Speak, Memory: Primo Levi’s Living History

Voice Literary Supplement
March 1986

One of the great pieces of good fortune in my life was that I was able to write for the Voice Literary Supplement in its glory days, when it was edited by M.Mark, and thus was able to interview Primo Levi the year before he died. I have never felt more instant rapport with anyone.  He too expressed surprise at the similarity of our views—we were both very critical of Israel's invasion of Lebanon a few years before—despite the great differences in our age and experience.  We later had a brief correspondence.  When he died, I felt as though I had lost a beloved uncle.

 

 

 

         How many ordinary people walking around this city have been ground in the mill of world history: survived the Holocaust or Cambodia; fled the war in Vietnam or Bangladesh; escaped from Argentina or the Soviet Union, Chile or South Korea, Haiti or El Salvador? For all these survivors, "the personal is political" in ways more terrible than feminists imagined when they coined the slogan. Yet few are able to write of world-historical tragedies so that we really feel the political dimensions of their personal experiences and take their politics personally.
 
         One of them is Primo Levi.
 
         More than anything else I’ve read or seen—more even than Shoah—PrimoLevi's books helped me not only to grasp the reality of genocide, but to figure out what it means for people like me, who grew up sheltered from the storm. This is because he's a wonderful writer: deft, witty, and precise. The lightness of his touch enabled me to keep reading even when what he was saying was unbearable. That I could read him at all is a tribute to his power, for my terror of understanding was considerable; there were years when I could not open a book about the Holocaust without being overcome by such severe anxiety that I had to close it. I was grateful to people who said, "Why torture yourself? Is this really necessary?"
 
         It is necessary. For what the Nazis did has shaped our world as much as any other event in modern history: they lifted up the cover of civilization and showed the horrors lurking under the bed. The horrors are still there. But if we can grasp what happened, we can begin to see how it might have been stopped or limited. We can also see the Nazi impulses that still exist and are a danger to all of us.
 
         But for this to work, each of us must grasp what happened with her imagination, concretely, on the level of individual experience. Reading Levi helps because he has done it himself. He has really experienced the things that happened to him, without blocking or distortion or self-dramatization. He writes about them with immediacy, restraint, and mordant irony:

 

         It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination…. I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943. I was twenty- four, with little wisdom, no experience and a decided tendency…to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female friendships. I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion…. At that time I had not yet been taught the doctrine I was later to learn so hurriedly in the Lager: that man is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly.

 

         Primo Levi takes us on a guided tour of Auschwitz, 1944:
 
         There is the usual entry, familiar from other accounts: the sealed, packed baggage train, the brutality and deaths en route, the bewilderment, death, and disintegration of personality. There is the arbitrary separation of the passengers into two groups upon leaving the train. Some to live and some to die. Or, rather, some to die at once and some to die more slowly. Of the 500 Italian Jews sent to Auschwitz with Primo Levi, three saw liberation. Only 96 men and 29 women survived their first two days.
 
         Auschwitz was a combined concentration ("labor") and extermination camp; upon arrival, about 10 per cent of the prisoners were selected for labor, and the rest were murdered. According to Rudolf Hess, commander of the camp, between June 1941 and December 1943, two million people were asphyxiated in the Auschwitz gas chambers. An additional 500,000 died of starvation, exhaustion, or illness. Auschwitz was but one of many camps. The East Germans estimate that 11 million people—including Gypsies and political prisoners—died in the Nazi Lagers.  
 
         Primo Levi is a fine and thoughtful guide to the inferno. He knows the geography and sociology of this vast laboratory of death. "Our Lager is a square of about six hundred yards in length, surrounded by two fences of barbed wire, the inner one carrying a high tension current. It consists of sixty wooden huts, which are called Blocks." Each Block has 148 beds (planks of wood on three levels) and houses 200 to 250 Haftlinge, or prisoners, mostly two to a bunk. There are three kinds of Haftlinge: the majority are Jews, with red or yellow stars sewn on their striped jackets; politicals wear red triangles; criminals wear green triangles. Block 47 is a dormitory reserved for the Reichsdeutsche (the Aryan Germans, all politicals or criminals); Block 49 for the Kapos; Block 7 for the Prominenz, "the aristocracy, the internees holding the highest posts."
 
