Book review week: If This is a Man by Primo Levi

Levi

What is chastening about Levi’s writing is its freedom from self-indulgence. There isn’t even a hint of hysterical recrimination. How easy, and how understandable, it would have been for him to have adopted such a tone. He chose to build instead: out of the mud, the blows dealt without anger, out of that unique humiliation he has constructed two incomparable works of art … (Paul Bailey, introduction to If This is a Man)

Bailey is right. One of the first things you notice about Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is what’s not there: the absence of hysteria, of hand-wringing, even — with one exception — the absence of anger.

It’s not what I was expecting from the story of Levi’s capture in Italy at the end of 1943 as the leader of a band of anti-Fascist partisans, his deportation to Auschwitz — “We had learnt of our destination with relief. Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth” — and his survival against the odds until the entry into the camp of the Russians in January 1945.

I also wasn’t expecting the joy of the companion book, The Truce, the story of the nine months he and the other survivors of Auschwitz spent afterwards wandering through Poland and the Soviet Union before their return to Italy.

The version of If This is a Man we read today was published in 1958, though parts of an early version had also been published in a Communist Party newspaper in 1947. As Mirna Cicioni notes, the book is firmly within the genre of Holocaust literature, and features a similar sequence of events to those of other survivor accounts, “arrest, journey to the camp, arrival, initiation, conditions, liberation”. However, Levi’s account is more than a survivor’s account of the Holocaust. It’s also a philosophical and sociological examination of what it means to be human, and this is signalled from the outset in his intention and approach.

His intention is always to witness, not to accuse or appeal or condemn.

I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge.

He succeeds magnificently, adopting the demeanour of the authentic witness: quiet, calm, sober, curious, faithful, observant. It’s also a stance close to what we might guess was his natural bent. In civilian life he was a chemist, and at many points in the book, the scientist is manifest.

Levi was also a man with a great love of literature and culture, and the book is filled with literary references. In one of the famous passages he attempts to teach Jean, the French pikolo (messenger clerk), to speak Italian while walking with him — brief hiatus from drudgery — to get the soup ration. In desperation at how to do it, he hits on reciting the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno.

He ransacks his deadened memory for the precious fragments: ” … So on the open sea I set forth … Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance/Your mettle was not made; you were made men/To follow after knowledge and excellence … And over our heads the hollow seas closed up …”

… oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin!

*

There was not one camp at Auschwitz: there were 39 of them. There was the town of Auschwitz and inside it there was a camp, which was Auschwitz proper, that is to say, the capital of the system. Two kilometres further down there was Birkenau, that is to say Auschwitz II, where the gas chambers were … Further up there was the factory, and by the factory there was Monowitz, or Auschwitz III. That is where I was … In my camp there were about 10,000 of us; in Auschwitz I there were 15 or 20,000; in Birkenau many more, 70 or 80,000 …

If This is a Man is a story of numbers. When he starts on the train journey for Poland, Levi is one of 650 Italian “pieces.” On arriving at the train station at Auschwitz, he is one of 96 men selected to work at Monowitz camp. Another 29 women are selected to work at Birkenau. Of “all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.”

When he enters Monowitz, he enters a realm where numbers are all.

I have learnt that I am Häftling [prisoner]. My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.

This number, which will become famous after the war as a symbol of resistance to fascism, racism and anti-semitism, locates him precisely within the unique pecking order of the camp. He’s a “high number” or newcomer, naive, dumb, a tormenting interrogator of the other more seasoned prisoners, one who “can be convinced that leather shoes are distributed at the infirmary to all those with delicate feet.”

It also locates him as one of the shipment of Italian Jews as distinct from those in the range 30,000 to 80,000 whom “everyone will treat with respect … there are only a few hundred left and they represented the few survivals from the Polish ghettos,” or those with a 116,000 or a 117,000, the Greeks from Salonica, who “now number only about forty” and whom one must watch closely in commercial dealings to make sure “they do not pull the wool over your eyes.”

*

The “funereal science of numbers” determines Primo Levi’s life in Auschwitz at every point. During the first days and weeks, his number has betokened a naivety fearful to those around him. By the time of his first visit to the camp infirmary, it measures the distance he has yet to travel when he asks of a fellow patient,

Is it true what one hears of selections, of gas, of crematoriums?

Schmulek, the other patient replies.

Show me your number: you are 174517. This numbering began eighteen months ago and applies to Auschwitz and the dependent camps. There are now ten thousand of us here at Buna-Monowitz; perhaps thirty thousand between Auschwitz and Birkenau. Wo sind die Andere? Where are the others?

