Anna Langfus’s novels all deal with the experience of war, destruction and loss after the Holocaust, weaving autobiographical material with fiction. Langfus was born in Poland to parents who later perished in concentration camps. After joining the Polish Underground, Langfus was sent to political prison until liberation in March 1945. She then moved to France and began writing powerful plays and novels that channeled her harrowing experiences. She received the prestigious Prix Goncourt for her novel Les bagages de sable in 1962.
Personal Life and Holocaust Experience
Anna Regina Langfus was born in Lublin (Poland) to Moshe Szternfinkiel and his wife Maria (née Wajnberg), who also had a son, older than Anna. Both parents perished in concentration camps.
Anna’s first husband was Jakub Rajs, with whom she spent a year in Belgium before they both returned to wartime Poland to join the Polish underground. Jakub was killed, while Anna was captured and sent to the political prison of Plock, where she remained until the country was liberated in March 1945. In 1946 she moved to France, where she taught mathematics at a Jewish orphanage near Paris until 1947. In January 1948 she married Aron Langfus (b. Prague, 1911–1995), a graduate of the Polytechnic Institute in Prague, where he had studied engineering. Their daughter, Maria, was born the same year.
After taking a course that encouraged her to write for the theater, Langfus began writing in French in the 1950s; her first play Les Lepreux (The Lepers), written in 1952, was performed in 1956, but never published.
Langfus’s novels all deal with the experience of war, destruction and loss after the Holocaust, weaving autobiographical material with fiction. Le Sel et le Soufre (Salt and Suffering, Prix Charles Veillon, 1960) retraces the war years in Poland, the destruction of the Lublin ghetto and the eradication of the protagonists’ comfortable middle-class family. The Jewish community’s early denials of impending doom, the German atrocities, as well as the participation of Jewish officials in the deportation of their own community are all narrated by Maria, an overprotected young woman, who early on flees into her own forms of denial: sleep, dreams, illness and reckless roamings in the city’s streets. However, hardened by the tragic circumstances and her personal suffering—the couple’s harrowing escape, their imprisonment and torture and her husband’s death—she is transformed into an active agent. The novel is remarkably wary of pathos and avoids manicheistic representations of a world gone insane. With a lucidity that helps keep in check her anguish and her anger, Maria witnesses and records the evils of antisemitic hatred, the cruelty of humans revealed beneath the polish of civilization, the dissolution of morality and human dignity under the effect of fear. Not even her own behavior escapes her lucid probe.
Les bagages de sable (Bags of Sand, 1962), for which Langfus received the prestigious Prix Goncourt, can be read as a sequel to the 1960 novel, as Maria, who has come to Paris from Poland, attempts to “resurface.” But whereas Maria was previously able to find in herself the power to resist and rebel, the fighting spirit and the will to live have now left her. “Physically” inhabited by the ghosts of her lost loved ones, she moves between reality and unreality in a state of numbness that breeds indifference to the outer world. An old man falls in love with her. She allows the relationship to evolve. A brief encounter with a group of young children in the south of France momentarily draws her out, while the suicide of one of its members, an unloved young girl, forces her to face her own “cowardice” in not choosing between death and life. But life decides for her: the old man falls ill, his wife runs to his bedside and asks Maria to move out. We leave Maria in a no-man’s land, poised at dawn between hope and despair.
Saute, Barbara (Jump, Barbara, 1965), the last of Langfus’s novels, is also set in France and follows a similar course. The inability of a survivor to let go of the past and turn to the business of living is told through the story of Michel, a Pole, who escapes from Germany with a child he abducted because she reminded him of his daughter. He has named the girl Barbara in her memory. In a conclusion that restates the impossibility of building a new life, Michel returns Barbara to Germany and dies after shooting a German—thus accomplishing an act of revenge that Maria failed to accomplish in the previous novel—or so an ambiguous ending suggests.
Themes in Langfus’s Writing
Langfus’s characters experience the present or “the time after the Holocaust” as a series of fragments that cannot, indeed must not, be reconnected lest the memory be lost. Yet the task of bearing witness does not lessen the survivors’ guilt at having survived, nor does it instill in them the will to live. Hence the loss of desire and the desire for loss that inhabit them, and the retreat from life that ends up shaping Langfus’s narratives. Writing seems, ultimately, not to have empowered her to escape from the reenactment of the scenario of death branded into her memory. In the end, the witness sinks under the burden of her testimony. But Les Bagages de sable and possibly Le Sel et le soufre rank among the few novels in which the harrowing experience of the Holocaust has been successfully shaped into artistic form.
Anna Langfus died suddenly in 1966, as she was working on her fourth novel.
Le sel et le soufre. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
The Whole Land Brimstone. Trans. by Peter Wiles. London: Pantheon Books, 1961.
Les bagages de Sable. Paris: Gallimard, 1962.
The Lost Shore. Trans. Peter Wiles. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Saute, Barbara. Paris: Gallimard, 1965.
Les Lépreux (The Lepers), 1956.
Amos ou les fausses expériences (Amos, or The False Experiences), 1963.
“La récompense” (The Reward), “La nuit de Félicité” (Felicity’s Night), “Le dernier témoin” (The Last Witness) (France-Culture, “Carte Blanche,” July 31, 1965).
Unpublished short stories and a speech in Les Nouveaux Cahiers (Winter 1993–1994), no. 4.
Interview with Maurice Marc. Les Lettres Françaises, August 23–29, 1962.
Interview. Nouvelle Critique, June, 1965.
Cottenet-Hage, Madeleine. “Anna Langfus et les risques de la mémoire” (Anna Langfus and the Dangers of Memory). Les Lettres Romanes. Special issue: “La Littérature des camps: la quête d’une parole juste entre silence et bavardage” (Literature of the Camps: The Search for the Right Word between Silence and Chatter) (1995): 25–39.
Fine, E. A. “Le Témoin comme romancier: Anna Langfus et le problème de la distance” (The Witness as Novelist: Anna Langfus and the Problem of Distancing). Pardès 17 (1993).
Lévy, Clara. “La guerre dans les textes littéraires d’Anna Langfus: La mise à distance de l’expérience” (War in the Literary Texts of Anna Langfus: Distancing the Experience). L’Esprit Créateur 40/2 (Summer 2000): 52–60.
Schaneman, Judith Clark. “Writing to Survive: The Novels of Anna Langfus.” Women in French (2001): 9:92–105.