In Paris, in the winter of 1943, Jorge Semprún, a twenty-year-old Spanish-born philosophy student and a member of the Communist Party, was arrested by the Nazi occupiers, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald. Although he survived to lead an extraordinarily eventful life, to this day Semprún describes his deportation as “the only thing that truly defines me.” Yet unlike other survivor-writers—Robert Antelme, say, or Primo Levi—it took Semprún nearly two decades to write about his experience of the camps. “I had to forget,” he has said. “Otherwise life would have been impossible.”
Following his liberation at the end of the war, Semprún returned to Paris, where he worked for UNESCO as an interpreter, a cover he used to coordinate the clandestine activities of the Spanish Communist Party. In 1957 he began traveling secretly to Franco’s Spain, working on and off for five years as an underground Communist agent under the pseudonym Federico Sánchez. It was there, after nearly twenty years of voluntary amnesia, that Semprún felt the undercurrents of memory pulling him back to the camps, prompting him, as it were, to write his first book, The Long Voyage (1963), a fictionalized account of his experiences as a deportee. The book, written in French, traces the narrator’s thoughts during his seemingly endless train ride to Buchenwald, as his mind moves back and forth through time, reaching from the years before his arrest to his life after liberation.
As he explored his own experience with totalitarian repression, Semprún became an outspoken critic of Stalin’s terror, and a year after his literary debut he was expelled from the Spanish Communist Party. For the next two decades he lived in France, writing novels, memoirs, and screenplays (for Constantin Costa-Gavras, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais, among others). Then, in 1988, eager to participate in Spain’s new democratic government, he accepted an appointment as Minister of Culture under Prime Minister Felipe González. He held office for three years before returning to Paris and writing his best-known and most important work, Literature or Life (1994). Semprún published the book as a memoir, but in it he declares that “the essential truth of the concentration camp experience is not transmissible.” His literary solution is to introduce fictional scenes and details whenever his own memory is too faint, too incoherent, or when it simply fails to evoke what he feels to be the truth of his experience.
Semprún’s decision to meld fiction with memory in recounting his concentration camp experience sparked heated debate in France, where critics accused him of calling all memory and eyewitness accounts into question. Semprún’s fiercest critic was Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary film Shoah, who argues that his own approach to recording the experience of survivors—through direct testimony—is the only legitimate method, and that art and imagination can have no part in such an endeavor. Others complained that it was impossible to distinguish between what Semprún experienced and what he invented. For instance, did Maurice Halbwachs, a well-known French sociologist, really die as the book recounts, in Semprún’s arms? Is Semprún’s literary technique self-aggrandizing? And how does it serve history?
Semprún allows that testimony is vital to historians, but he notes that testimony, too, is not always precisely reliable, and that historians, alas, are never quite as effective as novelists at conveying the essence of experience. “Horror is so repetitive,” he says, “and without literary elaboration, one simply cannot be heard or understood.” Hence he argues, “The only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.”
I met Semprún at his home in Paris, where in 2004 he wrote his third book in Spanish, Veinte años y un día. (The novel’s title, which translates to “twenty years and a day,” refers to the sentence given to political prisoners in Franco’s Spain.) Semprún lives in an elegant two-story apartment in the heart of Saint-Germain, the city’s elite literary district. His French, although perfect in syntax and pronunciation, still possesses a faintly Spanish cadence. As for the camps, he hastened to tell me that he would never be done “writing all this death.” Yet he remains, at the age of eighty-three, a dashing man, and very much alive.
Why did you begin to write at the age of forty, after devoting your life to political action?
Two reasons. The first is that fifteen years had passed since my release from Buchenwald, and I felt that I finally had sufficient distance from my experience of the camp to talk about it without slipping back into an obsession with death. I had become a different person. So it was almost as if I were telling someone else’s story.
The second reason was something concrete, and rather extraordinary. In 1960 I was sharing an apartment with a Communist militant named Manolo, who did not know that I was also a member of the underground Communist movement. He had fought in the Spanish Republican Army and had been a refugee in France before being taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and sent, like many other captured Spaniards, to Mauthausen, which was a very harsh Austrian camp. In the evenings, he told me about his experience at Mauthausen. But I did not think that he was able to convey the experience as I had understood it at Buchenwald, a similar sort of camp. Of course there was no way I could say, Hey Manolo, excuse me, that’s not how it was—because I couldn’t give up my cover. This frustration gave me the impulse to look back on the past. I began writing my first book, The Long Voyage, in that apartment. It was as though I suddenly needed to say what Manolo could not. So I talked about my camp, and this book, which I was morally incapable of writing in 1946, unspooled all by itself in a matter of days in 1961.
It wasn’t published until 1963. Why did it take two years?
I couldn’t publish it as long as I was a member of the underground Central Committee. I couldn’t risk having my photo in the newspaper while I was crossing the border illegally.
So you owe it to Manolo that you became a writer.
