Written by Avery Weinman
Illustrated by Rose Teplitz
April 11, 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of writer, activist, and Holocaust Survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin, Italy. Leviathan remembers him in this issue to celebrate the fascinating life of a man who was truly a great author, and to honor him for his contributions to justice and empowering Holocaust survivors to come to be able to speak about their experiences.
This piece is too short a space to provide a biography that would do Primo Levi justice. Detailed accounts of his own life, in his own voice, are available in his numerous works and autobiographies including Survival in Auschwitz, The Periodic Table, Moments of Reprieve, and The Drowned and the Saved; these works provide more meaningful insight than anything I could hope to accomplish in this piece. I will say simply this: a chemist by trade, Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz after revealing he was Jewish when Italian fascists captured him as a Partisan fighter. His life both at Auschwitz and after is a portrait of both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. He dedicated his life to speaking and writing about the events and the lessons of the Holocaust.
Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God?
In this piece I will choose to focus on the legacy of Levi’s works, and what sets his work apart from other memoirs about the Holocaust. To do this, it is imperative to have a sense of what Holocaust literature looked like in the years immediately following the end of the Second
World War. In 1947, when Primo Levi originally published his first autobiography Survival in Auschwitz – in its original Italian language and title Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man) – Holocaust literature was in its infancy. The most popular Holocaust autobiography which existed at the time was The Diary of a Young Girl, known more popularly as The Diary of Anne Frank. And, while The Diary of a Young Girl recounts in great autobiographical detail the trauma of life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, it did not provide an autobiographical account of Anne Frank’s time at Auschwitz and her eventual murder at Bergen-Belsen. Viktor E. Frankl’s 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning – part Holocaust memoir, part explication of Frankl’s psychological method of logotherapy – predates Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz by one year, but is more of a study in the psychology of how and why people survive trauma than it is dedicated to telling the history of the Holocaust. Władysław Szpilman’s memoir from 1946, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939-1945 – the book which would inspire the acclaimed 2002 film of the same name – is similar to Frank’s memoir in that it describes in great detail the horror of Nazi rule in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, but does not venture into the realm of the Nazi concentration camps.
What makes Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz unique is that he recounted, for the first time in full and excruciatingly remembered detail, the reality of life at a concentration camp. Levi’s unflinching portrait of the pinnacle of human degradation in the modern era, coupled with prose that asked the audience to question the implications of the fact that the Holocaust was even able to happen at all, set Levi apart from the mainstream of the narrative of Holocaust memoirs at the time.
In the immediate years following World War Two, talking about the Holocaust was not yet an acceptable part of our global culture. The pervading sense was that Holocaust survivors, and more generally anyone who had any contact with the camps at all, were eager to forget and attempt to move on. Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz made this complacency impossible; the titular poem which opens the book – “If This is A Man” – made it clear that Levi intended to force the world whose indifference enabled the genocide of six million Jews to reflect fully on the fact that this has happened. Levi expanded upon the descriptions of the Holocaust provided by Frank, Frankl, and Szpilman and exposed the full depravity of the concentration camps. Levi’s prose is meticulous and comprehensive to the point that it causes the audience genuine discomfort, and the questions Levi asks of the audience are among the most acute ever asked about the Holocaust. Were civilian Germans, complicit in Nazi rule, responsible for the Holocaust? Who are we to judge the men and women in the Judenrat or who worked as Sonderkommandos? Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God? And, most importantly, since the Holocaust did happen, will it happen again?
In the Parshat Shoftim, the 48th weekly portion in the Jewish tradition of reciting the entirety of the Torah over a one year period, Moses speaks these words unto the Israelites, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” He did not say pursue justice only when it is uncomplicated, pursue justice only when it is easy to find, pursue justice only when it is painless; he said pursue justice, in all its complications, in all of its difficulty, in all the pain that it causes you to pursue it. Leviathan remembers Primo Levi in this issue, thirty years after his death, for his importance as a writer, as a survivor, as an activist, but most importantly for the lesson he offers us about the tenacity with which we must all pursue justice.
Primo Levi was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 when he was twenty-four years old, and he published his last book on the Holocaust, The Drowned and the Saved, in 1986, the year before his death at age sixty-seven. For forty-two years, Primo Levi spent his life reliving and recounting the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. And why? Why did he bear the burden of living in a state of excruciating trauma for so long? In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi wrote, “Even in this place [Auschwitz] one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”
Levi’s dedication to writing about the Holocaust led him to experience deep bouts of debilitating depression, but he continued to write because he knew that he had a deeply important and necessary job to do. In his utter commitment to reminding humanity of the Holocaust through revisiting his own trauma, Primo Levi pursued justice for the six million Jews who could not speak. They did not live to tell us their stories, but Levi could tell us his. This is how he could pursue justice. Through his service to us, in spite of the insurmountable tragedy he survived, he is a testament to us all about the voracity with which we must pursue justice. We must bear witness when others cannot. Unspeakable tragedies occur, but we must speak on them. We must speak on them to remind us all what we are capable of, and to pursue justice for those in the past, present, and future so that no one may have to relive what we suffer.