On the Hard Questions Primo Levi’s Still Asking
One hundred years ago Primo Levi was born in Turin, the first-born son of a middle-class Jewish-Italian family. They were turbulent years but Italian Jews were well-integrated and patriotic, and Primo led a sheltered early life, developing a love of mountaineering, geology, chemistry, literature and language in the fertile milieu of Turin’s secular, self-confident bourgeoisie. He was 19 in 1938, when Italy issued racial laws to discriminate against its Jews: a precocious chemistry student, Levi would be allowed to complete his degree while his younger siblings were expelled from state schools. In 1943, after Italy’s armistice provoked a brutal German occupation, Levi joined the Resistance and it was while fighting in his cherished Alps that Levi was arrested by Italian militias.
On February 22, 1944, Levi was deported to Auschwitz, where he would survive until the Soviet liberation of the camp on January 27, 1945. A warm and humble man, he resented any suggestion that his experience was somehow paradigmatic, or that he held some greater clarity than other survivors. Yet Levi’s post-war writings remain fundamental reading, especially his 1947 Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man. Through his own story, that work still now conveys with an empathetic yet clinical eye the historical, social and economic prerogatives that define the Holocaust as a modern genocide.
Today, populism is resurgent and fascism once again seeks bourgeois legitimacy. Across the world, the language and tropes of antisemitism find new ways to insert themselves into public discourse. Racists seek to shore up their intolerance with a perfunctory condemnation of the Holocaust as absolute evil, even as they stoke up xenophobia, separate families at the border, turn a blind eye to murder and let migrants drown. The ongoing relevance of Levi’s work is not its ecumenical lesson against intolerance—in the vein of Anne Frank’s diary for instance—but rather its ability to draw out the contradictory essence of dehumanization and resilience while remaining specific, precise and historically grounded. It tells us that “remembering” is ephemeral and insufficient, because the Holocaust happened once but the struggle carries on.
A book that was initially dismissed and rediscovered by the wider public only in 1958, has long become a canonical text. On the occasion of his centenary, here are ten reasons to re-read and re-consider the sensitivity, rage and understated greatness of If This is a Man.
Or may your house fall apart, may illness impair you, may your offspring avert their faces from you. The last three lines of “Shema,” Levi’s 1946 poem that serves as an epigraph to his memoir, are a biblical curse. While the poem is often celebrated for its commitment to “consider” and “meditate on” the deep traumas of totalitarianism, the final curse gives it the aggressive and desperate urgency that define it.
“Shema” is a subversion of the fundamental tenet of Jewish theology: “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad”—Hear O Israel, God is your Lord, God is one. Levi substitutes the commandment to remember the faith in a monotheistic God with the commandment to reflect on the dehumanizing essence of the Holocaust, at all times. It is a threat of multiple historicities: in 1946 it conveyed the urgency of the necessity to speak—and the fear of not being heard—that haunted many survivors; with the line “may your offspring avert their faces from you,” it foresaw the generational backlash of the 1970s, when the next generation of Europeans did indeed take to task the hypocrisies and collective silences that had enabled the continent’s economic and political rebirth; and today, when truth is contested and memory routinely politicized, it continues to hold a fundamental relevance in reminding us that historical memory is not only the matter of memorial days, plaques and platitudes, but a constant effort.
What is the unknown price of the compromises we make daily? The sign of the ongoing relevance of Levi’s curse is that when Francesco Rosi adapted Levi’s The Truce for the screen in 1997, he omitted these lines from the final scene, seeking to retain the poignancy of the poem without its final turn. From the pages of his work Levi still challenges us not to be soothed by memory and not to seek catharsis in the empty rhetoric of “never again”: never again what?
It was my good fortune to have been deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, after the German government had resolved to lengthen the life expectancy of condemned inmates to address the increasing shortage of labor, allowing significant improvements in living conditions and suspending temporarily the arbitrary killing of individuals.
