The nature of survival in Auschwitz in Charlotte Delbo’s None of Us Will Return – Jamie Mottram

Jamie Mottram is a final year History student at the University of Birmingham. His primary interest is British history, both modern and pre-modern.

The nature of survival in Auschwitz in Charlotte Delbo’s None of Us Will Return

Charlotte Delbo became a prisoner in Auschwitz in January 1943, where she survived for roughly a year before she was transported to Ravensbruck women’s camp.[1] Although she began writing her first memoir, None of us will Return, shortly after she returned to France, she waited twenty years to publish it.[2] Her work has been noted for its unique portrayal of the nature of survival in Auschwitz. In particular, her lack of a grand narrative, frequent use of poetry and prose, and confusing chronology make her work prominent, and such techniques have been praised for their ability to help the reader feel part of the scene and feel the experience, rather than merely being informed of it.

This essay will identify how Delbo depicts the nature of survival in Auschwitz by exploring some of her key themes. This will take place within a wider analysis of the literary techniques which she uses to portray the Auschwitz experience. Furthermore, I will argue how these techniques helped her overcome the many problems of representing the Holocaust in literature. Finally, it is crucial to question what it means to talk of ‘survival’ in Auschwitz in the first place. When it is considered how survivors are perpetually tortured by their memories, leading Delbo to go so far as to speak of her Auschwitz self and post-Auschwitz self, it is clear that viewing survival only in physical terms only is parochial and simplistic.

The Nature of Survival in Auschwitz – Community Aid

The idea of community and mutual help is a crucial one to examine when looking into Delbo’s portrayal of survival in Auschwitz.  The very title, ‘None of Us Will Return’ is significant since the reader wonders who is included in the ‘us.’ Thomas Trezise argues that the ‘us’ usually refers to the group of French political prisoners who Delbo was transported with.[3] He has good reason, as Delbo’s group is referred to several times in her memoir, and Delbo even implies that her group was hostile to other groups, such as Jews. Indeed, when the prisoners are forced to carry dirt whilst being clubbed by Kapos, the French women shield each other from attack, but refuse to accept Jewish women in their circle of protection, not wishing to be ‘separated from each other.’[4] In this way, it can be seen that an important aspect of life in Auschwitz was the way in which Nazis exploited differences between victim groups, in an attempt to weaken victim communities. However, although Trezise is mostly accurate, his point neglects other scenes where Delbo’s ‘us’ includes a wider community, and where she embraces anyone who suffered at the hands of the Kapos. In one scene, where the prisoners receive arbitrary beatings from the Kapos, she includes herself as an unnamed member of the inmates, who are labelled ‘we.’[5] ‘We try to protect our faces, our eyes…the blows fall on the backs of our necks.’[6] Consequently, although Delbo’s portrayal of survival tends to reflect the way in which prisoner groups looked after their own kind, she also feels it is important to emphasise that all shared the suffering as one body of victimisation.

Delbo’s focus on women’s survival in Auschwitz also deserves analysis. Much Holocaust literature, most of which is written by men, has been criticised for its lack of attention on women. Mary Lagerway points to how, even though half of first person accounts were written by women, they have received less academic attention, and appear far less on internet search results.[7] This is important because Delbo highlights how women’s survival often differed greatly to that of men’s, and details gender specific ways in which women coped with their struggle. For Delbo, emotions are ‘expressed within contexts of friendship and trust,’[8]as depicted in the scene where Lulu shields her from SS view and encourages her to cry.[9] Such encouragement of emotional pouring out contradicts the beliefs of prominent male survivors, such as Jean Amery, whose statement ‘we don’t believe in tears,’[10] encapsulates his view that it was best to be immune to self-pity.

