Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An Artifact from Bad Times: The Survival of Primo Levi

Primo Levi, The Complete Works of Primo Levi, 3 vols. Ann Goldstein ed. (New York: Liverlight Publishing Corporation, 2015) 
 Call #: 853.9140
If you would draw a map of human suffering, if you created a geography of atrocity, [Auschwitz] would be the absolute center. --Robert-Jan Van Pelt

After sixteen years of preparation, the complete works of the Italian author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi are finally being published. This is an event of major importance. It is unlikely to receive the sort of fanfare devoted to the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Meaning no disrespect to Harper Lee, this is an injustice. To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly an excellent book. But Levi’s writings, and particularly his 1947 memoir Se questo e un uomo [If This is a Man(titled in English Survival in Auschwitz) are of higher quality, both in terms of literary content and of importance to civilization. Survival in Auschwitz is, as far as I am concerned, the most important book written in the 20th century and the one book that every person should read without exception.

There are many excellent books about the Holocaust, and among them many superb and moving survivor narratives, from Elie Wiesel’s Night, to Filip Müller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz, to Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for theGas, Ladies and Gentlemen, to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and at least a dozen others that one could name without even scratching the surface. Yet Levi’s writings stand above them all. Rather than solely bearing witness to horrific events (important as this is), Levi’s writings search for the human implications beneath the horror. For Levi, the experience of the Holocaust is used as means to study individuality and our capacity to communicate with each other, the fundamental elements of the human condition. These things have a significance that far outstrips their connections to Nazi genocide, even though it was the arguably the most important event of the 20th century.

Levi’s story, like that of all Auschwitz survivors, is marked by moments of luck, both good and ill, that powerfully shaped his life and his chances for survival. He was a young chemistry graduate student when the imposition of Nazi racial laws in Italy forced him to flee his native Turin for the relative safety of the mountains. He took up with an unfortunately incompetent band of partisans and was soon arrested. Fearing he would be executed if his admitted to be a partisan, he told his captors that he was a Jew. We can never know how things might have turned out otherwise, but in the wake of this admission he was shipped first to the transit camp at Fossoli and from there to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, about 40 miles west Krakow. “Among the forty-five people in my wagon,” Levi wrote, “only four saw their homes again; and it was by far the most fortunate wagon.”

Upon arrival, Levi was subjected to the rituals of induction to the camp which are now familiar to most people: the selection on the receiving platform (at which point nearly all the women and children were sent immediately to the gas chambers), loss of all possession, shaving of the head, delousing, and the interminable waiting under conditions in which one has utterly lost control of one’s fate. At one point, Levi tried to relieve his thirst by breaking off an icicle from the roof of the hut in which they are waiting. When a guard confiscated it, Levi asked why. The guard’s response was perfect and chilling statement of their condition: “Hier ist kein warum. [There’s no why here].”

Eventually, Levi and some others were sent to the Auschwitz III camp, called Buna, which provided slave labor to a gigantic synthetic rubber plant that the Nazis were attempting to build. His skills as a chemist allowed him to work indoors and in relative safety, while he managed to acquire extra food by cultivating a friendship with an Italian civilian laborer whom the Nazis had brought to the area. These are the elements of many of the stories of those who survived, a fact of which Levi takes note when discussing the so-called “low numbers” (those with numbers below 150,000 who had been in the camp the longest), “not one [of whom] was an ordinary [prisoner] vegetating in the ordinary Kommandos, and subsisting on the normal ration.” Achieving some special position did not guarantee survival. Failure to do so pretty much excluded it.

Perhaps the most arresting chapter in Survival in Auschwitz is that entitled “The Drowned and the Saved.” There, Levi talks about various modes (not to say strategies) of surviving the experience, and the chapter comprises a series of case studies. Of these, the last two are the most compelling. He profiles Elias Lindzin, a somewhat troglodytic figure whose combination of raw physical strength and psychopathy seem to render him indestructible. To Levi, Elias represents a sort of new human type created by the vast experimental space of the concentration camp, “what we will all become if we do not die in the camp, and if the camp itself does not end first.” Elias’s life outside the camp could only be imagined with some effort, although Levi later thought he glimpsed him one night while driving down the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s notorious red light district. But what is peculiar about Elias is that in the camp he had found the place where his attributes functioned most perfectly. Levi closes his discussion of Elias with one of the most startling lines to be found in any survivor memoir: “Elias, as far as we could judge from the outside, and as far as the phrase can have meaning, was probably a happy person.”

The young Frenchman Henri is, although no less successful in terms of his survival strategies, almost the complete opposite of Elias. He speaks four languages and possesses, in addition to an excellent scientific and humanistic education, “a complete and organic theory of the ways to survive in [the camp].” Henri’s youth and his intense intelligence give him numerous advantages in terms of adjusting himself to camp life. He manages to forge contacts all over the camp, with figures including English PoWs, civilian workers, political prisoners, block wardens, the doctors in the infirmary (who allow him to “hibernate” there when selections were near), and even an SS man. He survives (we know from Levi and other sources) not by ratting out other prisoners, or by stealing bread, or by prostituting himself, but by his capacity to inspire pity in even the hardest of hearts. Levi’s description of Henri is simultaneously poetic and devastating, and its final passages merit quotation at length:

It is very pleasant to talk to Henri in moments of rest. It is also useful: there is nothing in the camp that he does no know and about which he has not reasoned in his close and coherent manner. Of his conquests, he speaks with educated modesty, as of prey of little worth, but he digresses willingly into an explanation of the calculation which led him to approach Hans asking him about his son at the front, and Otto instead showing him the scars on his shins.
To speak with Henri is useful and pleasant: one sometimes also feels him warm and near; communication, even affection seems possible. One seems to glimpse, behind his uncommon personality, a human soul, sorrowful and aware of itself. But the next moment his sad smile freezes into a grimace that seems studied at the mirror; Henri politely excuses himself (‘…j’ai quelque chose à faire [I have something to do],’ ‘…j’ai quelqu’un à voir [I have someone to see]’) intent on his hunt and his struggle; hard and distant, enclosed in armor, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the Serpent in Genesis.
From all my talks with Henri, even the most cordial, I have always left with a slight taste of defeat; of also having been, somehow inadvertently, not a man to him, but an instrument in his hands.
I know that Henri is living today. I would give much to know of his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again.

Levi’s anger at Henri may seem perplexing, but it is part of his larger critique of the effects of totalitarianism and brutality on the human condition. Henri has all the tools to be the sort of well-rounded humanist that Levi views as ideal, but he uses them in a (so to speak) instrumental way. Rather than creating a space for communication and mutuality, Henri turns his fellow man into instruments, irrespective of whether they are the guards, his fellow prisoners, or just people nearby.

There are, it should be said, no lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, other than those like “Don’t murder your fellow man” which should have been learned long ago. But it is a mark of Levi’s brilliance that he is able to use the context of the Holocaust to find a deeper appreciation of the things that make us human, both our capacities and our frailties. This theme runs from end to end through his work, conveyed in different forms and in various shapes, but always visible and compelling. The release of his collected works presents the reader with a rare opportunity to find all of Levi’s humanistic culture conveyed in sumptuously written novels and essays. The 20th century brought us the era of genocide and all-out war. But in Levi’s writing it also produced an artifact of enduring brilliance.

~John F.

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