The first words of Levi’s brief preface, which he added to the later editions of his memoir. It is astonishing, and no doubt jarring to many, that the first words of any Holocaust memoir should refer to luck. Yet survivors’ unwillingness to see their survival as a “credit,” which might somehow disparage the victims, makes luck a more common referent than we might think. In Levi’s case certainly, that single sentence performs multiple invaluable historical and narrative tasks.
First, it immediately identifies the exceptionalism of survival in the context of genocide. Second, it places Levi’s story into a time and place—Auschwitz after the war had turned but before the mass deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews. Third, it introduces Levi as a witness, interested in factual accuracy over rhetoric. Fourth, it foreshadows a key theme of the book—the difficulty to comprehend the Holocaust with the language and taxonomy of “normal” life. This will later crystallize in two of the most famous moments of the book. First, in the German guard’s response “hier ist kein warum” (“here there is no why”), and then in the French prisoner’s reminder (carved for good measure at the bottom of his bowl) “ne pas chercher à comprendre” (“don’t try to understand”).
Today, populism is resurgent and fascism once again seeks bourgeois legitimacy.
But most of all, Levi’s “luck” introduces a wholesale rejection of meaning, and especially of any overarching philosophical, political or religious frameworks to explain Auschwitz. As a scientist, Levi is not afraid of explanation, even actively seeking it in human psychology and social mores, but like many who followed his footsteps he is afraid that to explain the Holocaust will be to explain it away—he shies away from offering peace where he can see only a truce, or closure where he has found none.
Much was then said and done amongst us; but of those things it is fitting that no memory should endure.
Thus Levi draws a veil over the dawn that follows the last night at the Fossoli transit camp, before deportation to Auschwitz. Although in the camp every day would feel as a death sentence, the last night at Fossoli carries a different kind of foreboding, more violent for the sudden realization of what will happen. Levi leaves us an indelible record of the tension between the instinctive reaction to wail and recall and despair and pre-emptively mourn, and the equally instinctive reaction to attend to daily needs, which don’t cease to exert their urgency: “Would you not feed your children today if you knew that tomorrow they will die?” he asks.
But when faced with the extreme intimacy of the last night of the condemned (“such a night that one knew that human eyes should not witness it and survive”), Levi delineates a limit that remains a contested border. It is a limit of representation shared by many cultures, that demands pity, respect, timor dei, that causes to avert one’s eyes before death. But it is also a subtler limit to the commitment to remember, encapsulated in the Talmudic oxymoron that there are moments that should neither be remembered nor forgotten: the voices of the dead are their own and to share them is to mediate them, to appropriate them even. Levi was throughout his life extremely sensitive to any suggestion that he may have survived in order to “speak” for those who did not. How then does one recapture the perspectives of the victims in the history of a genocide?
Thus died Emilia, who was three years old … During the journey in the cattle car her father and mother had managed to give her a bath in a zinc bowl, with lukewarm water that the degenerate German machinist had allowed to draw from the engine dragging us to our death.
First of many references to dignity as Resistance. Levi’s reflection of dehumanization is also inherently a reflection on humanity and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of totalitarian terrorism. In keeping with the ethical markers set out earlier, and also consistently with most survivors, Levi conveys only generally the horror of the three-day journey to Auschwitz in a cattle car.
It’s an instinctive mark of respect for those who perished during the journey, those—almost all—who were to be gassed upon arrival, and those who had to endure the sensory assault of the deportation train, the details of which are now well-documented but not to be relayed in haste. The deportation trains and its corollaries (the Greek cargo ships, Polish trucks, death marches …) worked as liminal spaces between the outside world and the “concentrationary universe,” but they also worked as extensions of the sites of genocide, be they the fields, forests and ravines of Eastern Europe, or the gas chambers. This adds to the gut-wrenching image Levi chooses to single out, of parents preserving the semblance of normality for their child. It is a decision that foregrounds humanity but also the ambiguities of deception, which should defy simplistic explanation. The job of life occupied the condemned: “If they were to kill you tomorrow along with your child, would you not feed them today?” The power of Levi’s compassion remains that it tests the reader by being consistently as authentic as it is uncompromising.
