Book Reviews / Just Words

Holocaust Memorial Day 2015: Levi’s words keep the memory alive, 70 years since Auschwitz’s liberation

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Today more than any other day we are asked to remember one of the worst horrors in History. It was the systematic killing of millions of people who were deemed different from the dominant culture. This is a review of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man I wrote some time ago. His is one of the most important books contributing to our collective memory. His reflections are as relevant today as they will be for as long as sufferance and violence remain part of the human experience.

After reading If this is a man the first time I thought to myself: I am won’t go through this ever again. I was thirteen at the time. The book impressed me a lot, at the point that my mood was affected by it, as I would often feel depressed after finishing a chapter. Yet I had to read it again, as this is the kind of book one should read again and again.

The chapter on the journey to Auschwitz still moved me like the first time I’ve read it, but this time one of the chapters that fascinated me the most was the one on Ulysses’ song. Levi struggles to remember a few verses of Dante’s Divine Comedy and to translate them to his French inmate, Jean. As he tries to remember the right verses and to accurately translate thewords, he becomes aware of the importance of what he is reciting. He wants to make sure that Jean understands what he is talking about, especially when dealing with the passage “You were not made to live like unto brutes, But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge”. These words speak to him, and to all of them: “It was as if I also heard it the first time: like the sound of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment, I forgot who I am and where I am”. [102] Through Dante, and through poetry, Levi rediscovers for a moment that humanity he thought was lost forever.

This is just one instance in which Levi touches upon the importance of words, even the ones that we take for granted, like our names: “They’re going to take away our name too: if we wanted to keep it, we would have to find the strength to do it, so that behind the name, something still ours, of the way we were, stayed”. [23] A name gives an identity, an identity implies the existence of a human being. By remembering their own names, the prisoners oppose the system that wants them to be recognized through a number and dehumanise them.

Levi, who would give his ration of soup of the day to remember the final verses of the chant, attributes a huge importance to the theme of memory. Memory and words are closely related, because how else can we remember something if not through words? In the last century or so, we were able to use cameras and remember through images, but when you have nothing but your senses to register experiences, then your memories can only communicated to others through words.

Levi uses words, and language, magnificently, even if “for the first time, we realised that our language is missing words to describe this offence, the demolition of a man”. [23] His prose is clear, elegant, and generally calm, which is quite surprising seen the episodes he narrates. His descriptions are accurate and simple. At times, he sounds so detached by what he is writing that it seems to read a sociological essay on how to survive the Lager, like the chapter “The Drowned and the Saved” [79-90]. In other instances, he abandons himself to despair, but those are usually brief moments; other times, his words are harsh and show his frustration and disillusion: “If I were God, I would spit Kuhn’s prayer on the ground.” [116]

His prose is even more powerful because, from page 14 onwards, Levi writes in present tense. We go through the chapters scene by scene, moment by moment, and we also feel that “the problem of the distant future has faded, it has lost any significance, in front of the more urgent and pressing problems of the near future”, so that we get a little closer in understanding how it must have felt like to live with no certainty regarding the following day. [31] But how close do we actually get to the true experience?

We are still far away, but not as distant as we would be if we never heard or read those words. Levi himself reflects on the inadequacy of the present language to describe life in Auschwitz:

We say “hunger”, we say “tiredness”, “fear”, and “pain” and “winter”, but these are other things. These are free words, made up and used by free men who lived, enjoying and suffering, in their own homes. If the Lager lasted longer, a new, sour language would have born; and you need this to explain what it means to work all day long in the wind, the temperature below zero, only wearing shirt, underwear, jacket and cotton trousers, the body weak and hungry and aware of the end that comes.” [110]

It takes me a few seconds to read that Levi and the other sick people in the Ka-Be had to stay naked for six hours; I take account of what this implies, but I will never fully understand what it must have felt like, and then I can always just move on to the next line. Words cannot make me feel what they have seen, touched, smelled. However, I do understand what Levi means when he starts reminiscing about the Piedmontese mountains and begs: “don’t let me think of my mountains appearing in the evening dusk when, by train, I would be coming back from Milano to Torino.” [102] Every Piedmontese associates the mountains with the familiar landscape we call home, and the thought of home, and the way things used to be, is particularly difficult to endure.

Strangely enough, the thought of home does not reassure the prisoners, but they are actually anguished with the fear of coming back and not being listened to or believed, a fear that pervades their dreams, or, rather, nightmares. [54] Words need recipients that are willing to listen, understand, and believe, otherwise they’re powerless, and so is the person that pronounced them.

Levi is an honest writer and a modest man (like many Piedmontese are) and he realises that his account of what happened is just his witnessing, and that the people who have really seen the bottom haven’t come back to tell us how it was like. However, through his account and his curiosity in human nature, we gain a profound understanding of life in Auschwitz. Levi does not present the Holocaust as a crime against the Jews (and actually, religion plays very little role in the book) but as a crime against humanity. Therefore, the message is not: “this must never happen to us again”, but a more universal: “this must never happen again”.

Image: one of the train wagons that were used to deport Italian Jews to the camps, showcased in Primo Levi’s native town of Turin.

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