         Levi plumbs the economics of the death camp, its desperate underground market. What can you use to bargain for an extra half ration of gray bread, which may mean the difference between life and death? How can you get a spoon? A piece of potato? What makes the rate of exchange fluctuate? The market is highly organized and even conducts trade with the outside world, through the civilians who work nearby. Levi's study pays off; when he is eventually placed in a chemical factory, he works out a method of stealing flints and, with his comrade Alberto, makes them into primitive cigarette lighters he can trade for food.
 
         He explores the sciences of the Lager, including numerology, always a favorite study of those concerned with eschatological questions: "the funeral science of the numbers of Auschwitz, which epitomize the destruction of European Judaism. To the old hands of the camp, the numbers told everything: the period of entry into the camp, the convoy of which one formed a part, and consequently the nationality. Everyone will treat with respect the numbers from 30,000 to 80,000: there are only a few hundred left and they represent the few survivals from the Polish ghettos. It is as well to watch out in commercial dealings with a 116,000 or a 117,000: they now number only about forty but they represent the Greeks of Salonica, so take care they do not pull the wool over your eyes. As for the high numbers, they carry an essentially comic air about them, like the words freshman or conscript in ordinary life.
 
         Levi was in Auschwitz at the same time as Elie Wiesel—in 1944, its last year. They were both in the hospital when the allies began bombing and the Nazis evacuated their prisoners. But their backgrounds and personalities are very different: Wiesel grew up in a small town in Hungary in a family of Hasidic believers; devoutly religious, he was just a kid when he reached Auschwitz, where he lost his whole family, along with his faith. His first book, Night, is both a personal account of torment, death, and the destruction of family relationships, and a dialogue with God about His absence, His desertion, even perhaps His culpability. It is a brief, searing cry of pain.
 
         Levi was a grown man when he was captured, 24 rather than 15, and much more cosmopolitan than Wiesel; he was a college graduate with scientific training as well as work experience. He had even begun to be active politically and joined the partisans; that's how he got arrested. He observed the metaphysical quandaries of the Eastern Europeans with considerable fascination but did not attempt to settle accounts with God himself; he had never believed in God. His interest was in Man, and Survival in Auschwitz is a systematic account of what it takes to reduce a man to something not human.
 
         His observations are consistent with those of the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who was in Buchenwald and Dachau early in the war and wrote one of the first studies of concentration camps. Levi has no theoretical superstructure that corresponds to Bettelheim's Freud. He is, after all, a chemist, and he works by induction, point by point, figuring out what elements are at hand from the way they react with each other. Levi's theory, modest and detailed, is concentrated in his central chapter, "The Saved and the Drowned," the people with power and the people with less than none. First the musselmans [German for Muslim, though no one seems to know why they were called that]: those who are going under, "the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection."
 
         To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the musselmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story; or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay and nothing can save them from selection or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living, one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. 
 
        It is a haunting image, these living dead marching dully toward the gas, able to resist nothing that lies in store for them because their will to live has already been destroyed. Here is the central contrast in all Levi's books: the difference between those who have been reduced to living ashes, whose individuality has been taken from them, and those in whom individuality assumes baroque and grotesque forms as they strive to preserve their lives. And the contrast of both these groups with the Germans, “the masters of death.”
 
         Who survived and how is one of the things that interest Levi most. All accounts agree that the main prerequisites for survival were luck and coming to the camp late enough in the war to last until liberation. Only within those extremely narrow parameters did individual qualities like youth, health, physical strength, intelligence, and a continuing interest in life even make a difference. Sometimes selection was as arbitrary as what side you got off the baggage train; half would go to the door on the left, half the right, and one of those lines would go to the gas chamber. You needed that basic first break, and then, of course, even in the extermination camps, it helped to be a man. Most women and small children were immediately killed because they weren't strong enough for the work, if it can be dignified by such a name. (Arbeit Macht Frei, Freedom Through Labor, said the sign over the gate to Auschwitz.) 
 
