Language’s Limits: Delbo and the Incommunicability of the Holocaust

In a Tortoiseshell

This essay was written for a Freshman Seminar called “At The Mind’s Limits: The Holocaust in History, Theory, and Literature.” Throughout the semester, the class read several historical accounts and testimonies describing life inside Nazi Germany’s concentration camps; Charlotte Delbo’s writing, collected in a book titled Auschwitz and After, stood out to me for its literary and poetic characteristics. While other descriptions of the Holocaust written by survivors are conveyed through a sober prose, Delbo’s writing seeks to communicate the unspeakable through non-literal language and stylistic choices that ask to be interpreted in order to be understood. 

Excerpt / Jordan Fraser Angel

On numerous occasions, Delbo writes from the perspective of those who did not survive the camps or are unable to articulate their experiences. This practice, however, raises questions about the tension between the imperative of testimony and the impossibility of communication. Indeed, Delbo writes that “it is hard to come back / and speak again to the living” (256); at the same time, Delbo has stated that “Il faut donner à voir,” which the translator phrases as “they must be made to see” (xvii). However, I propose that “donner à voir” could also mean “display”: look, but don’t touch. Further, Delbo differentiates the detached, articulate “mémoire externe” (“thinking memory,” xx) from the immediate, gripping “mémoire des sens” (“sense memory,” xx), suggesting again gradations of access. Indeed, when Delbo says that “it is not from deep memory my words issue,” she confirms a fundamental incommunicability at the heart of the experience. While this does not imply that non-survivors are barred from any access to the Holocaust, which would prevent remembering it and thinking critically about it, this does reassert the existence of a physicality so subjective that it cannot be transmitted. As the narrator writes through Mado’s perspective, “they don’t understand,” but “at the very least they must know” (261). The danger of transgression lies in the hubris of equating our impression of understanding with the survivors’ experiences, as exemplified by Marie-Louise’s husband. The wife says that “my memories have become his own” (281), but this has corrupted her memories: “I have the distinct impression he was there with me” (281). Knowing does not mean understanding: when the husband says, on a visit to the concentration camp, that “I saw more than you did when you were there,” he is committing an inexcusable error. 

If language is insufficient for the non-survivor to understand the experience of the Holocaust, it is also insufficient for the survivor to describe this experience. When Delbo admits that she “can’t explain the difference between our time here and time over there” (352), she underlines the inextricable connection between incommunicability and language. The language of non-survivors is insufficient, as Delbo experiences when she first attempts to read again and finds all books superfluous, because she possesses a “more trustworthy knowledge, manifest, irrefutable” (238). For example, as Mado states via the intermediary of the narrator, “words do not necessarily have the same meaning” (267) for survivors and non-survivors. One’s hunger is not the other’s hunger. Another fellow-survivor describes herself as “disillusionized,” but adds that the use of this term is only to “imitate the way normal people think” (260). When Delbo writes of “an effort [she] cannot name” (236), she suggests that her experience lies beyond words. And yet, “there is one word only for dread / one for anguish” (11): although words do not suffice, non-literal efforts to convey “dread” and “anguish,” or any other aspect of her experience, are equally ineffective.

Beyond the limitations of words, there is also the issue of Delbo’s own doubts regarding the transformation of her testimony into a narrative. In the midst of a narrative, Delbo says that she is “writing this story in a café,” only to correct herself, saying that “it is turning into a story” (26). Similarly, describing a different episode, she wonders whether she “reconstituted this whole scene after the fact” (36). When she describes what she envisions recounting in the future to explain what she was thinking in the moment, she contradicts this by saying that even that moment of imagination was itself constructed: “This is not so […] I thought of nothing” (64). In certain instances, language is framed as existing only outside of the Holocaust: Delbo struggles “to explain with words what was happening in that period of time when there were no words” (237). Perhaps language is as alien to Delbo’s experience as is the reader’s understanding of the language she uses. When Delbo writes “today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful” (1), she emphasizes subjectivity rather than universality. Indeed, reality may be out of reach to both the non-survivor reading and Delbo writing, their disparate subjective understandings of the “truthful” always distanced from the “true.” The difference lies in the fact that Delbo possesses a subjective experience, while the reader only a subjective impression. Although it is not impossible that reality, experience, and understanding may coincide, the only certainty is that one cannot know whether this occurs.

Delbo’s non-literal language, which can be read as an attempt to communicate what a deceptively straightforward account could not convey, suggests that as language attempts to bridge the difference between survivor and non-survivor, it depends more and more on the subjectivity of both writer and reader. The closer one gets, the further one travels. As when Delbo asks, “and now, shall we go from dream to reality? Reality, what’s that?” (346), the “true” is always being supplanted by the “truthful.” 

