There are some, nowadays, who feel that we are suffering from a kind of over-exposure to the Holocaust, a sense of sanitization. Because we see it and hear of it so often we begin to feel that we understand it, that we ‘know’ about it; we begin, just as the deniers do, to turn our faces away. It is exactly this false sense of familiarity, and its numbing effect, which Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz-Monowitz, If This Is A Man, acts to counter; it is a book which becomes more, not less, relevant with the passing of time. An intensely personal account, it forces us out of our recent complacency, where the Holocaust becomes mere shorthand for something atrocious, and makes us view it through Levi’s eyes as one man’s lived experience. It has an urgency and a first-hand immediacy which cannot fail to make the reader stop and think; few who have read it would deny that it is one of the most important foreign language prose works to come out of the twentieth century.
Primo Levi was born in Turin just after the First World War. Despite Mussolini’s ban on Jewish higher education he went on to study Chemistry at university, graduating with merit in 1941. As the situation in Italy deteriorated Levi became part of a partisan band in the Alps, only to be captured by a fascist militia. Believing that he would be shot instantly as a partisan Levi confessed instead to being Jewish and in doing so set the events of If This Is A Man in motion: he was sent first to a detention camp and from there to Monowitz in Poland, a work camp which formed part of the wider Auschwitz complex. Levi recalls in the book that, with cruel irony, he and his comrades ‘learnt of our destination with relief’ because Auschwitz, ‘a name without significance for us at that time… at least implied some place on this earth’. He was to spend twenty months there, surviving both as the result of random chance – contracting scarlet fever and so being left behind whilst the others were taken on a death march – and because he was allowed, after a few months, to work indoors as a chemist. His ‘good luck’, if it can be called that, is shown by the fact that of the forty-five who travelled with him in his wagon, only four saw their homes again, and Levi states that this was by far the luckiest wagon. His own journey home was to prove long and unbelievably circuitous; it is this route, passing through the war-ravaged landscapes of Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany, which Levi describes in The Truce, often seen as a kind of sister novel to If This Is A Man, and also well worth reading; many editions include both.
Levi thus endured more in the space of two years than most have to undergo in a lifetime and, from the beginning, he felt a compulsion to write about it. Some argued after the war that it was impossible to put such experiences into words; Adorno for example stated that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Levi himself describes the difficulty of conveying his experiences with only the words of free men at his disposal, arguing that words like ‘hunger’ ‘tiredness’ ‘fear’ and ‘pain’ can never truly capture life in the Lager (a German term Levi uses to refer to the concentration camps); he was well aware of the limits of language. However, despite this Levi was an advocate of the written record. The fundamental effect of the camps was, after all, to reduce their inmates to silence, both by preventing their voices from being heard, and by destroying their desire to speak at all; If This Is A Man is an attempt to rebel against this, to remember, and to force others to listen, even if we cannot comprehend. Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah (a 1985 film about the Holocaust), stated that ‘The human brain is not prepared to understand this – even on the steps of the gas chamber’, and Levi agreed that ‘Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened’.
However, part of the power of If This Is A Man is that, in its evocation of seemingly minor physical details – the unbearable sores which you get from wearing wooden shoes, the careful scraping of the bowl to gain every last drop of soup – it makes the camps seem real, and textured in a way which a broader historical view often fails to do. One such example is the medical examination where the nurse and the doctor poke and prod at Levi’s body as if he was not there; another the Kapo, Alex, who unthinkingly wipes his dirty hands on Levi’s shoulder to clean them (the Kapos being camp prisoners themselves, given privileges in return for supervising work gangs). It is these humiliations and deprivations – the beatings, the cold, the labour, the near-constant diarrhoea – which pile up on each other to achieve what Levi describes as the ‘demolition of man’, the dehumanization of the inmates who lose the will to endure.
Yet Levi’s story is not exclusively an account of degradation and destruction; there are moments of what we, in the aforementioned inadequacy of our language, would describe as ‘hope’. Most notable is the Italian civilian worker Lorenzo, who brought Levi a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months, gave him a shirt and wrote a postcard home on his behalf. Levi writes that it was this which kept him alive, not so much from the physical aid but because his unselfish goodness reminded Levi that ‘there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole… something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving’. It thus shows us how it is possible for man to continue, even in the most appalling circumstances: ‘how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.’
The book is a testament to the survival of the human spirit. It thus makes it all the more harrowing that the Holocaust was to blight Levi’s own life irreparably; he suffered from intense depression and is thought to have committed suicide in 1987. It is a tragic footnote to a book which is itself unbearable at times. However, the more Levi reveals to us the true extent to which a human can sink and still remain alive, the more we must be grateful to him: his work is painful and despairing, but it is also magnanimous and, at times, even beautiful. There is nothing quite like it in the whole body of literature on the Holocaust: we must read it and be truly prepared to face the horror it depicts, or else do a disservice to this most remarkable of men.