But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

I loved you so much that I was happy to be deported with you.

25776230But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s very personal memoir about her time in the death camps and how it overshadowed the rest of her life. She writes it in the form of a letter to her father who was sent to the death camps at the same time as she was. She made it back and he didn’t. She has always felt as though it was his life for hers, and this profound grief has stayed with her always.

After you were gone, our family became a place where you screamed for help, but no one heard. Not ever.

We have all read and heard about the atrocities of the death camps. But what comes after? Our first reaction is to feel relief and even happiness for those who survived, but Marceline tells a different story. She talks about feeling isolated from those in her family who did not experience the camps, grief for those who did not come back, the self-loathing she learned to feel about herself, the depression and suicides of people who had not even been at the death camps including her own siblings. During the war, she fought to stay alive, but after it was over she lost the will to live.

28523705It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness, it was too intense, people wanted everything to feel like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me…

I don’t like my body. It’s as if it still bears the mark of the first man who ever looked at me, a Nazi… So for a long time, I associated getting undressed with death, with hatred, with the icy stare of Mengele, the camp demon who was in charge of the selection, who made us turn all around, naked, prodded by his baton so he could decide who would live and who would die.

But it wasn’t death that took you away. It was a great black pit and its smoke, and I had looked down into its very depths. It hadn’t yet finished its evil task: Even when the war was over, it still seemed to be sucking us in.

Over time, Marceline was able to cobble together a sense of purpose for herself; she became an activist, an actress and a director, and started making films about the Algerian uprising, the Vietnam war, and the Chinese Revolution.

I thought, if I can’t do anything for myself, I’m going to do something for others.

25779058But her life wasn’t lived entirely without happiness and love. She met and fell in love with Joris Ivens, and together they made history come alive in their films.

Two years ago, I asked Henri’s wife, Marie: “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?”… I hope that if someone asks me that question just before I’m about to die, I’ll be able to say, “Yes, it was worth it.”


“Marceline Loridan-Ivens is known around the world for the superb documentaries that she codirected with her husband, the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898–1989). But the earliest part of her career, as well as her most recent work, depart from the documentaries by providing very personal, profoundly moving reflections on her identity as a Jewish woman.” This information came from the Jewish Women’s Archive, where you can read more about Marcelne Loridan-Ivens’ life and work.

*Thanks to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Further reviews:

The Economist


The Guardian


Literary Hoarders

The Filmography of Marceline Loridan-Ivens (from Films de France):

Key: a = actor; d = director; w = writer

33 thoughts on “But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

  1. Deepika Ramesh says:

    Many thanks, Naomi, for writing about this. I love memoirs, and I haven’t read many books on holocaust/survivors. I am sure this is going to move. I loved all the passages that you have chose. This sounds profound.

  2. sharkell says:

    I am currently reading Night by Elie Wiesel who was a teenager in Buchenwald – it is exquisitely written (and translated) but painful to read. He also talks about Mengele who was responsible for the selections – Wiesel and Loridan-Ivens must have been in the same camp at around the same time. No matter now many memoirs or novels you read, it is still resoundingly shocking to read about the atrocities humans can inflict each other. You really wonder how the SSS and camp personnel justified it in their heads (and how they slept at night)- it is hard to imagine. Have you read The Undertaking by Audrey Magee Naomi? It looks a little from the German side of the atrocities.

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read The undertaking, but I’ve got it marked to read.
      I read Night a few years ago, and although I don’t remember the details, I remember it being so good (in a horrifying way). So interesting to hear that they mention the same man! Something you might not notice unless you read them back-to-back. I’m so glad you pointed that out.
      It’s so true that no matter how many memoirs or novels you read about the Holocaust, it never fails to shock and leave you shaking your head.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    Excellent review, Naomi. I think you’re right about the way in which the legacy of the Holocaust is yet to be explored, particularly for the second generation. Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces comes to mind – fiction, of course – but I can’t think of anything else. Loriden-Ivens’ books sounds like painful but essential reading. It’s good to know that she was able to find comfort and a degree of happiness

    • Naomi says:

      The interesting thing about her memoir, I think, is the focus on what comes after. She recounts her time at the camps and what happened to her, but the message I got from her was that the horrors didn’t end with the war. They continue.

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    Oh, I’m so eager to read this one. I’ve read a few other books about ‘what happens next’ after concentration camp life: Primo Levi’s memoir, and Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story. One I would highly recommend is A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer. She was a remarkable Theresienstadt survivor who died at the age of 110 in 2014.

    • Naomi says:

      A Garden of Eden in Hell sounds so good! Thanks for all the recommendations!
      The description of AGofEinH reminded me of the movie “Life is Beautiful”, about a man trying to protect his son from the horrors of the concentration camp. Have you seen that?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s definitely one to keep in mind after you’ve a had a little break from war books. It’s not long, and so good. Beautiful, haunting, important. All those words. 🙂

  5. Kim@Time2Read says:

    I don’t usually like memoirs, but this one sounds like one I would…well, I’m not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, but I think I would find this one worth reading. Thanks!

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t read a lot of memoirs, either, but I find that memoirs about the war are in another category. I almost feel like reading them is the least I can do, if that makes any sense. Definitely worth reading!

  6. Brian says:

    It must have been so hard to come out of the camps and to be all alone and penniless. What an interesting question to ask, “Was it worth it {to survive}?”

    • Naomi says:

      I sure hope she ends up believing that it was worth it. She certainly has made a huge contribution to the world through her work.
      I think you would like this, Brian. You seem to read a lot of memoirs dealing with tough subjects!

  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I’m glad you brought this book to my attention. It will definitely go onto my WWII list of books to read. I read a book one or two years ago where the main character and her parents get rounded up by the Nazis, but since they expect to be able to go home again quickly, they lock the little brother into a closet to keep him safe. Of course they didn’t get to go back home. It was a dual narrative, and I didn’t like the contemporary story much, but the historical story was harrowing. A lot of it was about the guilt the survivor felt for having inadvertently killed her brother. I still think about that.

    • Naomi says:

      That sounds like Sarah’s Key. Is that what it was called? I loved that book, too, and agree that the contemporary part of the story wasn’t as good as the historical part. I’m sure she could never for one minute forget about her brother. Just like Marceline can’t forget about her father, even though she wasn’t at all responsible for his death – she still felt like his death and her life were connected.

    • Naomi says:

      I had never heard of her, either, before reading her memoir, but now I would like to look out for some of her films, particularly the one she made about her experiences, “The Birch-Tree Meadow” (2003).

  8. Carolyn O says:

    Thank you for this lovely review, Naomi. I’ve read my fair share of Holocaust memoirs (as I told Kay once, I went to high school with a lot of kids whose grandparents were survivors), but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with this particular perspective.

  9. DoingDewey says:

    I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear that it’s impossible to just walk away from such a horrific experience. I recently read In the Land of Armadillos and that continued a little into life after the war, but other than that, I don’t think I’ve read anything that even touches on the topic. It sounds like one of those topics that is worthwhile, but would make for a difficult read.

    • Naomi says:

      I definitely enjoyed thinking about it from a wider view. I also think the message can carry over into anything awful that someone has been through. We need to know that just because the event is over, it doesn’t mean the effects of it are over.

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