Returning to the idea of mutual aid, Delbo insinuates that women bonded together more than men. Scenes such as the animalistic fighting that erupted among the starved men,[11] after Delbo’s women threw them some bread, contrast sharply with the support network within Delbo’s group of friends. For instance, after an episode where women were chased through some gates whilst being savagely beaten, her group checks that all their members made it through, and Helene mentions her attempt to drag the one-legged Alice along to safety.[12] However, networks of support even among women must not be exaggerated, for it is suggested that no one could get any help for free.[13] When Delbo has no bread to offer the Polish girl who took water from the cistern, the girl throws the water away.[14]As such, None of Us Will Return, is prominent for its portrayal of survival, as it details the gender specific ways in which women attempted to survive in Auschwitz. Even though the idea of women’s community should not be exaggerated, Delbo’s focus on women-specific tactics to survive helps revive the scant academic attention that has been paid to female survivors.


The Nature of Survival – Fighting Eternal Trauma

The memoir’s portrayal of the nature of survival is characterised by the idea of eternal suffering. Words like ‘eternity,’ ‘immobility,’ and ‘motionlessness’ are repeated throughout Delbo’s text to suggest the totalizing aspect of traumatic experience.[15] Survival in Auschwitz incorporated attempting to fight this sensation of eternal horror, through a number of ways. Delbo attempted to impose a timescale on her survival by making her chapter headings time markers. For instance, ‘Daytime’ described her field work, and ‘Night’ covered the topic of her torturous dreams.[16] However, the inmates had a chronic lack of knowledge of the outside world, combined with a disrupted sense of time due to middle of the night roll calls. This meant that these time labels ‘cannot be attached to a referent and their repetition only emphasises the absurdity of such attempts (to impose order).’[17]Delbo speaks of other methods used by inmates to prolong their mental resistance, and hence survival. For instance, she says how her hope was fuelled by that of those around her, who discussed ‘plans about going home,’ and participated in ‘hopeful talk of the Russians liberating the camp.’[18]

At other times, she ascribes her survival to the subordination of the will to the body and individual experience to the groups’.[19] This is portrayed in a scene where she describes ‘our hearts’ thumping as they carry a body for miles, hearts which refuse to give up even though she is sure they will fail soon.[20]Overall, although Delbo’s portrayal of survival is too dense to be covered in this essay, some key themes include the idea of community spirit, and how this related to each gender’s experience of Auschwitz. Additionally, the idea of eternal suffering, and how the survivors struggled against this, frequently colours None of us will Return.


Overcoming Problems of Holocaust Literature: Delbo’s Literary Techniques

In analysing Delbo’s portrayal of the nature of survival, it is important to study her literary techniques. Moreover, one must examine whether such techniques have successfully tackled traditional problems faced by Holocaust writers. None of us will Return is famed for the way it brings new life to certain everyday words. One identified problem with Holocaust literature is that all words seem inadequate and foolish when used to describe the uniqueness of organised suffering. An entirely new language would therefore need to be created to portray the nature of survival in Auschwitz accurately.[21] Delbo tackles this issue, not by creating a new vocabulary, but by redefining how we use certain words. She takes familiar words, and ‘infuses them with the physical reality they had at Auschwitz.’[22]An example of this would be how she dedicates an entire chapter to the torture of thirst, using repetition of the word ‘thirst’ to give body to this word and make its sensation real.[23] Through this intense description of thirst, in which she depicts what a dry mouth feels like, and even differentiates between ‘day’ and ‘night’ thirst, Delbo ensures that one can never say ‘I am thirsty’, when desiring a cup of tea, in the same trivial way again. Thus, in redefining familiar words, she disposes of the need to create a new vocabulary to portray the experience of survival in Auschwitz.


Delbo’s Techniques: Breaks in Chronology

One further problem that has been identified in Holocaust literature is the historical accuracy of memoirs. Given the length of time that survivors spent as prisoners, it is no wonder, as Sara R. Horowitz argues, that ‘the retrospective lens of memoirs dictates a selectivity of remembered events.’[24] Delbo tackles this issue by refusing to attempt a grand narrative or a linear chronology altogether. Rather, her memoir serves as ‘an examination of consciousness under extreme conditions,’ where brining sensations to life takes priority over giving a breakdown of events.[25] In fact, she intentionally uses prose and poems to break up the chronology.[26] For instance, pages 79 to 83 narrate a scene where Delbo and her comrades are forced to carry a body back for miles. What immediately follows is not further narration, but a montage of three short and separate moments, each finishing with the words ‘Try to look. Just try and see.’[27] In this way, Delbo shifts the focus away from storytelling to make the reader discover experiences for themselves. Again, her encouragement to read between the lines and imagine what is indescribable overcomes the limitation of everyday language to describe survival in the camp.[28]