         The work was hard physical labor, mainly outside, with no coats and no shoes, just broken wooden clogs, in freezing mud, in snowstorms. The prisoners worked at tasks like shoveling frozen ground, lifting lead pipes, carrying 100-pound sacks of building material. Much of their work was purposeless—or, rather, its purpose was to kill them. Primo Levi worked on building the Buna factory, the death camp branch of I.G. Farben, a vast edifice that never produced one pound of synthetic rubber, though building it killed countless men. Upon arrival in the camp, each prisoner was placed in a Kommando of between 15 and 150. The lucky ones were assigned to skilled Kommandos (electricians, smiths, bricklayers, welders, etc.) where they could sometimes work indoors and were supervised by civilian foremen, German or Polish. The best jobs of all were clerical, but one needed influence or an independent source of bread (the money of Auschwitz) to get one of those.
 
         Given luck, certain personal qualities helped one to survive, though they could do no more than make destruction slightly less certain. When Levi got to Auschwitz in 1944, there were only a few hundred "low numbers" or old prisoners left: "not one was an ordinary haftling, vegetating in the ordinary Kommandos, and subsisting on the normal rations." Who were they? He divided them into three categories: some had useful talents or powerful friends ("doctors, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, cooks, young attractive homosexuals, friends or compatriots of some authority in the camp"). Some were individuals who assimilated readily to the ruling cultural standard: "particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals" who were made Kapos by the SS. Others, called "Organisators" or "Kombinators," were unusually intelligent and energetic individuals who had some sort of overall grasp of the situation and a plan for dealing with it, and somehow organized for themselves extra food or an easy work assignment. Gedaleh, the partisan leader in Levi's novel, explains the use of the term: "That's what they said in the ghettos, in the Lagers, in all of Nazi Europe, a thing you procure illegally is called organized."
 
         Levi himself, by passing a chemistry test and getting an assignment in a lab outside the camp, was to become one of these organisators, along with his fellow Italian, Alberto. There was no way to know this at first; he thinks he was well on the way to becoming a musselman. "I know that I am not made of the stuff of those who resist, I am too civilized, I still think too much, I use myself up at work." But once in the chemistry lab, he had access to civilians and met Lorenzo, a guest worker who was housed in a military camp nearby. Lorenzo not only brought Levi extra food that saved his life, he reminded him that there was a world outside the Lager, a world where decent people could still exist. This helped him fight despair.

 

         The personages in these pages are not men. Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it under an offense received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and insane SS men, the Kapos, the politicals, the criminals, the prominents, great and small, down to the indifferent slave Haftlinge, all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans paradoxically fraternized in a uniform internal desolation. But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.
 

         There are two kinds of writers about the Holocaust: those who were there and those who weren't. Whatever differences may exist between those who were there—Wiesel's heartbreak, Levi’s wit, Bettelheim's theory—they are united by their experience and what they made of it, and a gulf divides them from those who can only understand from the outside.

 

         For survivors, the central questions are obvious: Why me? Why did I survive and for what purpose? How can I make meaning out of this? And alongside it, how did this happen? How could the Germans do this? How could the world let them? All Primo Levi's books are meditations on these questions. With this month's republication of Survival in Auschwitz (1958) and The Reawakening (1963), and the publication of a new collection of sketches, Moments of Reprieve, he has five books in print in this country.
 
         Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening are the central books in this canon; the others revolve around them and are, in a sense, commentaries. The Reawakening tells of Levi's journey all over Eastern Europe, trying to get home after the war. Beginning in the darkness of release, when it was almost impossible to imagine living, it shows Levi's slow return to humanity with the kind of pain that comes to frostbite victims when their blood begins to circulate again. As the book continues, it reads almost like a picaresque novel: the hero covers vast distances, has narrow escapes, and meets the most extraordinary people. Many are survivors like him; their personalities burst into bizarre flower in conditions of comparative freedom, and so does Levi's ability to appreciate them. One or two of these characters crop up again in Shoah. It was a shock to find them there: such is Levi's narrative art that, even though I knew otherwise, I kept thinking of his books as fiction.
 
         The Periodic Table, which was published to much acclaim last year, is an effervescent gloss on Auschwitz in the form of meditations on various chemical elements; one might even call it a Jew d'esprit. One of Levi's most appealing traits is his playfulness, and surely this was another thing that enabled him to keep on and that makes him different from other Holocaust writers. He has a childlike wonder and delight in life, even in extremity; at one point, half dead with exhaustion, he passionately tried to teach another prisoner Ulysses' speech from Dante's Inferno: "Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance Your mettle was not made; you were made men, to follow after knowledge and excellence."
 