Yes. To him, and to countless others. I remember one time in Paris when I was eighteen, I saw a woman on the street, just a regular woman in wooden-soled shoes, and she’d turn around every time someone passed her, looking carefully at each person as though she were expecting someone. I figured she needed to ask a favor but wanted first to determine whether she could trust the person she was going to ask. And I thought to myself, I must be that person, she must trust me. And when I passed her, she asked me the most ordinary question: Where is the Montparnasse train station? We exchanged a few cryptic words, and I sensed that she was Jewish and was on her way to a house near the station where she could be hidden, that this was her last hope of escaping the raids. I walked with her to the station and left her there. So it was for her, too, that I began writing.
Many years later, in The Long Voyage, I imagined I saw that woman again, after the liberation of France. I imagined she was alive but did not recognize me, and that we continued the conversation we had started that day. In my mind, this imagined scene embraces the historical truth and allows me to deepen my reflection on the Jewish experience in France during the war. In fact, I often feel that fiction is necessary in my writing—even in my historical memoirs—within appropriate moral limits, because it enables me to explore the full dimension of an event or a moment. But I don’t believe I have ever invented anything that was not historically true.
“Historically true” seems a slippery phrase. How do you define it? One could argue that your imagined conversation with the woman is historically false, since it never happened.
Sure, my conversation with this woman, in a sense, is historically “false,” since it never happened. But the conversation is entirely plausible. I would put it this way: the conversation is at once a literary invention and a possible historical truth. Perhaps she survived, perhaps she wasn’t deported. So as far as I’m concerned, to imagine her later, and to imagine my conversation with her, is necessary in order to bear witness to what is historically true: that Jews had this experience of utter loneliness and abandonment, as opposed to members of the Resistance like myself, who functioned in networks and were constantly helped. This is why in the book I feel compelled to tell her, years later, that now and again I’ve desired to be Jewish myself, in order to have gone to the end of this experience with her.
I will always defend the legitimacy of literary fiction in expounding historical truth. In the case of deportation, both Jewish and non-Jewish, it is simply not possible to tell, or write, the truth. The truth we experienced is not credible, and this is a fact the Nazis relied upon in terms of their own legacy, for future generations. If we tell the raw, naked truth, no one will believe us. This is why I mentioned Manolo in that Madrid apartment. He was telling the raw truth, which was incomprehensible because it was bereft of verisimilitude. It needed to acquire a human shape, an actual form. This is where literature begins: narration, artifice, art—what Primo Levi calls a “filtered truth.” And I believe ardently that real memory, not historical and documentary memory but living memory, will be perpetuated only through literature. Because literature alone is capable of reinventing and regenerating truth. It is an extraordinary weapon, and you’ll see that in ten or fifteen years, the reference material on the destruction of the Jews of Europe will include a collection of literary testimonies—ours, possibly, but also those of younger generations, who have not witnessed but will be able to imagine.
What were the roots of your political activism?
I was born in Spain in 1923, so I was twelve when the Spanish Civil War broke out. When the war ended, I was fifteen and living in exile. Two years later I had started my philosophy degree, and I joined the anti-Nazi Resistance in France. These historical facts determined my entire life, of course. Had I been born a few years earlier or later, my life would have been completely different. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t make any choices. I did, but within a specific historical context, to which the Spanish Civil War was as vital as my work in the anti-Nazi Resistance.
It all began, in fact, with my father, a liberal Catholic who in 1931 chose the Republicans over the Franquistas. The Republic assigned him a post in the Spanish Embassy in the Netherlands in 1937. As an adolescent there, the first thing I did every morning before riding my bicycle to school was buy the papers to find out the latest news of the war in Spain. It was always bad. The Republic was being crushed, day after day. In 1939, when we finally lost the war, my parents and I moved to Paris. I wanted to be a philosopher, and I was preparing for the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure when I decided to join the Resistance and abandon my studies.
What was your goal as a member of the Resistance?
When I signed up to fight Nazism, I was not fully aware of who I was, and I didn’t have a clear idea of the society that would emerge afterward. We knew that the invasions of Western European countries had to stop. The question of what might happen afterward—would there be a revolution? a peaceful return to democracy?—was more or less secondary and only became urgent many years later, after the war. At that moment, when I joined, I considered the Resistance to be the natural prolongation of the Spanish war against fascism. But my dream ended abruptly in September 1943, when I was arrested by the Gestapo. I was deported to a camp in Compiègne, then sent directly to Germany, to Buchenwald.
How long were you there?
A lifetime. I was imprisoned for sixteen months. I was not allowed to speak my native tongue. Buchenwald was a peculiar camp, an acute catalyzer of moral conflicts. It was built by the Nazis in 1937 to house their political opponents, mostly Communists and Social Democrats, with a small minority of Christian Democrats. There were more than fifty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald—it was a veritable city, with its own works department, infirmary, kitchens, storerooms—and very quickly the internal administration of the camp was taken over and run by the inmates themselves, with an SS officer in charge of each production unit. It was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, which was built entirely around the gas chambers and the crematoria. Buchenwald was a work camp. We were integrated into the German war industry and fed enough to sustain us for a few months—in a state beyond exhaustion, but alive. A dead person can’t work, you see.
It was, along with the Spanish Civil War, the most powerful upheaval that I have ever gone through. The experience of the camps was absolute. Once, long after the war, a man asked me what I was—French or Spanish, a novelist or a politician? I said, spontaneously, that I was a deportee of Buchenwald. I was only twenty when I got there, you understand. It was a turning point in my life. There was no going back.