After reading Elisabeth Langgässer's poetry and reviewing her 1946 novel Das unauslöschliche Siegel (The Indelible Seal), I became interested in the fate of her daughter. Cordelia survived as a young girl the camps at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and was brought to Sweden after the war. In 1984 she wrote a memoir in Swedish; it later appeared in German as Gebranntes Kind sucht das Feuer, and in English translation by Joel Agee.
It is a short book - I read it in one sitting - but very powerful and disturbing. The book is dedicated to her mother Elisabeth Langgässer, and the mother-daughter relationship is at center of the story. Cordelia writes about herself in the third person: she is "the girl". "The girl had of course always known that something was wrong with her." is the opening sentence. From earliest childhood she is aware that there is something different, shameful about her, She develops a talent for detaching herself from what is happening to her. This detachment is most likely what allowed her to survive later on.
Outwardly, of course, Cordelia is just like all the other children. She embraces her mother's religion - Roman Catholicism - and is a good Christian girl. But she can sense that she is an outsider, and she is not accepted by the others. So, it was no surprise at all to the girl when, in 1943, she and her mother were summoned to the Gestapo headquarters and she was informed that as a Volljüdin (a full Jewess) she would have to leave her family (Elisabeth Langgässer was "half Jewish" an married to an Aryan, and thus was not deported).
At the camp, the girl is stripped of all possessions. Somehow a photograph of her mother remained with her.
Sometimes she asked herself vaguely who had sent her out to serve here in the realm of the dead - but basically she knew. It was really so obvious.
In her novel Das unauslöschliche Siegel Langgässer creates an artful, elaborate (over 600 pages) story of individual salvation through God's grace in a world of destruction and evil. But Cordelia dispatches that notion in just a few sentences:
In (the girl's) smile all memories are collected, the present and the past, all tenderness, all sorrow and longing. Her smile is without guile or deception, for it does not deny her bitterness and anger at a world without mercy. At a world in which we are executioners to ourselves as well as to others...
What the girl experiences at Auschwitz is hell. We know the stories from Primo Levi and others. Cordelia Edvardson writes about it with her cool, sparing prose which makes it almost bearable to read. Only once does the writing become emotionally charged as she writes about watching young mothers who - although given the chance to live at the Selektion - calmly accompany their children into the gas chambers.
Safe in Sweden, the girl hears from her mother. She wants to know the details of the death camp so she can include them in her new novel (most likely Märkische Argonautenfahrt - Langgässer's last work).
The daughter answered, describing her memories as well as she could. Later, when she read the mother's novel, she did not recognize them. It was both too much and too little. Ther was talk about fire, and no mention of ashes. How could it have been otherwise? It was written by one of the living.
Cordelia Edvardson received the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 1986 for the German version of Burned Child Seeks the Fire.