Delbo’s Techniques: Creating a Dreamlike State

The final problem of Holocaust literature that I will cover is the issue of believability. Ultimately, for someone with no experience of Auschwitz, ‘the facts of experience border on the unreal,’ and the reader lacks the capability to imagine the extreme events as described in the literature.[29] Delbo acknowledges this problem, and overcomes our tendency to mistake fact for fiction by ‘delivering details “beyond our imaginings,” in prose that mimics the tone and logic of dreaming.’[30] Again, one way in which this dreamlike state is created is the intentional break with chronology, notably the scene where she jumps from a roll call  to mention that she is writing in a café.[31] Delbo’s intense descriptions further make the reader feel as if they are in a waking dream, where ‘rigid boundaries of logical thought dissolve.’[32] The reader takes on a state of mind where sensations prevail over ideas. This is exemplified in the roll call scene where she metaphorically describes the freezing conditions; ‘the cold bruised our temples, our jaws, making us feel that our bones were about to break.’[33]

One final method Delbo uses to help the reader overcome the unimaginable horror of surviving Auschwitz, is her juxtaposing of images to enhance our imagination. For instance, in a chapter entitled ‘The Dummies,’ she likens the naked corpses in the snow to shop dummies.[34] In this way, Delbo succeeds in enabling the reader to overcome their limited imagination of such horror, by comparing the scene to an everyday mundane event of piling up naked mannequins. Overall, Delbo successfully tackles an array of problems that face Holocaust writers trying to represent survival in Auschwitz. Giving familiar words new meanings removes the need to create a new vocabulary, while breaks in chronology help to separate her work from an ambitious attempt to recount everything in a narrative form. Meanwhile, such abstract techniques help induce in the reader a dreamlike state where they become receptive to sensations over logical thought.


Survival as a term

An important issue to tackle when answering how Delbo portrayed survival in Auschwitz is whether the term ‘survivor’ is really accurate at all. Indeed, Clendinnen Inga dismisses the word survivor as too smug, since it assumes ‘the natural continuity of the individual persona,’ when such continuity is largely impossible.[35] For a start, the damage Auschwitz caused to ‘survivors’’ human qualities questions what it meant to have survived. Delbo herself stated that she was no longer capable of dreaming or imagining, and this is what turned her into a ghost, since part of her died in Auschwitz.[36] Furthermore, the possibility of normal survival after Auschwitz was severely undermined for many survivors since physical survival often came at the expense of identity and moral being. When fathers and sons stole bread from one another, the fact that survival entailed becoming a part of the system meant that survival as the same person after the war was extinguished by the scar of shame.[37]

Alongside the loss of pre-war identity, it is salient that Delbo’s survival was complicated by the fact that a large part of her still belonged in Auschwitz. She speaks of a second skin enfolding the memory of Auschwitz, which occasionally bursts and unleashes terrible memories and images of past suffering.[38] This level of scarred memory affected other survivors too. Nicholas Chare speaks of Holocaust survivors in general when he says that for them, Auschwitz is ever present. Remembering Auschwitz is a recollection ‘which involves a death in life, a form in which the ‘I’ is no longer…the memory of Auschwitz overwhelms the I.’[39] With that in mind, given that people’s time in Auschwitz served to alter their individual being, and even imprison a large part of them inside the camp, the idea of life after Auschwitz becomes more complex than speaking of physical survival. Ultimately, when it is considered that a host of survivors, including Paul Celan, David Levi, and Jean Amery committed suicide years after their trauma, it becomes apparent that physical survival of the camp meant very little at all.

In conclusion, there are a number of key themes which Delbo includes to portray the nature of survival in Auschwitz. The idea of victim communities is prevalent and is tied in heavily with the concept of gender-based survival. None of Us Will Return highlights women-specific methods of coping in Auschwitz, and generally implies that women stuck together more than men, even if such community spirit was limited to specific groups.