         It's great to read a Jew who's so Italian—what a combination. If Auschwitz was Levi's Inferno and the journey home described in The Reawakening his Purgatory, Italy itself is Paradise to him. He begins one of his stories in Moments of Reprieve: "It often happens these days that you hear people say they're ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world."
 
         One of those virtues is an absence of murderous prejudice: of all the countries in Europe, only Italy, Denmark, and Bulgaria protected their Jews.  If Not Now, When?, Levi's novel, a tribute to what he calls "the moonstruck world of Ashkenazic Judaism" and an attempt to educate his countrymen about Jewish resistance, has a band of partisans, the Gedalists, fighting their way through an end-of-the-war no man's land toward Palestine. He ends the novel when they reach Turin and are told, "It's an oasis, this country." He knows they have to go to Palestine, but Italy is the promised land for him and he wants to take all the Eastern European Jews he loved, who died in the camps, home for a visit.
 
         His new book, Moments of Reprieve, consists of character sketches, Levi's way of memorializing certain individuals from the camps, a way or fighting the dehumanization the Nazis visited even on the dead, leaving them only smoke and a number on a ledger. He says in his preface, "A great number of human beings especially stood out against that tragic background. . . begging me one after another to help them survive and enjoy the ambiguous perennial existence of literary characters." Like other survivors, Levi writes to remember, to exorcise, and to bear witness. And he keeps writing about the Holocaust because he cannot help it.
 
         …it has been observed by psychologists that the survivors of traumatic events are divided into two well-defined groups: those who get rid of their past en bloc, and those whose memory of the offense persists, as though carved in stone, prevailing over all previous or subsequent experience. Now, not by choice but by nature, I belong to the second group. Of my two years of life outside the law I have not forgotten a single thing. Without any deliberate effort, memory continues to restore to me events, faces, words, sensations, as if at that time my mind had gone through a period of exalted receptivity, during which not a detail was lost. I remember, for example, as they would be remembered by a tape recorder or a parrot, whole sentences in languages I did not know then and don't know now. It seems obvious to me that this attention of mine at that time, turned to the world and to the human beings around me, was not only a symptom but also an important factor of spiritual and physical salvation.
 
         I met Primo Levi last spring. He is modest and unpretentious, more interested in talking about the world than about himself. One trusts him instantly, in person andon the page: an honest, kind, searching uncle with a face and beard from a Dutch master, probably Rembrandt, pained but lively.
 
         I asked Levi what kind of response Survival in Auschwitz had received in Germany, and he told me of the letters he got from young Germans, responding to a section where he said he couldn't understand Germans: "All the writers of letters …told me, 'You're right, not understanding us. I am a German and I don't understand myself.' Moreover, all of them told me about their family difficulties, asking why they, young Germans, were obliged to read a book by an Italian Jew to know things their father didn't tell them."
 
         In Germany there has been suppression of the truth about the mass destruction of the Jews. When the TV series Holocaust was shown on West German TV in January of 1979 (after an attempt at government censorship), it caused a national furor, not because of any great subtlety or insight in its presentation, but because the history it exposed had been so thoroughly buried. The psychologist Alice Miller writes about the series' effect on young Germans in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence: "It was like breaking out of prison for them: the prison of silence, of not being able to ask questions, of not being able to feel….It was taken for granted by most postwar children in Germany that it was improper or at least uncalled for to ask their parents specific questions about the Third Reich; often it was even explicitly forbidden. Keeping silent about this period, which represented their parents' past, was just as much a part of the good manners expected of children as was the denial of sexuality around the turn of the century."
 
          But Germans aren't the only ones who have to read books to find out things their fathers didn't tell them. My father served in the Second World War, proudly, to defeat Hitler. He even re-enlisted. He was in the Medical Corps of the Fifth Armored Division all through North Africa, Italy, France. Finally they came to Germany, and he was one of the American doctors who opened up the camps. At least he opened up one camp. I don't know which because he never told me anything about it. Now he’s dead and my mother doesn’t remember. How could he have been there, seen it with his own eyes, and never said a word to his children? My mother understands. "He didn't like to talk about it," she says. "It upset him. The people there—they were in such terrible shape."
 
         Primo Levi also understands. He was half-dead from the scarlet fever that saved his life; the Nazis left behind the sick when they marched prisoners out to the next extermination site. His section of Auschwitz was liberated by four Russian soldiers. He saw in their faces what must have been in my father's. Pudency, he calls it, a word not in common usage, Latin root pudentia, meaning modesty. Shame.

