Sunday, October 25, 2009
New Voices on Primo Levi: Selected Transcripts
Sunday, October 25, 2009 Opening remarks by Prof. Andrew Viterbi I feel both honored and inadequate for the role of opening this symposium since I
Opening remarks by Prof. Andrew Viterbi
I feel both honored and inadequate for the role of opening this symposium since I am neither a literary critic nor a historian. Still I have read practically all of Primo Levi’s writings and have spent more time with my first cousin’s husband than probably anyone here. So I accepted the invitation to speak as one who had had the good fortune of enjoying his company at various times over a period of nearly four decades. I first met my cousin Lucia’s new husband at my Bar Mitzvah in Turin in 1948. I had already known of him for at least a year. And when my mother received from her sister a copy of the first printing of Se Questo e’ un Uomo in 1947, I assisted my father with an awkward English translation of its first chapter. Its intended recipient was Boston’s renowned literary rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman, author of the highly successful title “Peace of Mind” which had enjoyed a long run on the New York Times book list. I don’t recall how the good rabbi was enticed into meeting with two members of Boston’s tiny Italian Jewish community, my father and Anna Foa Jona, Primo’s first cousin. In any case this first attempt at introducing Levi to an American public came to naught with Rabbi Liebman’s assurance that the public (presumably including Jewish readers) had heard enough of the Holocaust and such a book would never find an audience. Whether or not he was correct, my young mind was affected strongly as the entire text was read to me by my father. Download the presentation
Dr. Dario Disegni. Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi, Turin
It is both a privilege and a great pleasure for me to take the floor tonight within the framework of this prestigious Symposium in order to present the main features and activities of the Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi, whose Board of Trustees I have the honour to sit at.
The Center was founded in Turin in April 2008, a little more than twenty years after Primo Levi’s death. By then his fame had spread and had established itself solidly all over the world. His works have been translated into more than thirty languages. His figure is one that is appreciated for many reasons that are tied in with important aspects of his personality and with the great variety and depth of the gifts that his writings have given us. Primo Levi gave witness to the horrors of Auschwitz with an extraordinary uprightness all his life, starting from the first book he wrote immediately after the war to the reflections he took down in The Drowned and the Saved, the point where his forty-year-long commitment arrived. Primo Levi is one of the most widely read and beloved writers in the literature of contemporary Italy. He also became an indisputable point of reference in the world of the exact sciences because of his highly original approach to the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. In addition, Primo Levi was a highly visible exponent of Italian Jewish culture, as well as an intellectual with a strongly independent way of thinking and a person who was always open to the questions of the younger generations. Download the presentation
Consul General of Israel Hon. Asaf Shariv
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to this very special and spiritual event. I wish to thank the Primo Levi Center at the Center of Jewish History for organizing this inspiring evening of music, thoughtful conversation and maybe even, dare I say, a bit of philosophy.
I feel that it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to describe even a few of the many voices that Primo Levi brought to the world. Any attempt to appreciate how his thoughts and writings have affected generations to come, must always start from the perspective of an individual, a simple man, like me.
That was Levi’s greatness. In his writings, he uses a quiet voice that emerges within each and every one of us while we read his works. This is the voice of the witnesses, although not all of us were. It is the voice that was nearly silent after the Holocaust when we wanted simply to move on. It is a voice that had weakened due to the atrocities, but that grew stronger and clearer as we realized that we were, in fact, still alive.
Primo Levi’s voice not only commanded each of us to remember, but also instructed all of us in how to remember, of the way in which we must never allow ourselves to forget.
While others preached for silence, Primo Levi, in his wisdom, insisted on speaking. While some mourned the lost cultural treasures of Yiddish, Levi began exploring it, reviving it, simply so that he would be able to understand all of the testimony that had been written.
This is why PrimoLevi stands out so much, as a unique symbol of the human experience through the Holocaust. As a survivor who was also a scientist, he embodied a most fascinating paradox: science, no matter how it tries, cannot explain the existence of good… or evil. The terms of the human condition, the soul, the spirit, simply cannot be defined in the laboratory. Levi confronts yet another paradox, a rather terrible one: In order for him to remain a man in Auschwitz, he tells us, he had to recall Dante. However, this reference only reawakened the agony of remembering his long lost home, the mountains of his childhood, and his life before the Holocaust.
This is indeed a mystery: how we – individuals and nations, ought to balance between what inspires us and what takes us back in time? How we strengthen the meaning of the past but at the same time yearn for a different future? The Holocaust left an enormous and terrible legacy, but within it there were spots of light. Primo Levi was one of those spots. I was 17 when I first read his book “If this is a Man”.
It was in Israel, my homeland, many years after the Holocaust.
I tried so hard to imagine how can the spirit survive, heal and then to blossom again.
Primo Levi’s spirit survived, perhaps healed through writing, and is now blossoming, even here, tonight, in so many hearts. On behalf of the State of Israel, I thank you for listening and for gathering in honor of a great man and his immense legacy. Thank you!
