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Jorge Semprun dies at 87; writer chronicled his experiences in Buchenwald

Jorge Semprun, a prolific author who specialized in the autobiographical novel, was widely considered one of the foremost chroniclers of the Holocaust.

Associated Press

June 9, 2011

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Jorge Semprun, a writer and politician who chronicled his experiences in the Nazis' Buchenwald death camp, struggled against dictatorship in his native Spain and later became that country's culture minister, has died. He was 87.

Semprun died Tuesday in Paris, where he had pent most of his life, the French capital's mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, said in a statement.

A prolific author who specialized in the autobiographical novel, Semprun was widely considered one of the foremost chroniclers of the Holocaust. Equal parts memoir and essay, his "Literature or Life" (1994) elegantly describes his experience in Buchenwald, even as it ponders larger philosophical questions.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the book, which was written in French, as "a testimony that's as mind-blowing as it is lucid" and called Semprun "one of the last great protagonists of an epic."

Semprun, who also wrote screenplays, was nominated for Academy Awards in 1968 for director Alain Resnais' "La Guerre Est Finie" ("The War Is Over") and in 1970 for "Z," a political thriller co-written with director Costa-Gavras.

Semprun was born in Madrid in 1923, but the family fled the country during the country's bloody civil war, settling in France. He was educated in Paris and wrote the bulk of his more than a dozen books in French.

A politically engaged young man and member of the Spanish Communist Party and the Resistance, Semprun was detained by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald. He spent more than a year in the camp — an experience that would inform much of his literary career, starting with his first book, "The Long Voyage" (1963).

Other Semprun works include "The Second Death of Ramon Mercader," a 1969 novel which won France's prestigious Femina literary prize, and "Twenty Years and a Day," from 2004.

Upon his release from Buchenwald in 1945, Semprun worked as a translator at UNESCO and took part in the Spanish Communist Party's long struggle against the nation's longtime dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. Semprun was ousted from the Communist Party in 1962 over ideological differences.

He was named Spain's culture minister under Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, from 1988 to '91.

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