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Wall Street Journal. The Tragedy of Survival

James Wood.

Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.

Levi was heroic; he was also modest, practical, elusive, coolly passionate, experimental and sometimes limited, refined and sometimes provincial. (He married a woman, Lucia Morpurgo, from his own class and background, and died in the same Turin apartment building in which he had been born.) For most of his life, he worked as an industrial chemist; he wrote some of his first book, “If This Is a Man,” while commuting to work on the train. Though his experiences in Auschwitz compelled him to write, and became his central subject, his writing is varied and worldly and often comic in spirit, even when he is dealing with terrible hardship. In addition to his two wartime memoirs, “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” (first published in 1963, and renamed “The Reawakening” in the United States), and a final, searing inquiry into the life and afterlife of the concentration camp, “The Drowned and the Saved” (1986), he wrote realist fiction—a novel about a band of Jewish Second World War partisans, titled “If Not Now, When?” (1982)—and speculative fiction; also, poems, essays, newspaper articles, and a beautifully unclassifiable book, “The Periodic Table” (1975).

The publication of “The Complete Works of Primo Levi” (Liveright), in three volumes, represents a monumental and noble endeavor on the part of its publisher, its general editor, Ann Goldstein, and the many translators who have produced new versions of Levi’s work. Although his best-known work has already benefitted from fine English translation, it’s a gift to have nearly all his writing gathered together, along with work that has not before been published in English (notably, a cache of uncollected essays, written between 1949 and 1987).

Primo Levi was born in Turin, in 1919, into a liberal family, and into an assimilated, educated Jewish-Italian world. He would write, in “If This Is a Man,” that when he first learned the name of his fateful destination, “Auschwitz” meant nothing to him. He only vaguely knew about the existence of Yiddish, “on the basis of a few quotes or jokes that my father, who worked for a few years in Hungary, had picked up.” There were around fifty*thousand Italian Jews, and most of them were supporters of the Fascist government (at least until the race legislation of 1938, which announced a newly aggressive anti-Semitism); a cousin of Levi’s, Eucardio Momigliano, had been one of the founders of the Fascist Party, in 1919. Levi’s father was a member, though more out of convenience than commitment.

Levi gives ebullient life to this comfortable, sometimes eccentric world in “The Periodic Table”—a memoir, a history, an essay in elegy, and the best example of his various literary talents. What sets his writing apart from much Holocaust testimony is his relish for portraiture, the pleasure he takes in the palpability of other people, the human amplitude of his noticing. “The Periodic Table” abounds with funny sketches of Levi’s relatives, who are celebrated and gently mocked in the chapter named “Argon,” because, like the gas, they were generally inert: lazy, immobile characters given to witty conversation and idle speculation. Inert they may have been, but colorless they are not. Uncle Bramín falls in love with the goyish housemaid, declares that he will marry her, is thwarted by his parents, and, Oblomov-like, takes to his bed for the next twenty-two years. Nona Màlia, Levi’s paternal grandmother, a woman of forbidding remoteness in old age, lives in near estrangement from her family, married to a Christian doctor. Perhaps “out of fear of making the wrong choice,” Nona Màlia goes to shul and to the parish church on alternate days. Levi recalls that when he was a boy his father would take him every Sunday to visit his grandmother. The two would walk along Via Po, Levi’s father stopping to pet the cats, sniff the mushrooms, and look at the used books:

My father was l’Ingegnè, the Engineer, his pockets always bursting with books, known to all the salami makers because he checked with a slide rule the multiplication on the bill for the prosciutto. Not that he bought it with a light heart: rather superstitious than religious, he felt uneasy about breaking the rules of kashruth, but he liked prosciutto so much that, before the temptation of the shop windows, he yielded every time, sighing, cursing under his breath, and looking at me furtively, as if he feared my judgment or hoped for my complicity.

