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Jorge Semprun: concentration camp survivor, writer, activist

Civil war, concentration camp, exile, communism, ministerial office, literary honours: Jorge Semprun, the Spanish-born writer and politician who died Tuesday aged 87, experienced all of them.

Semprun was born on December 10, 1923, in Madrid, the son of a leading politician and the grandson of a former prime minister.

He later recalled, at the age of nine, seeing his mother hang the Republican flag out of their apartment window, defending the democratic regime which was later to be crushed in blood by the nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco.

Living most of his life in France, where his family eventually settled after the Republicans were driven out of Madrid in 1937, Semprun adopted French as his working language.

He was to return to Spain after World War II, first as an underground communist militant and later as a government minister, after Franco’s death led to the return of democracy.

He remained loyal to left-wing causes all his life. But having experienced the worst that both Nazism and Stalinism could offer, he summed up his philosophy in his later years by saying: “The jungle of the market is better than the totalitarian zoo.”

Two years after his arrival in Paris as a 15-year-old refugee, Semprun finished second in a national philosophy competition and was well on course to a career as a prominent intellectual.

But history intervened again with the outbreak of World War II, and he became a teenage member of the Communist resistance. In 1943 he was captured, tortured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. There he spent 15 months, surviving through a combination of luck, physical fitness and solidarity with his party comrades.

In 1945 he returned to Paris and by the mid-1950s had become a member of the Spanish Communist party’s clandestine leadership.

At one point, using the nom-de-guerre Federico Sanchez, he was in command of the underground organisation in Madrid. Growing dissidence saw him increasingly sidelined, however, and he was expelled from the party as a deviationist in 1964.

By this time Semprun was already established as a writer. As with so many survivors, his life and beliefs were framed by his experience of the camps, and he returned to the theme repeatedly, beginning with “Le Grand Voyage” (The Long Voyage – 1963), dealing with his capture and deportation.

He also wrote for the cinema and contributed major screenplays for Alain Resnais, with “La Guerre est Finie” (The War is Over) and “Stavisky”, and for Costa Gavras, with the classic political dramas “Z” and “L’Aveu” (The Confession).

All but “Stavisky” starred Yves Montand, about whom Semprun later wrote an acclaimed biography.

With the restoration of democracy to Spain, Semprun became a prominent figure in Spanish as well as French cultural circles, and his stint as culture minister in Madrid, where he served as a non-party member of the government from 1988, was the logical culmination of his political career.

He stepped down in 1991, his independent opinions having seriously incommoded several of his cabinet colleagues, and returned to Paris to resume writing.

His experiences in government were the subject of his memoir “Federico Sanchez vous salue bien”, whose title echoes his earlier account of life in the Spanish Communist party, “The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez”.

His later work included “L’Ecriture ou la Vie” (Writing or Life), in which he returned yet again to the problem of finding an appropriate tone for describing the indescribable, his concentration camp experiences.

In 1995 Semprun again flirted with controversy, involuntarily, when purists in the Academie Francaise — or perhaps Academicians with reservations about his communist past — objected to his candidacy to that most prestigious of French institutions.

He backed down and was soon after elected unanimously to the less lofty Academie Goncourt.

“I thought it would be amusing to be the ‘Spaniard’ in the Academie Francaise, the way I’d been the ‘Frenchman’ in the Spanish government,” he said wryly.