In Canto 16 of the Inferno, Dante’s pilgrim encounters three shades. Wounded and burned, they were once esteemed members of the Florentine nobility. The narrator pauses to engage them in conversation, and they are moved by his eloquence. “Happy are you,” they exclaim, “if you speak so readily!” They beg him to remember them to the land of the living: “If you escape these dark places and go back to see the beautiful stars, when it will be pleasant to say, ‘I was,’ see that you speak of us to people.”
The survivor who writes about the horrors he has seen carries a double burden: He must commemorate those who did not survive, but he must also write about their fate in a way that avoids arrogance or false piety. The past tense alone, though merely a convention, can turn cruel if it does not pause to acknowledge that survival is a privilege. A soul who is fortunate enough to escape the Inferno should forgo the triumphalism of “I was.”
This double burden may explain why memoirs of the Holocaust and of Nazi persecution more generally continue to play such an important role in the historiography of the era. They are harrowing to read, and the experience can be so painful that at times one feels tempted to lay them aside. But the most compelling of these books stay in one’s mind long after reading. This is not only because of the horrors they convey, but also because they make these horrors intimate, binding hell to the everyday. Yes, a distance remains: Reading about pain, after all, is not the same as the pain itself. But memoirs perform the unsettling magic of closing the gap between the “it is” of present experience and the “it was” of narration. They build a bridge of empathy between the witness and the reader—and across that bridge the traumas of the past can come alive.
It is perhaps for this reason that the historian Saul Friedländer, after publishing several scholarly studies on Nazism and the Second World War, chose to write a memoir of his early childhood years in Prague and his experiences during the war. Originally written in French, it appeared in 1978 under the title Quand vient le souvenir, later translated as When Memory Comes.
Friedländer himself was spared the trauma of the camps. In the spring of 1939, just as the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, he fled with his parents to the apparent safety of Paris. The family remained intact until the summer of 1942, when foreign Jews in France were subject to arrest in both the occupied and unoccupied zones. His parents then made a crucial choice: They entrusted their son to a Catholic boarding school in Montluçon, a town some 300 kilometers south of Paris, where he lived in safety under an assumed name, Paul-Henri-Marie Ferland, and converted to Catholicism. Later in his life, he would never again feel the kind of religious fervor that used to come over him in Montluçon’s big chapel when he smelled the incense and heard the music of the High Mass. His piety was sincere, but it was born of a child’s loneliness, and it drew him to a figure of the Virgin Mary, a “plaster statue with the sweet face,” in which he found “the presence of a mother.” Meanwhile, his parents sought escape via the Swiss border, but the police turned them back, and they were arrested by the French authorities. Only after the war did the son, now 14, learn that his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz. The story of young Saul comes to a close with the liberation of France, when he awakened simultaneously both to communism and to the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.