Further depictions of survival in Auschwitz centre on the feeling of eternal trauma, and the methods used to cope with this. Delbo uses a number of literary techniques to portray the nature of survival in Auschwitz, and such techniques are necessary to overcome the array of problems faced by Holocaust writers. Delbo permeates everyday words with a new power to tackle the problem other writers faced of failing to articulate the horror in Auschwitz. Furthermore, to prevent the reader simply being told of the trauma, Delbo helps them feel as if they were there, as a co-witness to survival in the camp. She does this by interspersing narrative with poetry and prose, putting the reader in a dreamlike state where they are more receptive to imagery. Finally, the question of survival in Auschwitz is flawed in the first place, since it is generally agreed that post-Auschwitz life could never replicate pre-war life. Physical survival itself was severely hampered by traumatic memories and eternal loss of dignity, resulting in many ‘survivors’ ending their lives in order to escape this trauma.



[1] D. Mesher, ‘Charlotte Delbo,’ S. Lillian Kremer, (eds.), Holocaust literature: an Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work (London, 2002) Vol I pp.258-64, p.258

[2] K. K. Goertz, ‘Body, Trauma and the Rituals of memory: Charlotte Delbo and Ruth Kluger,’ Shaping Losses: Cultural memory and the Holocaust, (eds.), J. Epstein and L.H. Lefkovitz pp.161-185, pp.164-165

[3] T. Trezise, ‘The Question of Community in Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After,’ MLN, 117: 4, (2002) (French Issue), pp. 858-886, p.860

[4] C. Delbo, Auschwitz and After, trans. Rosette C. Lamont (New Haven, 1995) p.92

[5] M.E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust (Connecticut 1986) p.43

[6] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.104

[7] M. D. Lagerway, Reading Auschwitz, (London, 1998) pp.68-69

[8] Ibid., p.85

[9] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.105

[10] J. Amery, At The Mind’s Limits, trans. By S Rosenfield and P. Rosenfield (New York 1976) p.68

[11] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.21

[12] Ibid., pp.37-38

[13] Ibid., p.72

[14] Ibid.,p.74

[15] L. F. Hamaoui, ‘Art and Testimony: The Representation of Historical Horror in Literary Works by Piotr Rawicz and Charlotte Delbo,’ Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature  3:2 (1991), pp. 243-259, p.255

[16] D. Mesher, ‘Charlotte Delbo’, pp.260-261

[17] M. Rothberg, ‘Unbearable witness: Charlotte Delbo’s traumatic timescapes’ in Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (Minneapolis, 2000), pp. 141-86, p.158

[18] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.102

[19] Heinemann, Gender and Destiny, p.49

[20] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.93

[21] E. Wiesel, From the kingdom of memory (New York, 1990) pp.14-15

[22] K. K. Goertz, ‘Body, Trauma and the Rituals of memory’, p.170

[23] N. Chare, Auschwitz and AfterImages: Abjection, Witnessing and Representation (London, 2011), p.112

[24] S.R Horowitz, ‘Holocaust Literature,’ Encyclopedia, (Accessed: 18/04/2015)

[25] Lia F. Hamaoui, Art and Testimony, p.247

[26] P. Madden, ‘Auschwitz and After, and: The Emigrants, and: Operation Shylock: A Confession, and: W, or the Memory of Childhood’, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 4:2, (2002), pp. 224-227, p.224

[27] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, pp.84-86

[28] Goertz, Body, Trauma and the Rituals of memory, p.169

[29] Hamaoui, Art and Testimony, p.243

[30] J.T. Tougar, “‘We slipped into a dream state:’ Dreaming and Trauma in Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After.” JAC 24,:3, Special Issue, Part 2: Trauma and Rhetoric (2004), pp. 583-605, p.589

[31] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.26

[32] J.T Tougar, “‘We slipped into a dream state,’ p.584

[33] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.25

[34] Ibid., pp.17-18

[35] Clendinnen, Inga, Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge 1999). P.47

[36] Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.239

[37] Inga, Reading the Holocaust, p..49

[38] C. Delbo, Days and Memory, (2001, Evanston), p.3

[39] Chare, Auschwitz and Afterimages, p.107

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