From an early age, Levi appears to have possessed many of the qualities of his later prose—meticulousness, curiosity, furious discretion, orderliness to the point of priggishness. In primary school, he was top of his class (his schoolmates cheered him on with “Primo Levi Primo!”). As a teen-ager at the Liceo D’Azeglio, Turin’s leading classical academy, he stood out for his cleverness, his smallness, and his Jewishness. He was bullied, and his health deteriorated. His English biographer Ian Thomson suggests that Levi developed a sense of himself as physically and sexually inadequate, and that his subsequent devotion to robust athletic pursuits, such as mountaineering and skiing, represented a self-improvement project. Thomson notes that, in later life, he recalled his mistreatment at school as “uniquely anti-Semitic,” and adds, “How far this impression was coloured by Levi’s eventual persecution is hard to tell.” But perhaps Thomson has it the wrong way round. Perhaps Levi’s extraordinary resilience in Auschwitz had something to do with a hardened determination not to be persecuted again.

On the basis of the first chapter of “The Periodic Table” alone, you know that you are in the hands of a true writer, someone equipped with an avaricious and indexical memory, who knows how to animate his details, stage his scenes, and ration his anecdotes. It is a book one wants to keep quoting from (true of all Levi’s work, except, curiously, his fiction). With verve and vitality, “The Periodic Table” moves through the phases of Levi’s life: his excited discovery of chemistry, as a teen-ager; classes at the University of Turin with the rigorous but not unamusing “Professor P.,” who scornfully defies the Fascist injunction to wear a black shirt by donning a “comical black bib, several inches wide,” which comes untucked every time he makes one of his brusque movements. Levi admires the “obsessively clear” chemistry textbooks that his teacher has written, “filled with his stern disdain for humanity in general,” and recalls that the only time he was ever admitted to the professor’s office he saw on the blackboard the sentence “I do not want a funeral, alive or dead.”

Throughout, there are wittily pragmatic, original descriptions of minerals, gases, and metals, as in this description of zinc: “Zinc, zinco, Zink: laundry tubs are made of it, it’s an element that doesn’t say much to the imagination, it’s gray and its salts are colorless, it’s not toxic, it doesn’t provide gaudy chromatic reactions—in other words, it’s a boring element.” Levi writes tenderly about friends and colleagues, some of whom we encounter in his other writing—Giulia Vineis, “full of human warmth, Catholic without being rigid, generous and disorderly”; Alberto Dalla Volta, who became Levi’s friend in Auschwitz and seemed uncannily immune to the poisons of camp life: “He was a man of strong goodwill, and had miraculously remained free, and his words and actions were free: he had not lowered his head, had not bowed his back. A gesture of his, a word, a laugh had liberating virtues, were a hole in the stiff fabric of the Lager. . . . I believe that no one, in that place, was more loved than he.”

The most moving chapter in “The Periodic Table” may be the one titled “Iron.” It recalls a friend, Sandro, who studied chemistry with Levi, and with whom he explored the joys of mountain climbing. Like many of the people Levi admired, Sandro is physically and morally strong; he is painted as a headstrong child of nature out of a Jack London story. Seemingly made of iron, and bound to it by ancestry (his forebears were blacksmiths), Sandro practices chemistry as a trade, without apparent reflection; on weekends, he goes off to the mountains, to ski or climb, sometimes spending the night in a hayloft.

Today I know it’s hopeless to try to clothe a man in words, make him live again on the written page, especially a man like Sandro. He was not a man to talk about, or build monuments to, he who laughed at monuments: he was all in his actions, and when those ended nothing of him remained, nothing except words, precisely.The word becomes the monument, even as Levi disowns the building of it.

One of the most eloquent of Levi’s rhetorical gestures is the way he moves between volume and silence, appearance and disappearance, life and death. Repeatedly, Levi tolls his bell of departure: these vivid human beings existed, and then they were gone. But, above all, they existed. Sandro, in “The Periodic Table” (“nothing of him remained”); Alberto, most beloved among the camp inmates, who died on the midwinter death march from Auschwitz (“Alberto did not return, and of him no trace remains”); Elias Lindzin, the “dwarf” (“Of his life as a free man, no one knows anything”); Mordo Nahum, “the Greek,” who helped Levi survive part of the long journey back to Italy (“We parted after a friendly conversation; and after that, since the whirlwind that had convulsed that old Europe, dragging it into a wild contra dance of separations and meetings, had come to rest, I never saw my Greek master again, or heard news of him”). And the “drowned,” those who went under—“leaving no trace in anyone’s memory.” Levi rings the bell even for himself, who in some way disappeared into his tattooed number: “At a distance of thirty years, I find it difficult to reconstruct what sort of human specimen, in November of 1944, corresponded to my name, or, rather, my number: 174517.”