 

         They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defense. So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever.

 

         Primo Levi fought this shame by telling what had happened, so the world could know and learn from it. We are in his debt, for there are still too many families where secret is piled upon secret—all those grownup secrets that turn out to be world history— and question after question meets a stone wall.
 
         "I don't know. I don't remember."
         "Why dwell on the past?"
         "There's nothing good to say."
 
         Suppression is part of our national heritage, and not just for Jews. What amazing ancestors we have! Did they think they could come to America and leave their trauma behind? Did they think they could shield their children from suffering by suppressing the knowledge of it? What can be more fearful than that which cannot be told? All my childhood I knew about the camps without knowing, trying not to know. Skipping certain articles in the paper. Turning instead to English murder mysteries, where death was made polite.
 
         My grandmother’s whole family was killed in one of the camps, probably Auschwitz, my mother isn't sure. She doesn't count them as family anyway, since she never met them. They were the ones who stayed behind, who didn't get to America or South Africa or Uruguay or Palestine. All I have of them is a picture of my grandma's sister and her husband and five children. She had a stoic paranoid face like the rest of the family and five children whose black eyes looked to me, as a child, like holes burnt in kleenex with punk.
 
         Suddenly, when I was nine, one of them appeared, my cousin Sy, a teenager out of nowhere, a burning brand saved from the fire. He survived because he was big enough to be taken for an adult and therefore not killed immediately, like younger children, and he had enough mechanical skill to pass himself off as an electrician. After the war, he somehow got to a refugee center in France. The family paid his passage over and stood guarantee for him, this outlandish young man with huge eyes and no English, trying to charm as if his life depended on it. 
  
         He could just as well have come from the moon for all I knew. Wisconsin in 1951: the streets were paved with dairy products and all I knew about being Jewish was it meant no Christmas tree. Stupefied by social insulation, I didn't even know enough to be scared.
  
         Nevertheless, I was scared. Maybe most kids were scared in the '50s; if you were Jewish, you were scared of Hitler. Every night I looked under the bed for men from Mars, witches, and Nazis. My little brother slept with a German luger, war booty of my father's, unloaded but with magic potency. We needed magic against a threat that was not quite tangible, hanging in the clean midwestern air without taking shape. Milwaukee's main downtown street had a block of "war memorabilia" stores, with windows full of swastikas and flags and swords: I passed that way every Saturday afternoon on my way to the central library. There was an active Nazi bund in Milwaukee during the war, but that was never talked about.
  
         This is obviously bush league as terror goes. What I'm trying to say is that the Holocaust has shaped our lives in ways more profound than we know. My New York neighborhood is full of people with numbers stamped on their arm. Is there a building, a block, a candy store anywhere in this city that has no connection to the death camps—or to some other political avalanche that caused people to flee their country for their lives, leaving friends and relatives behind? The reason we have to understand this stuff is that it isn't ancient history; it's still part of our lives and our world, as politics and as trauma. How many generations does it take before the fear goes away?  
 
         It doesn't go away, it doesn't even become manageable, until we can stop denying it. Denial, evasion, and repression were for years the only way I could deal with this history, and for many people I know, they still are. “Do we have to talk about it?” or “I can't deal with this." Since most of my Jewish friends are leftists, the evasions and denials come cloaked in political language.  "What about Dresden? What about Hiroshima? Don't we have to deal with those things too?" Surface meaning: "You'd better change the subject or I'll think you don't care about anybody dying except Jews.” Latent meaning: "Jews are not the only ones who were killed. There is genocide allover the place. I can control my anxiety by categorizing the subject as narrow self-interest, and focusing on atrocities done to people other than Jews."
 
         Sometimes these phrases sound reasonable, on the surface, for a moment, but the turned-away faces and choked voices of the speakers—or their anger—reveal the real function: magic formulas to stave off terror.
 
         Like, "I think it's very important not to focus too much on the past. Look at Israel now, look how she sells weapons to South. Africa and persecutes the Palestinians.” Surface meaning: "You seem awful concerned about the Holocaust; do you want me to think you're a Zionist racist imperialist?" Latent meaning: "Don't talk about the past when Jews like me were vulnerable. In the present Jews are strong enough even to oppress others. So surely no one will try to kill us all again and I don't have to be afraid. I can even express my (sincere) dislike of Israel's foreign policy without fear, and focus on wrongdoing by Jews while defending wrongdoing by Palestinians, demonstrating I am exempt from the narrow nationalism I deplore in others. Besides, that way maybe nobody will know I’m Jewish.”
  
