Primo Levi

Book cover - click to view bibliographyIF THIS IS A MAN / THE TRUCE

by Primo Levi

If you are only going to read one book in your life, make it IF THIS IS A MAN (1947) by Primo Levi. And if you do decide to read this book, then you should read it alongside THE TRUCE (1963) - they are often incorporated into the same cover anyway, and this Abacus edition confirms it.

It is a painful read, full of pathos and human suffering, and it won't make you feel good. Levi wrote it to bear witness to the horrors of the Nazi's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. It is a book that each one of us should read - in fact I think it should be a compulsory part of the education curriculum (in some countries and schools, already is) - lest we forget. I am by nature a forgiving person and my view is forgive but don't forget, however with this book at times I truly think humanity whilst certainly not forgetting, should neither have forgiven.

Primo Levi was a Jewish Italian chemist, Holocaust (Shoah) survivor, author of memoirs, short stories, poems and novels. I have read just about everything he ever wrote. I am most familiar with the work he wrote on the Holocaust, specifically the time he spent in Auschwitz, the infamous death camp in Nazi occupied Poland. I consider his writing to be the most important of the twentieth century.

Primo Levi was born in Torino (Turin) in 1919. He studied chemistry at the University of Torino, but had trouble presenting his thesis in 1938 because of the discrimination against Jews. He finally managed to graduate in 1941, but with a thesis in physics. His diploma stated "Of the Jewish race". Naturally, he had difficulty finding work. And two years later, when the Germans invaded northern Italy, Levi fled to the mountains with a pearl-handled pistol, joining an ineffectual band of partisans. "I was twenty-four," he would recall, "with little wisdom, no experience, and a decided tendency--encouraged by the life of segregation forced on me for the previous four years by the racial laws--to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms...." Captured at once by a troop of Fascist militia, Levi soon found himself crossing the Brenner Pass in a cattle car, en route to a location whose name had not yet acquired its terrible, latter-day resonance: Auschwitz.

"We found out about our destination and this gave us a sense of relief. Auschwitz: the name didn't mean anything to us, at the time", Levi writes.

Out of the 650 Italian Jews in his "shipment," Levi was one of the 20 who left the camps alive. He attributed his survival to luck, to his skills as a chemist (which the Germans utilized in the synthetic-rubber factory attached to the camp), and to the furtive care packages he received from an interned Italian bricklayer. He also had the paradoxical good luck to be stricken with scarlet fever just as the Germans began to evacuate the Auschwitz complex. Left behind for dead, he survived, and was liberated along with a handful of other disease-ridden inmates in January 1945.

Levi returned to Turin, married, and resumed his career as chemist. Yet he felt driven to record his wartime ordeal, and in spare time he composed IF THIS IS A MAN (U.S.A.: "Survival In Auschwitz"). Fantastically enough, his memoir was rejected by several publishers, and when a small press brought it out in 1947, the book disappeared without a trace. Not until 1958, when it was reissued by Italian publisher Einaudi, did IF THIS IS A MAN find a wide audience.

Today, half a century after its initial appearance, it continues to astonish. Written in a prose of tactful precision, shirking metaphysics, Levi's account documents the mundane life of the camp, setting out the author's experiences with a modest, appalling dailiness. Even the number tattooed on his arm--which functioned as an impromptu meal ticket--is registered as merely one more fact of life. "Several days passed," Levi writes, "and not a few cuffs and punches, before we became used to showing our number promptly enough not to disorder the daily operation of food-distribution; weeks and months were needed to learn its sound in the German language. And for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, its number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin."

Primo Levi survived the camps, and as a witness he felt he had to write about the absurdity of what went on there. He described the indescribable, so that people would ask themselves why, and examine their conscience . He wrote about his pain in the camp, and about his adventurous way home, and gave it the title of his most famous poem - which is reproduced below as translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann:

    (from the prayer 'Shema Yisrael', Hear O Israel)

    You who live secure
    In your warm houses
    Who return at evening to find
    Hot food and friendly faces:
    Consider whether this is a man,
    Who labours in the mud
    Who knows no peace
    Who fights for a crust of bread
    Who dies at a yes or a no.
    Consider whether this is a woman,
    Without hair or name
    With no more strength to remember
    Eyes empty and womb cold
    As a frog in winter.
    Consider that this has been:
    I commend these words to you.
    Engrave them on your hearts
    When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
    When you go to bed, when you rise.
    Repeat them to your children.
    Or may your house crumble,
    Disease render you powerless,
    Your offspring avert their faces from you.
(Translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann)

Levi died on April 11th 1987. He fell from the interior landing of his third storey apartment - landing on the ground below. This led to speculation that he killed himself. Many thought that he had actually died some forty years before in Auschwitz and it was only his drive to record the horrors he had witnessed, that allowed him to continue beyond that time.

"Today, I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence." - Primo Levi

If these are men...

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