Love After an Apocalypse

Holocaust survivor Marceline Loridan-Ivens never stopped grappling with loss—or fighting to live.

Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy
Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy
Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy

Marceline Loridan-Ivens, née Rozenberg, died on Sept. 18, 2018, in Paris. She was 90 years old.

In 1944, at age 15, Loridan-Ivens was deported from the Vaucluse region of southern France eventually to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp with her father. He did not survive; she went on to become a writer, filmmaker, actress, public speaker, and, above all, a singular witness to history. Small in size, outspoken, and with a wild mane of signature red hair, Loridan-Ivens became a beloved public figure, known for her Parisian cheek, her energy, and her humor.

Loridan-Ivens frequently lectured on her experiences. As she once told an interviewer, “I know I have the duty to express myself and add my voice to those of people who have had the courage to speak before the death of the last survivor sends the camps into the realm of history once and for all.” And so she did.

Late in her long life, Loridan-Ivens published a series of memoirs that tackled the experience and subsequent impact of the war. The first—Ma vie balagan (“My Messy Life,” balagan meaning “chaotic” in Hebrew), published in 2008—is a sweeping look at her life from deportation through to the 2000s. Her second—Et tu n’es pas revenu (“But You Did Not Come Back”)—came out in 2015 and became a best-seller in France. It is an open letter to her father.

[Human beings are rarely rational—so it’s time we all stopped pretending they are, Fareed Zakaria writes.]

Her third and last memoir—L’amour après (“Love, After”)—was published only last year. It is nominally a story of her deportation, but it also confronts how she reconnected with the ideas of love and sexuality after returning from a death camp. In remarkably frank prose, Loridan-Ivens recalls how it took her years to reconcile with her own body, which, she explains, was simultaneously sexually violated—the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was the first man to see her naked—and dismissed and degraded as a Jewish body. Just as Holocaust historians had turned their attention to documenting questions about gender, intimacy, and sexuality among Holocaust victims, Loridan-Ivens unabashedly narrated her unapologetic quest for pleasure and love after the war.

Loridan-Ivens was among the first French Holocaust survivors to be interviewed for a cinematic work. She appeared in the documentary Chronique d’un été (“Chronicle of a Summer”), which won the Critics’ Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. Directed by the filmmaker and visual anthropologist Jean Rouch and the sociologist Edgar Morin, it was a pioneering work of cinéma vérité. In a series of vignettes, Loridan-Ivens recounts the story of her deportation.

In one, she walks through Paris’s Place de la Concorde and speaks of her murdered father. In a second, she discusses her deportation. In the scene that has had the longest cultural foothold, Loridan-Ivens meets several young African students, recently arrived in France, during a rushed attempt by the government to train leaders for the newly independent states of West Africa. Loridan-Ivens explains to them the meaning of the number tattooed on her arm. The young men are taken aback and surprised. The scene showed, as the scholar Michael Rothberg would later write, how the movement to mark Holocaust memory emerged at the same time as the movements for civil rights and decolonization. Crafting a term that rapidly became standard among scholars, he described it as representative of “multidirectional memory.”

[Stephen Hawking’s insights about the universe were profound—but his insights into humanity were even more important, Carlo Rovelli writes.]

In the 1950s, she joined a group of intellectuals in the leftist underground Jeanson network, named for the philosopher Francis Jeanson, who supported the Algerian National Liberation Front. She even, at great personal risk, hid money for the front. With her second husband, the Dutch-born Joris Ivens, she directed numerous movies in and on China. Like many leftist French intellectuals at the time, she was deeply sympathetic to Maoism. (She later renounced the far-left.) From the late 1950s until the last days of her life, Loridan-Ivens was a fixture on Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés scene, spending time with intellectuals including Roland Barthes and Georges Pérec. (She briefly dated the latter.) Until recently, she could often be spotted at the legendary Café de Flore.

In her last few years, she had begun to worry about modern anti-Semitism and what would happen when she was no longer present to speak. Indeed, few such voices remain. With the death of each Holocaust survivor, the eulogies and obituaries have become a meditation on the future of Holocaust history and memory in the absence of direct witnesses. The number of survivors in France capable of still publicly offering testimony to the horrors of the war has now dwindled to a small handful.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Jean-Marc Dreyfus is a historian and reader in Holocaust studies at the University of Manchester and at Sciences Po in Paris.

See the full list