PARIS — Deported to Birkenau at 15, she last saw her father in the camps when he slipped her an unimaginable onion and a tomato, before he was murdered at Auschwitz.
Now 87, with failing eyesight and a renewed dread about Jewish life in Europe, Marceline Loridan-Ivens believes that the lessons of World War II are not being forgotten, because “these lessons were never learned.”
In today’s France, after the Islamic State attacked ordinary Parisians in November and killed 130, she said in a recent interview, there is only a slow understanding that French society itself is at risk.
“We kept saying, ‘It starts with the Jews and it will end with you,’ because the problem is serious and deep,” she said. “But no one wanted to hear the truth in the name of political compromises” after last January’s attacks by radical Islamists at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.
“That situation led to the attacks of Nov. 13, and it’s only the start of it,” she said. “Now they target everyone, not only the Jews.”
Ms. Loridan-Ivens, who has now written a memoir of her childhood experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau and her effort afterward to find a reason to live, has been provocative before. She shocked France after the Charlie Hebdo killings when she went on France Inter radio, in what was supposed to be a discussion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and accused France of indifference to a new anti-Semitism.
The French president, François Hollande, had called a huge rally in support of the values of the French Republic after the January killings. But, Ms. Loridan-Ivens asked, “do you believe the French would have gone into the streets if only Jews had been killed?” The interviewer was reduced to silence.
In an interview in December in her Left Bank apartment, where she lives alone after the death of her second husband in 1989, she noted that previous killings of French Jews, for instance by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, brought little reaction from the French public.
The memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back,” will be published in English this month by Atlantic Monthly Press. It takes the form of a letter to her murdered father, Szlhama (Schloïme) Froim Rozenberg, a Polish Jew who came to France in 1919 in search of freedom.
They were arrested together in 1943. She remembers him telling her, when they were at the Drancy internment camp in April 1944, awaiting transport to hell, “You will come back, perhaps, because you’re young, but I will not come back.”
She writes to her dead father, who thought he could assimilate by buying a chateau in the countryside: “You had chosen France, she isn’t the melting pot you’d hoped for. Everything is getting tense again. We’re called ‘French Jews’; there are also French Muslims, and here we are face-to-face — I who had hoped never to take sides, or at least, to simply be on the side of freedom.”
She feels French, she said in her memento-filled apartment, but has “a very complicated relationship” with France. “It’s the country that returned my father to his birthplace, Poland,” to die. “I can’t say that I’m disappointed with France — I lost any illusions a very long time ago.”
Ms. Loridan-Ivens said she appreciated that France protected her but wished she had no need of such protection.
For her parents, she said, France meant liberty, equality, fraternity. “They escaped Eastern Europe because they wanted freedom, to be able to go to school and university,” she said. “In France there was no pogrom. Life was tough, as they arrived penniless, but they worked hard, they wanted their children to go to school and become French.”
But then came the occupation, and the betrayal. After the war, the family received a death notice from the government saying that her father had “died for France.” But he died “because he was Jewish,” Ms. Loridan-Ivens said. As she wrote to her father: “You did not really die for France. France sent you to your death. You were wrong about her.”
After the war, Charles de Gaulle “said that the arrests of Jews had been done by the Germans, but it was a lie,” she said. “The French gave lists of Jews to the Germans and participated in the arrests. I was arrested by both.”
Also in the aftermath, she said she tried to kill herself twice; her sister and brother later committed suicide. After multiple examinations in the camps by Josef Mengele and others, when she had to strip naked, she never again felt comfortable with her body, she said.
“It’s as if it still bears the mark of the first man who ever looked at me, a Nazi,” she said. For a long time, “I associated getting undressed with death, with hatred, with the icy stare of Mengele,” who decided who would live and die.
Ms. Loridan-Ivens married soon after the war, to Francis Loridan, a civil engineer who traveled for his work; the marriage quickly deteriorated, as did her adherence to the French Communist Party, which she joined for about six months. But she felt the need to testify, somehow, and she was a key figure in a film made in 1960, “Chronicle of a Summer,” where she talked about the camps.
In 1962 she was a director of a controversial film, “Algeria, Year Zero,” and that year met an older and politically engaged Dutch filmmaker, Joris Ivens, and fell in love. Together, they made films about Communist China and North Vietnam, a devotion she now regards, said with a laugh, as “false, naïve and simplistic.”
In 1993, four years after Mr. Ivens died, she began work on a feature film, the first ever shot at Birkenau. It was released in 2003 under the title “La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux” (“The Birch-Tree Meadow”), named after Birkenau, German for “birch tree meadow,” itself translated from the Polish Brezinka.
She asked the movie’s star, Anouk Aimée, to stretch out on a prison bed and speak the words the young Marceline told her father: “I loved you so much that I was happy to have been deported with you.”
Today, Ms. Loridan-Ivens is one of some 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau.
“There are many more good people in this world than we might imagine, yet they are fewer than there ought to be,” she said. “And sometimes, a small hero can arise and give us hope, although there are so many wicked and careless people, so many killers.
“When I look at the world, I feel very pessimistic,” she said. “Yet maybe a little hero will wake up one day and save us all, but I’m not too sure about that.”