In the fall of 1943, Levi and his friends formed a band of anti-Fascist partisans. It was an amateurish group, poorly equipped and ill trained, and Italian Fascist soldiers captured part of his unit in the early hours of December 13th. Levi had an obviously false identity card, which he ate (“The photograph was particularly revolting”). But the action availed him little: the interrogating officer told him that if he was a partisan he would be immediately shot; if he was a Jew he would be sent to a holding camp near Carpi. Levi held out for a while, and then chose to confess his Jewishness, “in part out of weariness, in part also out of an irrational point of pride.” He was sent to a detention camp at Fòssoli, near Modena, where conditions were tolerable: there were P.O.W.s and political prisoners of different nationalities, there was mail delivery, and there was no forced labor. But in the middle of February, 1944, the S.S. took over the running of the camp and announced that all the Jews would be leaving: they were told to prepare for two weeks of travel. A train of twelve closed freight cars left on the evening of February 22nd, packed with six hundred and fifty people. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, more than five hundred were selected for death; the others, ninety-six men and twenty-nine women, entered the Lager (Levi always preferred the German word for prison). At Auschwitz, Levi was imprisoned in a work camp that was supposed to produce a rubber called Buna, though none was actually manufactured. He spent almost a year as a prisoner, and then almost nine months returning home. “Of six hundred and fifty,” he wrote in “The Truce,” “three of us were returning.” Those are the facts, the abominable and precious facts.

There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that “Job never existed and was just a parable.” The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem “Homily.” Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God’s test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn’t understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: “But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.”

Pagis’s poem means: “Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.” In just this way, Levi’s writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi’s books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything—every detail, object, and fact—becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. “Death begins with the shoes.” Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: “The Lager is hunger.” In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is “the voice of the Lager” and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the “useless violence” of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox—the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead.

Many of these horrifying facts can be found in testimony by other witnesses. What is different about Levi’s work is bound up with his uncommon ability to tell a story. It is striking how much writing by survivors does not quite tell a story; it has often been poetic (Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, Yehiel De-Nur), or analytical, reportorial, anthropological, philosophical (Jean Améry, Germaine Tillion, Eugen Kogon, Viktor Frankl). The emphasis falls, for understandable reasons, on lament, on a liturgy of tears; or on immediate precision, on bringing concrete news, and on the attempt at comprehension. When Viktor Frankl introduces, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the subject of food in Auschwitz, he does so thus: “Because of the high degree of undernourishment which the prisoners suffered, it was natural that the desire for food was the major primitive instinct around which mental life centered.” Along with this scientific mastering of the information comes something like a wariness of narrative naïveté: such writers frequently move back and forth in time, plucking and massing details thematically, from different periods in and outside the camps. Surely, Frankl’s rhetoric calmly insists, “this material did not master me; I master it.” (This gesture can be found even in some Holocaust fiction: Jorge Semprún, who survived Buchenwald, enacts such a formal freedom from temporality in his novel “The Long Voyage”; the book is set on the train en route to the camp, but breaks forward to encompass the entire camp experience.)

Levi’s prose has a tone of similar command, and in his last book, “The Drowned and the Saved,” he became such an analyst, grouping material by theme rather than telling stories. Nor did he always tell his stories in conventional sequential fashion. But “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” are powerful because they do not disdain story. They unfold their material, bolt by bolt. We begin “If This Is a Man” with Levi’s capture in 1943, and we end it with the camp’s liberation by the Russians, in January, 1945. Then we continue the journey in “The Truce,” as Levi finds his long, Odyssean way home. Everything is new, everything is introduction, and so the reader sees with Levi’s disbelieving eyes. He introduces thirst like this: “Will they give us something to drink? No, they line us up again, lead us to a huge square.” He first mentions the now infamous refrain “The only way out is through the chimney” thus: “What does it mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.” To register his discoveries, he often breaks from the past tense into a diaristic present.

Levi frequently emphasized that his survival in Auschwitz owed much to his youth and strength; to the fact that he understood some German (many of those who didn’t, he observed, died in the first weeks); to his training as a chemist, which had refined his habits of curiosity and observation, and which permitted him, in the last months of his incarceration, to work indoors, in a warm laboratory, while the Polish winter did its own fatal selection of the less fortunate; and to other accidents of luck. Among these last were timing (he arrived relatively late in the progress of the war) and what seems to have been a great capacity for friendship. He describes himself, in “The Periodic Table,” as one of those people to whom others tell their stories. In a world of terminal individualism, in which every person had to fight to live, he did not let this scarred opportunism become his only mode of survival. He was wounded like everyone else, but with resources that seem, to most of his readers, unfathomable and mysterious he did not lose the ability to heal and to be healed. He helped others, and they helped him. Both “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” contain beautiful portraits of goodness and charity, and it is not the punishers and sadists but the life-givers—the fortifiers, the endurers, the men and women who sustained Levi in his struggle to survive—who burst out of these pages. Steinlauf, who is nearly fifty, a former sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian Army and a veteran of the Great War, tells Levi, severely, that he must wash regularly and keep his shoes polished and walk upright, because the Lager is a vast machine that exists to reduce its victims to beasts, and “we must not become beasts.”

Above all, there is Lorenzo Perrone, a mason from Levi’s Piedmont area, a non-Jew, whom Levi credited with saving his life. The two met in June, 1943 (Levi was working on a bricklaying team, and Lorenzo was one of the chief masons). For the next six months, Lorenzo smuggled extra food to his fellow-Italian and, even more dangerous, helped him send letters to his family in Italy. (As a “volunteer worker” for the Reich—i.e., a slave laborer—Lorenzo had privileges beyond the dreams of any Jewish prisoner.) And as crucial as the material support was Lorenzo’s presence, which reminded Levi, “by his natural and plain manner of being good, that a just world still existed outside ours. . . . Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

This is a classical prose, the possession of a civilized man who never expected that his humane irony would have to battle with its moral opposite. But, once the battle is joined, Levi makes that irony into a formidable weapon. Consider these words: “fortune,” “detached study,” “charitably,” “enchantment,” “discreet and sedate,” “equanimity,” “adventure,” “university.” All of them, remarkably, are used by Levi to describe aspects of his experiences in the camp. “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.” This is how, with scandalous coolness, he begins “If This Is a Man,” calmly deploying the twinned resources of “fortuna” in Italian, which combines the senses of good fortune and fate. In the same preface to his first book, Levi promises a “detached study” of what befell him. The hellish marching music of the camp is described as an “enchantment” from which one must escape. In “The Drowned and the Saved,” Levi describes a moment of crisis when he knows he is about to be selected to live or die. He briefly wavers, and almost begs help from a God he does not believe in. But “equanimity prevailed,” he writes, and he resists the temptation. Equanimity!

In the same book, he includes a letter he wrote in 1960 to his German translator, in which he announces that his time in the Lager, and writing about the Lager, “was an important adventure that has profoundly modified me.” The Italian is “una importante avventura, che mi ha modificato profondamente,” which Raymond Rosenthal’s original translation, of 1988, follows; the new “Complete Works” weakens the irony by turning it into “an ordeal that changed me deeply.” For surely the power of these impeccable words, as so often in Levi, is moral. First, they register their contamination by what befell them (the “adventure,” we think, should not be called that; it must be described as an “ordeal”); and then they dryly repel that contamination (no, we will insist on calling the experience, with full ironic power, an “adventure”).

In the same spirit of calmly rebellious irony, “If This Is a Man” ends almost casually, like a conventional nineteenth-century realist novel, with cheerful news of continuity and welfare beyond its pages: “In April, at Katowice, I met Schenck and Alcalai in good health. Arthur has happily rejoined his family and Charles has returned to his profession as a teacher; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.” That emphasis on resistance makes its sequel, “The Truce,” not merely funny but joyous: the camps are no more, the Germans have been vanquished, and gentler life, like a moral sun, is returning. There may be nothing more moving in all of Levi’s work than a moment, early in “The Truce,” when, after the months in Auschwitz, a very sick Levi is helped down from a cart by two Russian nurses. The first Russian words he hears are “Po malu, po malu!”—“Slowly, slowly!”; or, even better in the Italian, “Adagio, adagio!” This soft charity falls like balm on the text.

