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Thursday 9 June 2011

Jorge Semprún – A country called Buchenwald

Jorge Semprún who died on June 7 has received praise from both his countries, namely Spain and France.

He had two countries because of certain events last century. Born to a well-off family in Madrid in 1923 he was out of the country when the Spanish Civil War started, his father being Ambassador for the Republic in The Hague.

As a result he was educated mostly in France and was there when the Germans invaded. He joined the resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 at the age of twenty.

He was sent to Buchenwald, tattooed with the number 44.904 and experienced conditions that he would later say explained why he was not quite French and not quite Spanish. The camp destroyed all the certainties he had been brought up with and made him renegotiate his ideas of what living meant. What kept him going was his youth and the existence of a camp library, ‘behind a fence, between two huts.’

On being liberated by two American-Jewish soldiers he returned to France. Spain was not an option.

In 1952 however he changed his name, or at least acquired papers and passport as one Federico Sanchez and joined the Communist Party in Spain. He was expelled in 1964, returned to being Jorge Semprún and living in France. By this time he had begun a wide-ranging career as a writer mostly in French.

As well as novels, memoirs and articles he wrote 15 film scripts including those for Costa Gavros’ Z and Resnais’ Stavisky.

Jorge Semprún’s elegance had a lot to do with his integrity. This caused some delightful if doomed episodes. In 1988 the Spanish Government invited him to be Minister of Culture. He was reasonably effective – he negotiated the von Thyssen legacy – but fatally honest and unpartisan. He lasted three years before his public criticism of some corruption had him removed.

Once again he returned to France. I am not going to talk about his qualities as a writer –the films in particular have dated – but I don’t think there are any doubts as to his qualities as a person. His experiences in Buchenwald made him espouse justice for others and to that he brought intelligence, charm and clear-eyed practicality.

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