We are slaves, devoid of every right, exposed to every form of insult, doomed to almost certain death, but we retain one power and we must defend it because it our last: the faculty to refuse our consent.
Levi regrets not remembering verbatim the lesson in Jewish morality and Hapsburg discipline of former Sgt. Steinlauf, the prisoner who chastises Levi early in the memoir for not washing properly with cold, dirty water in the camp’s abysmal latrine complex. This is one of a series of encounters that help Levi trace the death camp as a battlefield of humanity, between human resilience and dehumanization.
Against all odds, Levi learns early in his camp experience that holding on to one’s humanity requires a super-human effort to maintain dignity, integrity and to not succumb or attempt to rationalize the aberrant ethical codes of the camp. Such is Levi’s revulsion for the inhumanity he witnesses that he instinctively rejects what seems to him a naive and inadequate statement of resistance. It is telling of Levi’s self-effacement that he considered obsolete in himself the kind of ordinary resistance he celebrated in little Emilia Levi’s parents. His desire to err on the side of self-deprecation is how one should explain this contradiction, because ultimately Levi’s memoir proves that he applied Steinlauf’s simple moral code, and he certainly looked to it with more warmth and kinship than to any other framework of meaning and conduct he encountered at Auschwitz.
The wooden hut, crammed with suffering humanity, is filled with words, memories, and another kind of pain. The Germans call this pain “heimweh”: it is a beautiful word; it means “home-sickness.”
A reference to Dante’s Inferno, where damned former lovers Paolo and Francesca regret that “there is no greater pain than to remember the happy time in wretchedness.” With this devastating analysis, Levi encapsulates a quintessential historical truth of the Holocaust: the barracks bring no respite from the dehumanizing existence of the camp, or rather bring a brief physical respite designed further to alienate.
The break from work and beatings allows nostalgia and the realization that “there is no possible return,” even in the unlikely event of survival—”our spirit extinguished well before our anonymous death,” writes Levi. This is part of a recurring theme in the book, which reveals the pain of identity and even of dreams. Levi recalls the Italian Jews briefly trying to establish regular meetings before their deteriorating bodies and dwindling numbers caused them to stop the pretense of any bond other than the shared doom of the häftling (prisoner).
Racists seek to shore up their intolerance with a perfunctory condemnation of the Holocaust as absolute evil, even as they stoke up xenophobia.
This is not to say that solidarity was impossible at Auschwitz: its history brims with inspiring examples, including in Levi’s own relationship with a handful of comrades, and especially Alberto. But from his doubly alien perspective as a Western, secular Jew, Levi sees solidarity with wonder, as an exceptional and discrete event, not the stuff of civilized organization and social belonging.
If I were God I would spit Kuhn’s prayer into the dirt.
With a few shattering words spat out of the page Levi concludes his description of the mass selection for execution of October 1944: one of the spared, a Hungarian Jew named Kuhn, recites the Birkat Hagomel, the prayer of thanks for a danger averted, while condemned inmates await their turn to the gas chambers. Levi’s normally detached, unjudgemental prose comes into its own on the rare occasions when Levi departs from it: pages and pages of restrained emotion suddenly bestow extraordinary power to Levi’s condemnation of piety, of the very notion of God in a place like Auschwitz. We can take it further: this is a violent rebellion against the concept of survival as an all-consuming, individualistic, hollow, ephemeral endeavor for the inmates, which prefigures what would later be known as survivor guilt.
With neither hatred nor scorn, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, and he would be quite surprised if someone were to tell him that by that action today I judge him.
One of Levi’s most famous contribution to Holocaust studies is the concept of “gray zone,” which he first posited in the chapter of If This is a Man entitled “The Drowned and the Saved,” and then developed in the eponymous 1987 book. The term defines the complex and multifaceted buffer zone between good and evil in a totalitarian context designed to annihilate, but also to corrupt.