Saul Bellow once said that all the great modern novelists were really attempting a definition of human nature, in order to justify the continuation of life and of their craft. This is preëminently true of Primo Levi, even if we feel, at times, that it is a project thrust upon him by fortune. In some respects, Levi’s vision is pessimistic, because he reminds us “how empty is the myth of original equality among men.” In Auschwitz, the already strong prospered—because they were physically or morally tougher than others, or because they were less sensitive, and greedier and more cynical in the will to live. (Jean Améry, who was tortured by the S.S. in Belgium, averred that even before pain we are not equal.) On the other hand, Levi is no tragic theologian. He did not believe that the “pitiless process of natural selection” that ruled in the camps confirmed man’s essential brutishness. The philosopher Berel Lang, in one of the best recent inquiries into Levi’s work, argues that this moral optimism makes him a singular figure. Lang says that Levi can be turned into neither a Hobbesian (for whom the camps would represent the ultimate state of nature) nor a modern Darwinian (who must struggle to explain pure altruism, except as camouflaged biological self-interest). For Levi, Auschwitz was exceptional, anomalous, an unnatural laboratory. “We do not believe that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic, and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away,” Levi writes forthrightly. “We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving need and physical privation many habits and social instincts are reduced to silence.”

Levi sometimes said that he felt a larger shame—shame at being a human being, since human beings invented the world of the concentration camp. But if this is a theory of general shame it is not a theory of original sin. One of the happiest qualities of Levi’s writing is its freedom from religious temptation. He did not like the darkness of Kafka’s vision, and, in a remarkable sentence of dismissal, gets to the heart of a certain theological malaise in Kafka: “He fears punishment, and at the same time desires it . . . a sickness within Kafka himself.” Goodness, for Levi, was palpable and comprehensible, but evil was palpable and incomprehensible. That was the healthiness within himself.

On the morning of April 11, 1987, this healthily humane man, age sixty-seven, walked out of his fourth-floor apartment and either fell or threw himself over the bannister of the building’s staircase. The act, if suicide, appeared to undo the suture of his survival. Some people were outraged; others refused to see it as suicide. The implication, not quite spoken, was uncomfortably close to dismay that the Nazis had won after all. “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later,” Elie Wiesel said. Yet Levi was a survivor who committed suicide, not a suicide who failed to survive. He himself had seemed to argue against such morbidity, in his chapter on Jean Améry in “The Drowned and the Saved.” Améry, who killed himself at the age of sixty-five, said that in Auschwitz he thought a great deal about dying; rather tartly, Levi replied that in the camp he was too busy for such perturbation. “The business of living is the best defense against death, and not only in the camps.”

Many contemporary commentators knew little or nothing about Levi’s depression, which he struggled with for decades, and which had become desperately severe. In his last months, he felt unable to write, was in poor health, was worried about his mother’s decline. In February, he told his American translator Ruth Feldman that his depression was, in certain respects, “worse than Auschwitz, because I’m no longer young and I have scant resilience.” His family was in no doubt. “No! He’s done what he’d always said he’d do,” his wife wailed, when she heard what had happened. In this regard, one could see Levi as a survivor twice over, first of the camps and then of depression. He survived for a very long time, and then chose not to survive, the terminal act perhaps not at odds with survival but continuous with it: a decision to leave the prison on his own terms, in his own time. His friend Edith Bruck, herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, said, “There are no howls in Primo’s writing—all emotion is controlled—but Primo gave such a howl of freedom at his death.” This is moving, certainly, and perhaps true. Thus one consoles oneself, and consolation is necessary: like much suicide, Levi’s death is only a silent howl, because it voids its own echo. It is natural to be bewildered, and it is important not to moralize. For, above all, Job existed and was not a parable. 

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