Victory Over the Thugs


Of all the notable literary events of the past year, perhaps none was so important as the release of the complete works of Primo Levi. The three volumes of this edition make available in one place a wealth of Levi’s novels, his shorter fictional and occasional pieces, as well as his more general autobiographical writings such as The Periodic Table.

But the true importance of this collection is the retranslated versions of Levi’s most important texts: If This is a Man and The Truce. In the vast and varied literature on the Holocaust, and especially within the narrower (though still extensive) confines of survivor testimonies, Levi’s writings about his time in Auschwitz constitute arguably the most important.

They are important because they transcend the common (and vital) focus of most survivor writings, that of recording the myriad crimes of the Nazis and their helpers, and investigate the deeper human implications of these events with an expansive yet humble profundity.

The particulars of Levi’s itinerary from Turin to Auschwitz are now widely known. He was a young chemistry graduate in 1943 when the extension of the Nazi racial laws compelled him to seek a hiding place in the mountains. There he worked briefly with the liberal (and by Levi’s own admission rather incompetent) Giustizia e Libertà resistance group until he was caught in a roundup in December 1943.

Under questioning, and wishing to avoid summary execution as a partisan, Levi made the fateful admission that he was a Jew. It can never be known whether this was the “right” choice or not, whether his fears of being immediately shot were valid, and whether they can in some way be measured or balanced against the actual consequences of this admission. But the facts in evidence dictate that this admission was to ensnare him in what David Rousset would later designate l’univers concentrationnaire.

Levi was first sent to the Campo di Fossoli internment camp, near Modena. Run by the Italians when Levi arrived, conditions there were rather primitive, but not lethal. But within weeks the camp was taken over by the SS and deportations to the east began. On 21 February, Levi was transported in a shipment of 650 men, women, and children to Auschwitz. “Among the forty-five people in my car,” Levi would later write, “only four saw their homes again; and ours was by far the most fortunate.”

Primo Levi, some time in the 1980s.
Primo Levi, some time during the 1980s.

One thing that sets Levi apart, at least from many of the other writers in the genre, is his talent for picking out seemingly minor details that, in their way, express the breadth (and depths) of the experience of Auschwitz. A case in point is a moment shortly after Levi’s arrival when he seeks to relieve his thirst by pulling an icicle from the corner of the roof of his hut. The icicle is immediately confiscated by a guard and Levi, in an act that would certainly seem absurdly daring to anyone fully aware of the gravity of the situation (as Levi would only later become), asks why. The guard response is curt and chilling: “Hier ist kein warum.” (“There’s no why here).

This simple exchange encapsulates the transition endured by Levi and all those sent to Auschwitz from the space of the human to a liminal zone between humanity and non-existence. The capacity, one might perhaps even say the right, to inquire about our circumstances and to have those in power render some account. It is a feature of human society, perhaps intrinsic but at least general, that this capacity is to one degree or another held in abeyance. For those sent to Auschwitz it was utterly obliterated, with physical obliteration to follow hard upon for the vast majority.

One of the peculiarities of Levi’s literary career is the rather deflationary renderings of the titles of his works in translation. Thus, for instance, his book about his year-long journey from Auschwitz back to Turin was titled La Tregua (The Truce), meaning thereby to express the way that he experienced it as a break between the struggles of his life in Auschwitz and the beginning of his struggle to live everyday life in its aftermath. Levi’s American publisher retitled the book The Reawakening, a title Levi hated because, as he later noted, his imprisonment in Auschwitz was the time that he had felt most awake in his entire life.

The work that most Americans know by the title Survival in Auschwitz was originally titled Se questo è un uomo (If This is a Man). This title too is important, as the central theme of the book is the demonstration that humanity did endure in the camps, alloyed here with self-interest, there with brutality, but arising ever anew from beneath the layers of horror, and never fully extinguished.

This is never clearer than in the chapter entitled “The Canto of Ulysses.” Sent to retrieve the midday ration of soup with a Frenchman, fellow prisoner (and fellow survivor) Jean Samuel, Levi discovers that his comrade would like to learn Italian. Levi sets to work immediately (“as one day is a good as another” says Levi remarking on the present-centered temporality of camp life).

Levi’s method of instruction is not to start listing verb conjugation. Rather, he begins by reciting passages from the canto of Ulysses in Dante’s Divine Comedy:

The greater horn within that ancient flame

began to sway and tremble, murmuring,

just like a fire that struggles in the wind;

the, he waved his flame-tip back and forth,

as if it were a tongue that tried to speak,

and flung toward us a voice that answered: “When I departed”

Ultimately the language lesson is ineffective. But the exercise has merit nonetheless. It functions to remind Levi of the world of human culture that endures beyond the limits of the camps, and beyond the limits of the tortured brains that created them. But it is also a moments of fundamental communication. The attempt to teach language fails but, ironically, the attempt to forge an intimate connection with another human being succeeds in the face of what are, given the circumstances, very long odds.

