shouting, “Death to the Jews” and “Jews fuck off, you don’t own France,” and I’ve wanted to throw myself out the window.” (page 98.)

But, most chilling, is the final page. The page where she asks her sister-in-law, another Holocaust survivor, “Now that we are approaching the end of our lives, do you think it was a good thing for us to have come back from the camps?” “No, I don’t,” she replied, “we shouldn’t have come back. But what do you think?” (page 100.) Loridan-Ivens response is that she thinks like Marie, that no, no she doesn’t think they should have come back. So strong is her life-long unhappiness and bereft loss of her father, that no, she wishes she had died in the camps.

The Economist has written this stunning article about But You Did Not Come Back and it, and now hearing from others that have started to read this memoir, I’ve marked this as a 5-star read. It haunts me.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev