The duty of memory — 'through Hell with dignity'

Pierre Ferrand


t is fitting that a compatriot of Dante has written what is perhaps the most effective account of the hell of Auschwitz. He was Primo Levi (1919-1987), one of the finest Italian writers of the last century, whose best known identity is that of a prime witness of the Holocaust, a word he disliked.

Levi, who believed in using words precisely and accurately, felt offended by the fact that "holocaust" means literally a "burnt offering" to the gods. As a nonbeliever, he could not accept gods who required human sacrifices. Nor could he agree with the thesis of some religious people that genocide was God's punishment for sin, though they can quote the authority of a number of prophets for this concept. Indeed, he had serious reservations about prophets.

Levi needed to write his account of his year in Auschwitz to come to terms with his own traumatic experience, and because he felt that it was his duty to bear witness. He did this in 1946, in a fever heat, as soon as he had managed to return to his native Turin after a long and involuntary odyssey through Russia and Eastern Europe, which he describes with dry humor in his second book, La Tregua (The Armistice), written 14 years later.

Levi tells his story quietly, in a tightly controlled manner. He shows no self-pity and does not raise his voice. He does not clamor for revenge. There is a "duty of memory" because the extermination camps were an ominous sign of danger for mankind.

The book, published in 1947 in a small edition with the title, Se questo un uomo, (If This Is a Man), consists of 17 brief sketches, which provide a sober picture, etched in granite, of the concentration camp process of dehumanization he had observed and experienced. It is an account of facts whose impact is cumulative.

Levi stresses that survival in Auschwitz was largely a matter of chance. He did not die there because he was lucky. He was transported to it in February 1944, when the Nazis felt an acute need for slave labor and were ready to defer the gassing of Jews who were able to work, while continuing to exterminate children and old people, as well as the sick and the weak. Some Nazis helped to keep him alive because he was deemed useful as a research chemist. Still, in his case as in many others, despite and because of the Nazi attempts at ruthless exploitation, they did not succeed in getting anything of value out of him for their war effort.

Primo Levi never makes any claim of having been a hero, but it is obvious that he came through hell with his essential humanity and dignity intact. The evidence of his work, and indeed his whole life, indicates that he was a man of transparent honesty and decency, the kindest of men, and exceedingly conscientious in his human relationships. He certainly was most conscientious in carrying out "the duty of memory": of eye-witness to genocide. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, which he quotes repeatedly, he had an obsession to bear witness. His testimony, never melodramatic, is direct and details the ugly facts, and does not mince words. Though shy and reserved by nature, he eventually taught himself to be an effective speaker about his experiences to the most varied audiences, including hundreds of talks to school children.

For a dozen years after its first publication, the little volume of less than 150 pages drew limited attention. While reviews were quite favorable, the book did not sell. Its subject matter was not fashionable. Levi felt discouraged. He concentrated on his profession as a research chemist in a paint and varnish factory and became its manager, developing a number of new products. However, in 1958, the book was published again and has remained outstandingly successful ever since. Levi became world-famous after its translation into English and in many other languages shortly afterwards.

The American edition of this translation (otherwise excellent) is saddled with the somewhat misleading title, Survival in Auschwitz, which is not true to Levi's spirit. It was not intended as a Hollywood-like tale with a happy ending, but as a warning. I have given copies of it to my grandchildren and other young people, who wished to have an idea of what the German concentration camps were really about.

Just as impressive was his last published book, a searing series of essays, The Drowned and the Saved, in which he tries, among other things, to come to terms with what he calls "the gray zone," the ambiguity of human good and evil. Still, he makes quite clear where he stands, makes moral judgements, and simply states the brutal grimness of concentration camp reality in an unforgettable way. A superbly trained observer, this fine scientist analyzes the facts logically and in depth. His presentation and discussion of the process of dehumanization in the camps and on the way to them is perhaps the most authoritative and cogent ever written.

These two books are not for the squeamish nor for those who refuse to face fundamental moral issues. He states that "to divide people into black and white means not to know human nature." He admits that monsters exist, though they are comparatively rare. What is even more dangerous are the "ordinary people" who simply follow orders to do evil, or avert their eyes from it and do nothing. In one of his interviews, he confirmed that his thinking about this was close to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil."

While not vindictive, he said that to love one's enemies and forgive them was not part of his vocabulary. An enemy, by definition, is someone you cannot love as long as he remains an enemy. Levi believed in justice. "If I had Eichmann before me, I would condemn him to death." On the other hand, he rejected hate, "which is often confused with a desire for justice," but is a very different thing and an emotion that involves loss of emotional control. He opposed the idea of "collective responsibility" as well as blanket indictments as being the essence of the approach of the Nazis themselves.

Primo Levi, however, was not limited by his concentration camp experience and his lifelong reflections about it. One of his most admired works is The Periodic Table, a remarkable fantasy (and successful amalgam of chemistry and personal memoirs, notably of his youth as a Jew in fascist Italy), a book which was enthusiastically received by critics throughout the world. He also wrote a picaresque novel, The Wrench, a celebration of the work ethic he shared all his life, and another short novel, If Not Now, When?, which is a tale of the fight of Jewish partisans in Poland and Russia. (He had been himself a rather ineffective partisan fighter in Italy.) The balance of his output consists of short stories (many of them science fiction or allegorical), essays reflecting his truly encyclopedic interests, an anthology of his favorite writers, brief poems, and some 250 published interviews. He had a great deal to say and said it clearly, concisely, with great precision.

There are many aspects to this brilliant research chemist and writer, one of whose hobbies was mountain climbing and who, all his life, read voraciously in several languages, from Herman Melville's Moby Dick to Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brethren, not to speak of T.S.Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Sholem Aleichem, and Rabelais. He has said, indeed, that he felt closest to Rabelais and "salvation through laughter," and repeatedly described himself as a "centaur," a man of many moods and interests, who could write imaginative, ironic, and sardonic tales, satire, and picaresque narratives, as well as his straightforward accounts of the horrors of the Shoah. His whole work is eminently worth exploring.

Primo Levi. Portrait by Jerry Bauer.

Cover of Se questro un uomo LaTregua. From the collection of Pierre Ferrand.

Cover of I sommeri e I salvati. From the collection of Pierre Ferrand.

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