Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Writers reviewed: Primo Levi

Paul O'Brien

It is not just the rise of the new right that makes it necessary to affirm the depravity of the Holocaust. The enormity of what took place led to a feeling, shared by the victim and the oppressor alike, that few would believe that extermination on such a scale could have taken place. As the Russians advanced, the camps in the east were liquidated. In late 1944 the Nazis blew up the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. All inmates were to be liquidated. Jews, gypsies and the insane were to be erased from history without a trace.

It is this idea that goes to the heart of everything Primo Levi wrote: `We, the survivors are not the true witnesses the true witnesses, those in full possession of the terrible truth are the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated. We speak in their stead by proxy the saved, who have written of their experience of the concentration camps.'

Primo Levi was born in 1919 in Turin. As a young chemist in 1943 he helped form a partisan band to fight the German occupation. He was captured in February 1944 and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. He survived, and two books which he wrote in 1947, If This is a Man and The Truce, about his descent into the hell of Auschwitz and the story of his liberation and journey home, are now regarded as classics.

If This is a Man is probably his best book. This is a book about heroes, about men who refused to be reduced to beasts, who somehow found the strength to retain their humanity. To stop caring about yourself, not to wash, to give up, was a death sentence. Levi, like everyone at the beginning found it difficult. His friend Steinhof demands that he wash.`We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to the Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.' His friendship with Alberto and Lorenzo, who risked his life to bring Levi an extra quart of soup each day, which was shared with Alberto, is a triumph of human dignity.

The Truce, which is published in a single volume with If This is a Man, is the account of his liberation from the camp in January 1945 and the eight month trek across Europe before he reached home. First sent east into Russia, it seemed Levi and his companions would be submerged into the chaos and devastation of Europe at the end of the war, till finally 1,200 Italians boarded a train in Romania for their final journey home. The film of The Truce is in production and due for release next year.

Levi has sometimes been accused of believing that resistance in the camps was almost impossible. But resistance is in every book he wrote. In The Drowned and the Saved his last book before he died in 1987 he describes the political activists who had the will to act in defence of their companions. He describes how the special commando, those wretches attached to the gas chambers and ovens, whose job was to dispose of the bodies from the gas chambers, found in themselves the strength to fight back. They blew up one of the five crematoria, which slowed down the rate of the Nazis' extermination process. In doing so they ensured their own death. Levi describes the execution of one who took part in the revolt. All those in the camp had to witness the hanging. As the noose was put around his neck he cried out, `Comrades, I am the last one!' It struck the living core of each man present, because it touched the shame of the those who had not the strength to fight back.

Levi does not avoid describing the terrible things the inmates did to survive.

In The Drowned and the Saved he describes `the grey zone' that of the privileged prisoner. Death by starvation was the prisoners' normal destiny. To obtain extra food, privilege was necessary and collaboration with the system was the main way to achieve it. Levi tries not to judge but to explain, and in the process he unwraps layer by layer the operation of the camp.

His own access to privilege arose from his education as a chemist. IG Farben, a German chemical company, had built a factory in the camp using slave labour. His trade became his salvation. From his experience he wrote The Periodic Table. Each chapter has as its title the name of a chemical element, but it's not really about chemistry, it's about the human condition as Levi found it.

After writing his first two books Levi did not feel the need to write anything else. He had testified. As the years passed he realised his experiences were far from exhausted. Levi turned his hand to fiction. In 1982 he published If not now when? based on the true story of Polish and Russian refugees stranded behind German lines who offer what resistance thay can to the German army. It's a book about resistance, adventure and the moral crisis the partisan group face operating behind enemy lines. Like all great writers he manages to convince us that these are real people. The line between fact and fiction disappears and we are drawn into their life and death struggle.

The Wrench, his other major fictional work, is the story of a journeyman steel erector. We follow the life and work of Libertino Faussone as he moves from job to job. At times the book takes on an aspect of a romantic fairy tale. Like all his books it is about heroes, where humanity and decency shine through whatever the circumstances.

After his death his poetry and newspaper articles were collected together in various editions, notably in Other People's Trades. While not of the stature of his earlier work, they confirm him as one of the great writers of the 20th century.

As you enter Auschwitz a sign over the gate reads `Arbeit Macht Frei' Work Makes You Free. This was the first of many obscenities the inmates had to bear. Language turned on its head, freedom in Auschwitz meant death. Primo Levi gives us back our language, as he managed to find real freedom in the nooks and crannies of barbarism. His survival gave us the words to shout from the rooftops, 'Never again!'


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page