I would like to share with you a lit bit about one of my favourite writers who is almost unknown these days to the anglophone audience. I hope that some of my French followers might have read some of the books by this remarkable author of a profound sensitivity.
Her name was Anna Langfus (1920 – 1966) who was a Polish – French writer of Jewish heritage. She was a Holocaust survivor; she escaped the Lublin Ghetto and then the Warsaw Ghetto. Her first husband, Jakub Rajs, her parents, and closed member of her family perished during WWII. After WWII ended, she moved back to her hometown, Lublin in Poland but she found herself devastatingly alone there as none of her family members survived. Anna moved to France as a refugee in 1946 where she worked as a math teacher at the Jewish orphanage. In her attempt to rebuild her life, she married her second husband, Aron Langfus in 1948 and settled down in Sarcelles, one of the suburbs of Paris.
Anna started writing in the 1950s and she used French language which was her second acquired language as a form of expression which is remarkable. She died in 1966 at the age of only forty six due to her heart condition.
Today, in Sarcelles, where Anna lived, there is a public library named after her name.
During her short life she published three novels in French and some short plays. All of her work deals with the time after the Holocaust and focuses on the ones who survived and tried to learn to live again in the aftermath.
Anna Langfus was one of the first writers who mentioned these issues in literature similarly to Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.
Anna won the Swiss 1961 Prix de Charles Veillon for the best novel written in French, Le Sel et le Soufre followed by the 1962 Prix Goncourt, the highest French literary award for Les Bagages de Sable translated into English as The Lost Shore. At that time, she was the fourth woman to win this prestigious Goncourt award for the book written in French (taking into consideration that the Prix Goncourt has been awarded since 1903).
The Lost Shore [Les Bagages de Sable] has at its centre a Polish-Jewish refugee woman called Maria, a concentration camp survivor who tries to build her life again in France after her entire family had been exterminated during the Holocaust (similarly to Anna’s own experience). Langfus explores the subject of the suffering of a singular woman, a survivor who tries to learn to live but she is unable to. The Lost Shore depicts internal struggles to overcome memories of loss, cruelty, death and at the same time the impossibility to portray the past in order to live again. Maria must deal with a lot of indifference from people including her own extended family who wants her not to mention her experiences during the Shoah.
At some point, Maria meets a much older man who initially seems to care for her well-being. He invites her to the south of France where she tries to find some moments of joy, but it comes to her as a struggle. Maria drifts in and out between the past and the present, the reality and unreality. She meets a group of young people; among them there is a young girl who commits suicide because she felt ‘unloved’. This event forces Maria to reflect on her own decision to live despite the loss of her family.
Maria exists in the world inhabited by the ghosts of the past and finds impossible to relate with others or rather others are unable to relate to her pain. She also questions the true meaning of her relationship with the older man and if it is only her youth that was attractive to this man and not her as an individual. Maria asks herself if she were an older woman, would she receive the same level of attention?
In the end, an old man becomes ill, and his estranged wife comes back. Maria is asked to leave, and she is yet again alone in this world in a state of continuous numbness and no hope. This book is often considered as an authentic portrayal of the reality experienced by many survivors.
The portrayal of suffering in this book is like nothing I have ever read. There is no mention of the Holocaust within the text but through the descriptions of Maria’s emotions we are aware that something unspeakable happened that altered her life.
Langfus’ writing is lucid and delicate, multi-dimensional with layers of unsurpassed depth and profound emotional maturity.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you have an opportunity to read this book in French or in English, please do. It is a truly unique piece of writing.