“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of man.”
These are the words of an unassuming Italian chemist named Primo Levi. He was once made to take another name: 174517. For eleven months he managed this name in Monowitz, one of the three main concentration camps in the Auschwitz complex. If This is a Man, a book of his still-living interment, was written shortly after returning to his home town of Turin where despite the comfort of a bed, food, and the reunion with his family, his dreams remained frozen around the dawn command of Auschwitz: “Wstawàch” — “get up.”
When musing on the question of “what would you be today if you had not been a prisoner in the Camp?”, though impossible to answer, it prompts him to state: “if I had not lived the Auschwitz experience, I probably would never have written anything. I would not have had the motivation, the incentive, to write.” The itch to write, or the need to write, struck Levi first in the Camp. He would scribble thoughts on chance scraps of paper, knowing he could not keep them; this ephemeral quality, like stepping stones that sunk once the foot had jumped to the next, kept stringing along that sense of vitality in Levi. In writing, there is an “I” who is embedded in experience and language, however agonizing, brutal and sickening; there is an “I” which cannot be signified in a number.
Levi begun If This is a Man about three months after he arrived home. He had also begun to write poetry. Poetry was the first form that Levi turned to upon his return, asides from the fragments of tales he told to strangers on the train to and from his job at a paint factory. Poetry in Europe after Auschwitz, as some will know, underwent a significant shift. The cultural critic, Theodor Adorno, famously said, and in these words was famously misunderstood: “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This contextual-based phrase was not meant as a moral injunction to not write poetry; it is more an injunction to meet the ungraspable barbarism of the holocaust, and not just to meet it, but to live after it, in its wake. This is, poets or not, what so many survivors were forced to endure: liberation from such a state as the Camp can often, sadly, be only physical.
Levi is not enshrined for his poetry. It did, however, offer for him a form for the ambiguity and ambivalence he must have felt upon returning home. Levi’s poetry hints at something we do not find so readily available in the memoirs:
Sir, please accept my resignation
As of next month,
And, if it seems right, plan on replacing me.
I’m leaving much unfinished work,
Whether out of laziness or actual problems.
I was supposed to tell someone something,
But I no longer know what and to whom: I’ve forgotten.
(From Unfinished Business)
Of course, it is not to equate the man with his poetry. It is to say he could express these deep ambivalences, in this case ambivalence to living and striving, in a form ready to accept such thoughts. Opposed to this is what is found in If This is a Man and The Truce: a narrative based on objective study. A steadfast ability, as Philip Roth said about Levi’s work, ‘to remember the German hell on earth […] and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose’.
Writing If This is a Man, Levi tells us, came as if he were merely playing stenographer to his mind: “I did not have to struggle with laziness, problems of style seemed ridiculous to me. […] it seemed as if those books were all there, ready in my head.” Here, as opposed to the poem already cited, we find a voice of righteous will, of a man reclaiming his name, his life, and the lives doomed to the sentence of the Camp. Levi found that this reclamation was to be sought through a strict keeping to the facts. He does not lapse into sentimentality, nor bitter vengeful diatribes; either forms would be accepted with the utmost sympathy, but Levi was writing beyond emotionality: he was writing the facts of a life in the Auschwitz complex. To understand this complex, Levi’s text seems to indicate, one has to understand the internal machinations: the complex economic system, the social codes, the factionalism, the inter-relationships between guard and prisoner. Levi is the guide who takes the reader, somehow, through humanity’s loss of identity and savage torture in a style that is naïve enough to tell all it sees.
Levi wants to gather all the information he can to distill some meaning. It is of the utmost importance that the Holocaust be not isolated from history, but rather understood as a passage that history was more than capable of. Distilling meaning, like the chemist he was, led him to the man. The man in all its diversity under the suffocating space of the Camp. His narrative in If This is a Man is inextricably bound to stories, to characters, to lived experience. The genocide is not portrayed in the statistics we have come to know, but through the grueling experiences of day to day living on the inside.
Levi circumscribed the silence of the Camps by, as he says, “modelling his writing on a chemist’s lab report.”
Any reader of the text will know that it is not as cold as it sounds. It written with that implicit passion of humanity writing back to their persecutors in order to understand and judge them. If Levi concentrated his powers on writing a logical telling of the Camps, and the title “if this is a man” appears as a logical question, then it is a necessary logic, an urgent logic springing from a humane source.
Levi would go on to write a sequel to If This is a Man, namely The Truce. In the U.S., the sequel was renamed as The Reawakening which in some ways speaks true and in others belies the significance of the original title. A truce can be broken; it is based on a certain precarity; the terror of conflict can return. Levi went on to write in a variety of forms, but never left the lesson of the Camp, returning to it again and again in book reviews and public speeches. In 1987, Levi fell from his three-story apartment and died. The coroner, and subsequent biographers, assumed suicide although no note was left. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and writer, commented: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.”
The ambiguity around his death is easily seen in the poem quoted above, as it is seen the title of his sequel “The Truce.” It is perhaps an all too ready narrative to place on Levi, but, even so, it is one that highlights the incredible moral vigor and mental strength that sustained him for the forty years after Auschwitz. If he did make a “truce” with that dark ambiguity to living, then he did so for moral reasons. He did so to regain a voice fluent and lucid enough to tell the horrors of the Camp.
Levi was sensitive enough to understand something fundamental about language, about its contextual usage. He writes: “we say ‘hunger,” we say “tiredness,” “fear,” “pain,”we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers (camps) had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born.” Levi, so perceptively pointing this out, wrote endlessly to stave off that silence which separates his experience from other living human beings. He wrote in spite of the silence that wished to subsume him, finding instead the the courage to work towards a necessary translation.
Carl Kruse also hangs out on his art blog at https://carlkruse.net.