         The way to get out of this prison of denial is to look at what actually happened: see Shoah, read books by Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Lucy Dawidowicz, Tadeusz Borowski, and others who have written of the valley of death. Only when the basic experience has been assimilated does it become possible to think creatively about causes and alternatives, without the flatulent and unearned self-righteousness that characterizes all too much American discussion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Of course the Holocaust was unique—not because it was mass murder on a vast scale, but because it was planned, premeditated for years. Nor did it serve any rational purpose, despite dumb formulas about the economic need for slave labor or the political need for a scapegoat to unite Germany. These theories miss the essential craziness of the thing, an irrationality so strong that in the last year of the war the Nazis used the available trains not to transport troops home from Russia so they could continue to fight, but to take Jews to death camps. The Holocaust was unique for another reason: It was mass murder organized industrially by a modern state that harnessed all its population's energies in the service of a chimera of racial purity.
 
         But you can say these things without building a fence around the uniqueness, as if nobody but the Jews had ever suffered. One of the most impressive things about writers like Primo Levi, Bruno Bettelheim, and Elie Wiesel, who were there, is that they can say what was unique about the extermination of the European Jews, without making that an excuse for forgetting the troubles of everybody else. Wiesel spoke out last year about South Africa; Levi criticized the invasion of Lebanon; Bettelheim makes connections from Hiroshima to individual cases of child abuse. He also talks about denial and the way he tried to tell people in the U.S. what was going on in 1939, when the they wouldn’t even print his articles, so strong was their desire not to face the facts. He says: 
 
         "Only if we stop denying—for our comfort, and to our lasting detriment—what the Holocaust was all about, will it stop going nowhere; will we know where it went. Our obligation—not to those who are dead, but to ourselves, and to those around us who are still alive—is to strengthen the life drives, so that never again—if we can help it—will these be so totally destroyed in so many, least of all by the power of a state. An understanding of the Holocaust ought to imbue us with the determination that we shall never again permit that men, overborne by their desperation and enslaved by their death drive, should walk to their death as these murderers wish.”
  
         That's another reason people keep writing about the camps: the hope that this dreadful history will at last be useful, even redeeming, that it will help the world survive. Although those who perished died for nothing, we can try to make their deaths mean something after the fact. Wiesel wrote last year in The New York Times Book Review: "After the liberation, we had illusions. We were convinced that a new world would be built upon the ruins of Europe. A new civilization would see the light. No more wars, no more hate, no more intolerance, no fanaticism. And all this because the witnesses would speak. And speak they did, to no avail.”
 
          The denial persists. The right lessons are not learned. It is so easy for us, who were not there, to get things wrong: to make factual mistakes, errors in tone, misinterpretations. Maybe it's hubris for outsiders to write about the Holocaust at all. The subject is one of the moral litmus tests of this century. Much of the secondary literature shows a very natural desire to distance and control the magnitude of the history of destruction by intellectual feats of strength. The most primitive way is by quantifying, counting: the obsession with train schedules in Shoah is one of many examples. There is a kind of mind which thinks reality can be understood best this way: leave out the terrible personal stories; the numbers and the facts will tell the world what happened better than any story can.
 
         They don't. There have been enough facts and numbers available for the last 40 years so that anybody alive can know what happened. The facts have not overcome our resistance to looking. But Primo Levi tells stories, and in such a gentle, kindly manner that one cannot fail to trust him. You feel secure with someone so clearly in controlof his material and his tone. He writes with such luminous precision that before you know it, you start listening to what he's saying. His gentleness sneaks past your defenses. And then you start feeling what happened. You start imagining what would have happened to you and those you love. Then you start thinking about allthe terrible things going on in the world right now, things that might have been prevented.  These thoughts are healthy—we don't want to let people die unseen the way they did in the camps and ghettos of Europe.
 