In this instance, Levi sits a surreal exam with Dr. Pannwitz, a German engineer, for a coveted job in the Auschwitz chemical lab (“he addresses me as Sie: Dr. Pannwitz has no sense of humor,” and later, in the lab, “he calls us monsieur, which is ridiculous and bewildering”). The author is escorted to and from the interview by Alex, his group’s Kapo, who touches some grease and wipes his hand on Levi’s shirt. That gesture of unthinking disrespect is etched in Levi’s memory with the clarity of a moment that has a node of its own in the brain’s mental map. Alex is an inmate too, yet his act reveals a man who has bought into the racial and social hierarchy of the camp, and the specific sub-humanity of Jewish prisoners. It is far from the most hateful or violent action by a fellow inmate Levi would have witnessed, yet it holds questions of universal relevance about the habituation to cruelty and indifference produced by a society that normalizes injustice.
“Until the sea had closed over us.”
The chapter of the Canto of Ulysses brings to the fore Levi’s constant intertextual reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and in particular to its first part, the Inferno. It recounts Levi’s brief respite from scrubbing underground diesel tanks with his crew to fetching the daily soup ration with Jean, a young French prisoner. As Levi struggles to recall and translate Dante’s infernal encounter with Ulysses—condemned as a fraudulent advisor for his role in leading his sailors astray—he realizes that Auschwitz has changed its meaning forever.
Ulysses’ curiosity, restlessness and arrogance emerge as quintessential human traits that contain the seeds of resistance to alienation. Where Ulysses and Dante had bonded as fellow travelers trying to go beyond human limitations, Levi and Jean form a fleeting connection in the effort to remember and understand. Ulysses’ words to his reluctant sailors are Dante’s words to his readers, and finally Levi’s own words to himself and to Jean: “consider your sowing / you were not made to live like brutes / but to follow virtue and knowledge.” While the moment cannot last, and the “hollow seas” once again overwhelm the castaways, Levi’s fragments of Dante manage to illuminate the gradual subversion of the ancient Greeks’ concept of hubris.
The hubris of Odysseus destroying Poseidon’s statue in Troy, or of the suitors partying at Penelope’s court, becomes in the late Middle-Ages the Christian, unforgivable hubris of Ulysses chasing the ends of the Earth. Then it morphs further, into the systematic, industrial hubris of modernity, only climaxing in the German illusion of invincibility. Something that had once signaled insufficient deference to divine designs or the desire to eschew human limitations became a lust to replace divinity itself. In the face of Nazi hubris, Ulysses’ thirst for knowledge seems not only innocent, but the antidote to totalitarianism’s destruction of independent, critical thinking.
Charles took off his cap. I was sorry not to have a cap.
With elegant circularity, the closing words of the book are as understated as its incipit. After the German guards hurriedly abandoned the camp, Levi survived ten days in a room of the Auschwitz hospital block, alongside sufferers of dysentery and typhus, and desperate survivors scavenging for food in a freezing camp that had suddenly no guards, but also no infrastructure to distribute rations, generate heat or bury the dead.
Levi notices the trappings of humanity re-emerging: sharing food, storytelling, rejoicing in work… solidarity: the distant memory of a familiar social structure taking form. Unlike the image popular culture privileges, of gates thrown down and triumphant masses, there are no heroics, no liberation in the liberation of Auschwitz. This was indeed the case, to the point that Soviet camera operators had to stage the liberation three days later, on January 30. That was Stalin’s kind of realism after all: reality as it ought to be. Levi’s liberation is reality as it was: a new chapter marked by a chance encounter with cautious Soviet soldiers finding Levi and his friend Charles burying a body in the frozen Polish ground, and Levi’s regret not to be able to tip his cap at the liberators. It is an ending that captures the unadorned brilliance of this book by refusing catharsis, for both the author and the reader.
Consider that this has been then, or may our children avert their faces from us.
William Kentridge, Smoke, Ashes, Fable. More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015