It is no surprise, given the essential humanism the underlies Levi’s worldview that perhaps his greatest talent, as illustrated by If This is a Man, is his capacity to understand his fellow man. In the chapter entitled “The Drowned and the Saved,” Levi puts this talent to use to show the strategies that people employed to avoid death. He describes Schepschel, whose strategy is simply to reduce his existence to the most meagre requirements and “has become accustomed to thinking of himself merely as a sack that needs periodic refilling.”

Then there is Alfred L., an engineer who makes use of intense personal discipline and strategic thinking to make himself seem like an important person, and thus managed to become one. “L. knew that it’s a short step from being judged powerful to effectively becoming so,” thus managed through self-denial to play a long game “in an environment dominated by a mentality of the provisional.

But it is the final two character studies in the chapter that are the most remarkable. Levi first described Elias Lindzin, a heavily muscled, borderline dwarf with a seemingly unlimited capacity for both hard physical labor and bizarre utterances. He speaks only Polish and “the surly, deformed Yiddish of Warsaw,” but in the babel of the camp, he can make himself understood, and his capacity for superhuman feats of labor means that “by the absurd law of the Lager” he is seldom called on to work, actually. This analysis of Elias leads Levi to some of his most profound thoughts on the human implications of the camp.

We can now ask who is this man Elias: if he is a madman, incomprehensible and superhuman, who ended up in the Lager by chance; if he is an atavism, out of place in our modern world, and better suited to the primordial conditions of the camp, what we will all become if we do not die in the camp, and if the camp itself does not end first.

Elias represents for Levi, at least in a certain sense, a new species of human, one of the many types of new man of the sort that we so often proposed in the 1950s and 1960s. “Elias has survived destruction from the outside, because he is physically indestructible,” writes Levi. “He has resisted annihilation from within because he is insane.” Levi concludes with what must be one of the most singular and startling lines in the entire literature on the Holocaust: “Elias, as far as it is possible to judge from the outside, and as far as the word can have meaning, was in all likelihood a happy individual.”

Finally, Levi turns his attention to the young Frenchman Henri. He is in many respects Elias’s opposite: cold and calculating, possessing both “an excellent scientific and classical education” and “a complete and organic theory of the ways to survive in the Lager.” He speaks four languages (including German with native facility). He has traded on his good looks and his ingratiating ways to monopolize trade with the English POWs and has thus at 17 made himself one of the most effective of the camp prominents. His capacity to manipulate people is used “with the competence of someone using a scientific instrument.” And it is precisely this quality which unsettles Levi. His closing remarks on Henri are worth citing at length:

To speak with Henri is useful and pleasant. Sometimes one also feels a warmth and closeness; communication, even affection appears possible. One seems to glimpse the sorrowful, conscious human depths of his uncommon personality. But the next moment his sad smile freezes into a cold grimace that appears practiced at the mirror; Henri politely excuses himself (“…j’ai quelque chose à faire,” “…j’ai quelqu’un à voir”) and here he is again, intent on his hunt and his struggle: hard and distant, enclosed in armor, the enemy of all, inhumanly sly and incomprehensible, like the Serpent in Genesis.

After all my talks with Henri, even the most cordial, I have always had a slight taste of defeat, and a confused suspicion of having been, in some inadvertent way, not a man to him but an instrument in his hands.

I know that Henri is alive today. I would give much to know of his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again.

This last line constitutes a rather severe condemnation for someone who did not (so far as the evidence we have goes) steal bread, or dime out other prisoners, or prostitute himself sexually. Its sources must be sought in the fundamental nature of culture and communication as those resources with which the human could be maintained.

Henri was supplied in plenty with everything necessary to be a model human. But he instrumentalized his fellow men and used his remarkable gifts as mere tools in the struggle for survival. Levi does not believe that he was necessarily wrong to do so, but the use of these specifically human resources in such crassly instrumental ways leaves a bad taste in his mouth, one which he does not wish to revisit due to further contact with Henri.

Perhaps we could designate the century just past as that of the truth-teller. Even remaining within the ambit of Europe the list is long: from Klemperer to Kovály and Buber-Neumann and Koestler and Kravchenko, and the dozens of others who had the luck and courage to survive the century’s horrors and to put them into words. Levi must certainly hold a prominent place among them. His most significant quality is his (in the best sense of the term) humanism.

The 20th century was indelibly marked by Nazism’s signal accomplishment, that of melding civilization and brutality in such a way as to plumb depths beneath simple barbarism. Levi’s writings, both in content and in form, stand in utter defiance against this, resolved to defend and preserve a humane civility which, although imperfect, is the last, best hope for victory over the thugs.

Photographs courtesy of Micki and notesfromzembla. Published under a Creative Commons license.