The logic of numbers also powers the camp economy.

A “high number”, that is, a new arrival, only recently but sufficiently besotted by hunger and by the extreme tension of life in the camp, is noticed by a “low number” for the number of his gold teeth; the “low” offers the “high” three or four rations of bread to be paid in return for extraction.

By the summer, just a few months later, his number speaks of his ascension to the Low Numbers and the magnitude of his feat in staying alive. The respect and awe he once accorded others is now accorded him.

We were old Häftlinge: our wisdom lay in “not trying to understand”, not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would all be over; not asking others or ourselves any questions.

*

After the war, Levi attributed his survival chiefly to luck.

He was “lucky” in being deported to Auschwitz in 1944, “that is, after the German Government had decided, owing the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of prisoners destined for elimination …”

He was lucky in being a chemist and being conscripted to work inside at the chemical laboratory attached to the camp during the worst of the winter months. He was lucky in always having a close comrade – Leonardo, Cesare, Alberto, Charles – with whom to share the battle for survival.

He was lucky in Lorenzo, an Italian civilian working in the surrounding countryside who brought him a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months, and gave him a vest “full of patches.” Levi honoured him ever after, not least in the naming of his children, son Renzo, and daughter, Lisa Lorenza.

Most of all, he was lucky in avoiding the selections, the process by which individuals are sized up in a glance as having some particle of usefulness still remaining in them or else selected for transport to Birkenau, meaning death by gas within two days. Though intimated several times, Levi withholds the description of the selections until quite close to the end of the book, as if he’s been preparing himself, and we, the readers.

On the day of the dread event, foretold for weeks by way of a thousand microscopic signs and nuances, each block of prisoners is locked in and ordered to undress except for shoes. They wait for hours for their turn. When it comes they crowd into the small Tagesraum, or Quartermaster’s office, squashed against each other, holding up their nose above the pack “so as to breathe.”

Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door. The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one’s back and front, judges everyone’s fate, and in turn gives the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us.

The obscene, central fact of Levi’s account is the indiscrimination of death. It had been introduced at the railway station on their arrival:

We also know that not even this tenuous principle of discrimination between fit and unfit was always followed, and that later the simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals. Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber.

Now it reaches its apotheosis in the selection scene. It is the horror of this indiscrimination that also underlies Levi’s violent reaction to the selection described, the one time in the book where he displays anger.

… I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realise that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

*

There are two final numbers I want to mention before concluding.

In January 1945, about 11 months after Levi’s entry to the camp, the Russian front was about to arrive in Auschwitz. The Germans, panicked and disbelieving, evacuated all the healthy prisoners from the camp. Around 20,000 in number, they “vanished on the march”.

Levi, ill with scarlet fever, was left behind. The ten days he passed in the infirmary between the Germans’ departure – “The Germans were no longer there. The towers were empty” – and the arrival of the Russians, abandoned with the typhus and dysentery cases, without help, without food, without heat, are the subject of the most harrowing chapter of the book.

Among hundreds of patients dying in their beds, corpses falling lifeless from the upper bunks, the floor covered in frozen excrement, Levi survives again this belated, ultimate test, and for ten days, manages to keep alive all but one of the men with whom he shared the ward.

The second number comes at the end of companion book, The Truce.

*

Bailey notes, “Although a crude over-simplification, it is nevertheless essentially true that If This is a Man is about the descent into, and The Truce about the flight away from, hell.”

The statement is crude, he says, because If This is a Man, despite its appalling subject, is not dispiriting. And this is very true. The Truce, on the other hand, “is almost all light.”

The story of Levi’s sojourns in the transit camp of Katowice, and, unforgettably, the Red House in Starye Dorogi in the Soviet Union, is magical. As well as the wonderful scenes and characters, and the endearing portrait of the Russians, there are two moments of majesty, albeit conveyed with Levi’s characteristic understatement.

There is the moment when the train which has finally been prepared to take them home, after travelling southward for days and weeks through the USSR and Romania, swings around at last towards the west, the west where Italy lies. Then there’s the moment when they finally pass into Italy. And it’s here Levi makes the final accounting.

Late at night we crossed the Brenner, which we had passed in our exile twenty months before; our less tired companions celebrated with a cheerful uproar; Leonardo and I remained lost in a silence crowded with memories. Of 650, our number when we had left, three of us were remaining.

*

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