Author Commentary / Jordan Fraser Angel

I wondered if stretching language to its limits allows the reader to reach that zone at the “mind’s limits” which makes the very fact of the Holocaust so difficult to grasp, let alone understand. Rereading Delbo’s writing, I examined each instance of non-literal language to analyze the effects it produced on the reader. I discovered that Delbo frequently attempts to contrast or liken the world of the concentration camp with the ordinary world, in order to communicate her experience to the non-survivor. However, I realized that when Delbo evokes experiences to which only a survivor could have access, she reaches a boundary which words do not permeate. This is due to the inherent tension in the meaning of a word, bound up in experience: there is an empirical chasm between Delbo and the reader. 

After locating the origin of the tension in Delbo’s writing, between the linguistic exertion performed by her non-literal stylistic choices and the incommunicability of the experience she seeks to convey, I identified the moments in which Delbo’s text meditates on this difficulty. This is what I explore in the extract above. I conclude my argument by returning to the epigraph at the beginning of Auschwitz and After: “Today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.” Like much of Delbo’s writing, it is a statement whose opaqueness hinges on questions belonging to language itself. 

Editor Commentary / Grace Kim

A pearl of writing-related wisdom from my own mentors: We write to think. Our thoughts emerge, take shape, accrue layers, and become increasingly complex and interconnected through the process of writing—thinking—on the page. Jordan’s paper is a prime example of this linear, forward-moving thinking. Rather than circling back to the same idea over and over again with every paragraph of her evidence-analysis, Jordan uses the very unpacking of her motive to gradually reveal a newfound understanding of the motive itself. 

The first sentence of this excerpt is a nod to the first half of Jordan’s evidence-analysis, where she close-reads how Delbo “writes from the perspective of those who did not survive the camps or are unable to articulate their experiences,” as a means of thinking through the question she raises towards the beginning of her paper (motive!). Drawing from this initial motive, Jordan then raises another, more nuanced question: “This practice, however, raises questions about the tension between the imperative of testimony and the impossibility of communication.” In essence, her motive that first sparked her ideas for the paper inspires not a solidified answer that she proves over and over again but another question that she aims to better understand through the second half of her evidence-analysis. 

As she unpacks her more nuanced motive, Jordan continually engages in a close-reading of her primary source at the word-level, moving beyond mere paraphrasings of what Delbo writes to examining how Delbo writes it. She weaves together her own observations and commentary (analysis!) with words directly quoted from Delbo (evidence!), interpreting Delbo’s “mémoire externe” as having a “detached, articulate” sense; interpreting Delbo’s “mémoire des sens” as having an “immediate, gripping” sense; and drawing the connection between these two phrasings as being Delbo’s efforts to “differentiate” between the two. Notice how Jordan cues our attention to her own ideas through language that signals her interpretations of Delbo’s writings: “I propose,” “could also mean,” “suggesting.” 

Rather than merely citing more instances of how language is insufficient for the non-survivor, Jordan moves forward into her next two paragraphs by adding layers to this idea, clearly signposting her expansive direction through the first sentence of each paragraph. Her second excerpted paragraph builds upon the first by examining how language “is also insufficient for the survivor to describe this experience,” considering, too, her topic with respect to survivors, upon thoroughly considering the experience of non-survivors. In line with this trajectory, her third excerpted paragraph then builds upon the second by examining how “there is also the issue of Delbo’s own doubts regarding the transformation of her testimony into a narrative,” considering yet another complication of Delbo’s work. As readers, we are able to follow along with Jordan’s thoughtful organization of how she understands what she understands because she clearly establishes how each paragraph not only flows into the next but also contributes to her overarching motive for understanding what it means to stretch language to its limits. 
During one of our conversations about this excerpt, Jordan shared that the purpose of her paper was to present a motive, unpack it, and show a newfound understanding of that movie through her evidence-analysis. This is a stellar model of a motive-driven approach to academic writing, where the paper does not move in a circular logic that constantly works to prove the same idea from beginning to end, but rather moves forward—question after question after question.

The author

Jordan Fraser Angel

Jordan Fraser Angel ’27 is from Florence, Italy. She plans on majoring in Comparative Literature and minoring in English. She is a member of the Nassau Literary Review, the Princeton University Language Project, and the Human Values Forum. Outside of class, she reads and writes for pleasure.

Grace Kim ‘25 is a junior studying English from Ellicott City, Maryland. On campus, she supports other students throughout the writing process as a Writing Center Fellow; advises high school students on their college applications and manages the 2024 cohort of Princeton Advising Fellows as a Matriculate Head Advising Fellow; and is a member of the Princeton Christian Fellowship. In her free time, she loves to dance with Six14, watch Korean dramas, and journal at Small World.