Israel’s Ambassador at the United Nations Hon. Gabriela Shalev
Primo Levi fell to his death at the age of 68. When he was 25, he fell into the hands of the Nazis and was transported to Auschwitz, where he survived miraculously. He was imprisoned for mere eleven months in the infernal camp, until the Russians arrived, but this terrible experience seems to have shaped his whole life.
On his tombstone one reads his dates, his name and his prison tattooed number: 174517. It was one of millions of numbers, tattooed on all arms of prisoners, doomed by the Nazis and designated to render them dateless, faceless, nameless and hopeless.
They say that Primo Levi used to wear short- sleeved shirts, even in winter, insisting on exposing his prison tattoo. He wanted to bear witness, as long as he lived. He did not want people to forget the tormenting question: “Se questo è un uomo” – “If this is a man” or perhaps, “Is this a man?”
Indeed, among us, we have also read his other books, most if not all, from “The Periodic Table” to short stories, essays and collected poems. No doubt, being a practicing scientist had an undeniable impact on his style: precise, factual, detailed and penetrating. However, we remember him, first and foremost, as a great and inspiring humanist. He described his most horrible and unimaginable experience at the camp, expressing neither his own anger nor his grief. He does, at the same time, pose the right and most tantalizing questions about us all human-beings.
Let me give you a small and perhaps overlooked example of Primo Levi’s Humanism: The 11th chapter of “If this is a man” is entitled “the song of Ulysses” (Il Canto di Ulisse). Levi refers to the 26th song of Dante’s Inferno. In the midst of the detailed account of the prisoners lives, work and painful survival efforts, Levi is trying to cite and translate “the song of Ulysses” to Jean, a young Alsatian inmate, nicknamed Pikolo. Levi wonders: “ …the song of Ulysses, who knows how and why it came to my mind, but we have no time to choose…”.
Soon the choice becomes clear to the reader; Levi asks young Pikolo “to pay attention, to open his ears and his mind, because he needs him to understand Ulysses words”, which he cites by heart:
“Call to mind from whence ye sprang:
Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes,
But virtue to pursue and knowledge high”
It was Ulysses who took to the high seas, in search of understanding man’s vices and virtues and dared passing the straits:
“…..Where Hercules ordan’d
The bound’ries not to be o’rstepp’ed by man.”
It is as if Levi says, defying these boundaries: How can we avoid such atrocities in the future if we do not do our utmost, seeking to understand the human behavior. The chapter in the book ends however with the same words that Dante finished his 26th song of the Inferno:
“And over us the booming billow clos’d.”
“infin che ‘l mar fu sovra noi richiuso”
Prof. Mustapha Tlili, NYU Center for Dialogues
Two centuries from now, a historian might look back from where he sits, possibly in a Middle East reconciled with itself and freed from its self-destructive demons—a peaceful, multi-religious, multi-cultural, prosperous, vibrant Middle East—and not be particularly surprised by the arduous road that led there.
The protracted and often brutal conflict over a land—Israel for the Jews, Palestine for the Arabs—held dear by two peoples who claimed it, with the same passion, as central to their very existence, would simply appear as one more historical conflict over territory.
The historian would, however, be shocked and appalled by the large number of Arab and Muslim people, among both elites and the masses, who express indifference to the tragic genocide of the Jewish people perpetrated by Nazi Germany. He would find it even more unthinkable that some, including most recently the President of Iran, went so far as to deny outright that the Holocaust happened. How could any member of the human family harbor such ugly, intolerable feelings, our historian will wonder. For those in the Arab/Muslim world who, looking at the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians over the last 60 years, are tempted to equate conflict over territory with the systematic murder of six million Jews, the recent publication in Arabic and Farsi of Primo Levi’s seminal memoir, If This Is a Man, will offer a unique opportunity. Not only will they experience a first-hand account of the unequalled monstrosity of the Nazis, but they will also be invited to meditate on the monstrous potential in every human being. There is no question mark in the title of Levy’s memoir. He is simply holding a mirror to the face of humanity in order to remind us that we all belong to a single human race– as well as to remind us of our terrible failure, at one point in history, to honor this shared belonging. Contempt and hatred lead to dehumanization and genocide. It happened in Nazi Germany and it continues to happen whenever and wherever irrational contempt and hatred take hold and overpower our sense of empathy for our fellow human beings. We become like animals, pure rage and bloodlust, but worse: animals, though they kill, do not torture their prey.
Endowed by his creator with imagination, man is capable of torture and radical evil towards his fellow man. Levi’s book warns that this capacity for “radical evil” is part of being human. As Hannah Arendt would later add in her famous book on the Eichmann trial, the “banality” of evil is precisely what is so frightening about it.
For me, the ultimate lesson in Levi’s masterpiece is to recognize the universality of suffering and let it serve as the yardstick by which we judge human relations—whether between individuals, groups, peoples, or nations.
It is my hope that one day, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims in classrooms and seminars around the world, will – regarding each other as proud members of the human family – read and meditate together on Primo Levi’s book and its lasting legacy. Let us make that 23rd century historian proud.