         That is one of the lessons Levi teaches: rachmones, the reaching-out of the imagination His other lesson is self-defense. While his memoirs are peopled by the dead, the musselmans, the "lords of evil" and those who manage to keep alive by organizing, his novel is about resistance and it is full of heroes: homely and somewhat unlikely ones, with Italian neo-realist overtones, but everyone of them a fighter: "Gedaleh's Jews ... were lighthearted: in the partisanka adventure, different every day, in the frozen steppe, in snow and mud, they had found a new freedom, unknown to their fathers and grandfathers, a contact with friends and enemies, with nature and with action, which intoxicated them like the wine of Purim .... They were lighthearted and fierce, like animals whose cage has been opened, like slaves who have risen up in vengeance."
 
         They are on their way to Palestine, for this is one of the meanings of the Holocaust to Levi, as to so many survivors, even if he only goes with them as far as Turin. And he gives the partisan leader Gedaleh a wonderful speech about his hopes for Israel:

 

         "We don't want to become landowners: we want to make fertile the sterile land of Palestine....We don't want Stalin's kolkhozes: we want communities where all are free and equal, without force and without violence, where you can work during the day and, in the evening, play the violin; where there's no money but everybody does what work he can and is given what he needs ....You could call us Socialists, but we didn't become partisans because of our political beliefs. We're fighting to save our selves from the Germans, to get revenge, to clear the way for ourselves; but most of all—and excuse the common word—for dignity."
 

             And what did they get? War and more war. Levi was in Israel in 1968, just after the Six Days War, and talked about it in our interview: "At that time the country was still united by a very strong bond, the one of survival, the Holocaust, and being a socialist society facing a wicked enemy, Nasser in Egypt. Now things are much more complicated because the Arabic presence in Israel is not to be denied anymore. The Palestinians are not to be perceived as a populace of barbarians. They are cultured people too and they have some rights. Not the right to destroy Israel, but the right to live. There is a contradiction between a Jewish tradition of culture and peace, and reality which is not peace but perpetual war. It splits every single man in two halves, one desiring peace and the other obliged to get along with war."
 

         Levi seldom makes public statements on political questions ("I'm just an old man with some experiences and I don't like to be classified as a commentator"), but he did on Lebanon. Though he got some nasty letters, his position is clear: "Having been a victim of violence, I can't approve violence in any form, unless in defense." 

 

         I said, the problem is telling the difference—to a paranoid, everything is defense. And Levi replied, "Remember the Greek in The Reawakening?"

 

          One of the first people Levi meets in that book is Mordo Nahum, an amazing Greek, the complete homo economicus. Mordo immediately gets Levi to carry his enormous sack ("I organized it and you carry it. That's the division of work. Later you too will profit from it") and they go along together like Pozzo and Lucky. Soon Levi's wretched shoes give way. The Greek says, "A man with no shoes is a fool." Levi protests: how was he to get shoes; there were none in the hospital and he had scarlet fever.

 

         “Words,” said the Greek. “Anyone can talk. I had a temperature of 104, and I didn't know if it was day or night; but one thing I did know, that I needed shoes and other things; so I got up and I went as far as the store to study the situation. There was a Russian with a sten-gun in front of the door, but I wanted the shoes, and so I walked to the back, I broke open a small window and I entered, So I got my shoes, and also the sack, and everything that is inside the sack, which will prove useful later on. That is foresight; yours is stupidity. It is a failure to understand the reality of things."

 

         A week later they return to the subject and Mordo further instructs Levi:  

 

          When war is waging, one has to think of two things before all others: in the first place of one's shoes, in the second place of food to eat; and not vice versa, as the common herd believes, because he who has shoes can search for food, but the inverse is not true." "But the war is over,” I objected: and I thought it was over, as did many in those months of truce, in a much more universal sense than one dares to think today. "There is always war," said Mordo Nahum memorably. 

 
 

         There is always war.
 
         Levi runs through the circumstances of Mordo's life and the narrow mercantile society from which he came: "His life had been one of war, and he considered anyone who refused this iron universe of his to be despicable and blind. The Lager had happened to both of us; I had felt it as a monstrous upheaval, a loathsome anomaly in my history and in the history of the world; he, as a sad confirmation of things well known. 'There is always war'; and man is wolf to man: an old story. He never spoke to me of his two years in Auschwitz."
 
         There is always war. Night always falls.
 
         But war is not all there is. And we can fight against the dark. Primo Levi does.
 
 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
_
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
~ ... . . 1 ,

 
 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.