by Lisa Mullenneaux

Winston Churchill called it “the black dog,” for William Styron it was “darkness visible.” Children know it as Eeyore’s perpetual raincloud. This spring I awoke with a feeling of dread that clung to me all day like a coat of mail. It had something to do with the savagery of the Ukraine invasion, perhaps even more with the stress of editing a manuscript on terminal cancer and another on mental illness. The next day I gave up trying to get work done. I was back in bed by 10 a.m.

At some point, between the bedroom and bathroom, her words reached me through the fog. Taped next to the door so I couldn’t miss it was Charlotte Delbo’s poem, “Prayer to the Living to Forgive Them for Being Alive.” Who was Delbo? A remarkable French woman who survived three years in the Nazis’ death camps and committed herself to, as she put it, “donner à voir”: to make that horror visible to her compatriots. From 1946 until she died in 1985, Delbo produced plays, poems, and a trilogy of memoirs of her imprisonment, Auschwitz and After (1995). Though written immediately after World War II, she held off publishing her memoirs because she feared they would not do justice to what she had experienced.

The lines of her poem leapt at me:

I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something to justify yourself
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin and body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.

I immediately showered, changed into my sweats and went for a run. I hadn’t left the house in days except to buy milk and cat food. The run cleared my head of those attack dogs—self pity, resentment, despair. At least it put them back in the kennel.

I first met Charlotte Delbo in Carolyn Morehead’s A Train in Winter (2011), which traces the fate of 230 non-Jewish women arrested for their Resistance activities. Only 49 of them survived, and Delbo herself wrote about Le convoi du 24 janvier (published in English as Convoy to Auschwitz, 1997). Delbo had put herself in harm’s way deliberately by returning to Paris from Buenos Aires where she was working for a theater company. When she heard about the assassination of a friend in 1941, she rejoined her husband, George Dudach, who was distributing anti-Nazi material. They were both arrested in March 1942, and Dudach was shot two months later.

Delbo was in Auschwitz, first at Birkenau and later the Raisko satellite camp, for about a year before being sent to Ravensbrück and finally released to the custody of the Swedish chapter of the International Red Cross in 1945 as the war was ending. After recuperating in Switzerland, she returned to France. I wrote a long poem after reading her memoirs, a tribute to her resolve, first to survive, then to memorialize that trauma in words. Then I forgot about Delbo—until last year when Ghislaine Dunant’s biography, Charlotte Delbo: A Life Reclaimed, was finally translated. Here was a life and legacy ignored for too long; Delbo’s contribution to what we call Holocaust literature is surely equal to that of Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.

Delbo’s recovery was precarious at first—she was “unlearning” brutal knowledge—and she suffered from post-traumatic stress for years, periods when she could not stand to be alone. How precious close friends were to her since she had lost so many! Delbo traced the lives of her comrades for two decades following their return and found that, like her, they were haunted by “ghosts,” physical and mental remnants of their ordeal. In “The Measure of Our Days,” she chronicles that aftermath, not a triumph over the past, at best an accommodation. Auschwitz was always there, she explained to interviewers, right next to her. It was the skin she couldn’t shed.

Words saved her. Delbo invented a unique blend of poetry and prose to render atrocity in images that open our senses to the stench of diarrhea and burning bodies, the taste of an orange to one dying of thirst. Those images depict a state of non-being, an absence of self.

I am standing amid my comrades. I do not look at the stars. They stab with cold. I do not look at the barbed wire enclosures, white in the night under the lights. They are claws of cold. I see my mother with that mask of hardened will her face has become. My mother. Far. I look at nothing. I think of nothing.[1]

She understood that before one could speak of the renewal of the human spirit, one had to freeze the horror that had degraded it. She first recreates the camps, then describes how they live on in their victims’ memories. Extreme violence denies the spirit. “People did not dream in Auschwitz,” Delbo insisted, “they were in a state of delirium.”[2]

When Delbo returned to civilian life in 1945, that violence was still inside her. To survive she had to write it out. Her “Prayer” asks us to make use of our freedom, to covet it as precious, and to see imagination as a powerful weapon against debasement, which is how she used it. It urges me to do what I can, get moving, whether to teach a class, take a child to the park, or enjoy the sanctuary of a writer’s room, where I am right now. As long as I am breathing, Delbo seems to say, let me honor the lives of those who aren’t.

Photo by Andreea Ch via Pexels

 

[1] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, 2nd  ed., Yale Un. Press, 2014, p. 206.

[2] Ibid, p. 168.