Liliane Atlan is a postwar French Jewish writer whose plays, poetry and narratives display innovative forms at the limit of written and oral literature. Atlan’s consciousness of Jewish identity—like that of other French intellectuals d’origine juive (of Jewish origin)—was profoundly affected by the German Occupation and the collaborationist regime of Vichy. The crucial question that has informed her artistic production, to use her own words, consists in seeking: how to integrate within our conscience, without dying in the attempt, the shattering experience of Auschwitz. Atlan has assumed the traditional role of Jewish intellectual as preserver of memory and commemorator of catastrophe. Thematically, the author draws on personal memories of the Occupation, testimonials of Holocaust survivors, investigation of historical archives and her intensive study of Jewish literature. Atlan explicitly inscribes Jewish identity in the themes of her writing, while implicitly inscribing her Jewishness in formal elements that interweave, within texts written in French, the liturgical rhythms and syntactical patterns of secular and sacred Jewish texts, linguistic traces of Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish, and a lexicon rich in Jewish mystical imagery. Atlan, née Cohen, was born in Montpellier in the south of France on January 14, 1932. The Cohens led a comfortable, middle-class life until Liliane’s seventh year, when the family went into hiding in the Auvergne to escape French fascist and German persecution. Although Liliane’s nuclear family survived the Holocaust, her maternal grandmother and uncles were deported and died in Auschwitz. When the Occupation ended, her father became active in Jewish relief efforts and gave shelter to refugee survivors of the concentration camps. The Cohen family adopted a young survivor who had become incommunicative, and this adopted brother eventually told his story to a receptive yet vulnerable listener, his fourteen-year old adoptive sister, Liliane. From 1952 to 1953 Liliane Cohen earned a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne, working under the direction of the prominent French scholar, Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962). n 1952 she married Henri Atlan (b. 1931), a brilliant fellow student who became an internationally renowned scientist and philosopher. Shortly after the Israeli-Arab Six Day War of 1967 the Atlans went with their two children to live in Israel for three years (1969–1971). There, Liliane Atlan organized an Israeli/Arab theater group that performed in Hebrew and Arabic, attempting to use theater as a way of bridging cultures. Atlan has also resided in the United States. During the tumultuous period preceding and following May 1968 she spent two years (1968–1970) living near San Francisco while teaching French to American college students. From 1973 to 1974 she held the position of writer in residence at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Towards the end of the 1960s, in the wake of May 1968 and a new wave of French feminism, Atlan experienced an emotional and intellectual crisis during which she began to question the components of her subjective identity and the fundamental values of Western society. In both her life and her art she debated her own religious beliefs and practices, re-examined her role as mother, wife and woman, questioned the efficacy of political activism, doubted the significance of book learning, and explored the hedonistic pleasures of eroticism. This self-interrogation inspired the plays Les Messies ou le mal de terre (1969) and La petite voiture de flammes et de voix (1971), two theatrical creations that manifest a postmodernist aesthetic replete with representations of shattered truths and fragmented identities. La petite voiture premiered at the Avignon Theater Festival in 1971 and received enthusiastic reviews. During this same troubled period Atlan began writing Le rêve des animaux rongeurs, a mixed-genre autobiographical narrative that was not published until 1998. Le rêve is a poetic dream work that traces both the pain and the exhilaration of her marital dissolution and her experimentation with new cultural values and affective relationships. Le rêve des animaux rongeurs, like several others of her texts not written expressly for the theater, was eventually broadcast by France Culture, the French national public radio network. It was later performed on stage, at Biarritz in 1992 and at Annecy in 1994. Another innovative medium with which Atlan experimented was a form she called “videotexts” (Atlan, “Interview,” 26). From 1977 to 1978 she organized and videotaped theatrical improvisations that were used as a method of therapy for drug addicts being treated at the Centre Médical Marmottan. These videotexts, entitled Même les oiseaux ne peuvent pas toujours planer, were subsequently broadcast by France Culture. During the 1980s and 1990s Atlan returned to the theme of the Holocaust with the publication of Les passants (1989) and Un opéra pour Terezin (1997). Les passants, which was published in English translation as The Passersby in 1999, is the autobiographical narrative of a fourteen-year-old girl who listened to her adopted brother’s account of the concentration camps and who became anorexic during those difficult postwar years. She later dramatized the story in Je m’appelle Non, a play broadcast by France Culture in 1994 and performed on stage at the Avignon Festival in 2003. Atlan first presented scenes from her Opéra pour Terezin to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she was twice invited as a writer-in-residence. In 1989 France Culture broadcast an outdoor, all-night performance of Atlan’s Opéra from the street in Montpellier where she had lived as a child. Atlan based this mixed genre work on the ritual of the Passover Seder and accompanied the words with music. The Opéra commemorates the annihilation of the European Jewish artists who were confined to the ghetto of Terezín in Czechoslovakia (renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans), artists who played quartets virtually without instruments, performed operas while weak with hunger and regularly had to replace deported members of the chorus. The last of these artists went to their death singing Verdi’s Requiem as their own death prayer. Yet Atlan views this original and moving creation not as a commemoration but rather as “un acte, à la fois personnel et collectif, de résistance” (an act of resistance at once personal and collective). It embodies the author’s aesthetic of “la Rencontre en étoile” (the star-shaped meeting) in which theater and ritual merge so that people all over the world may simultaneously recreate the horror of the destruction of European Jews and the hope of spiritual resistance that emanates from the art that survived the camp. Liliane Atlan has been awarded several prestigious international literary prizes: the Habimah and the Mordechai Anielewicz prizes in Israel in 1972 for Monsieur Fugue, the WIZO prize for Les Passants in 1989, the Radio S.A.C.D. prize in 1999 and the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah for the ensemble of her works in 1999. Her plays have been published in German, Hebrew, English, Japanese and Italian and have been performed repeatedly in France as well as in Austria, Canada, Holland, Israel, Poland, Switzerland, the United States and most recently in Gatineau, Québec. Atlan presently resides and works in Paris. Her two children, Miri Keren and Michaël Atlan, and her six grandchildren live in Israel. Liliane died in Israel in 2012.
Marguerite Feitlowitz is an author and translator whose work has focused on the way disaster affects our relationship to language. She is the author of A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, a 1998 New York Times Notable Book and a finalist the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Her most recent book translation is Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets, by Salvador Novo (University of Texas Press, 2014). She co-guest edited the Spring 2014 issue of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, whose theme is "Beyond Violence: Toward Justice" She is a professor of Literature at Bennington College in Vermont. She lives in Washington DC.