July 31st was the centenary of the birth of Primo Levi in 1919. We read and discussed extracts from some of his writings- here from “If this is a Man”, his description of life in Auschwitz, and “The Truce” his liberation and journey home.
IF THIS IS A MAN
In 1943 Primo Levi joined an Italian partisan band, hoping to affiliate with the “Justice and Liberty” resistance, but on 13 December was captured by a Fascist militia and sent to the detention camp at Fossoli. From there he was taken to Auschwitz as prisoner 174517, the number tattooed on his left arm. Selected as someone fit for work, he joined the gangs building a factory at Buna intended to produce artificial rubber.
At the moment of my arrival, that is, at the end of January 1944, there were about one hundred and fifty Italian Jews in the camp, but within a few weeks their number rose to over six hundred. On the morning of the 21st [February] we learned that on the following day the Jews would be leaving. Our destination? Nobody knew. We should be prepared for a fortnight of travel. For every person missing at the roll-call, ten would be shot. Only a minority of ingenuous and deluded souls continued to hope; we others had spoken with the Polish and Croat refugees and we knew what departure meant. All took leave from life in a manner which most suited them. Some praying, some deliberately drunk, others lustfully intoxicated for the last time. We experienced within ourselves a grief that was new for us, the ancient grief of a people that has no land, the grief without hope of the exodus which is renewed every century.
The climax came suddenly. The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A dozen SS men stood around, with an indifferent air. In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all of the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.
It grieves me now that I have forgotten his plain, outspoken words, the words of ex-sergeant Steinlauf of the Austro-Hungarian army, Iron Cross of the ’14-’18 war. But this was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place 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 civilisation. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.
I am so tired and stunned that I, too, soon fall asleep, and I seem to be sleeping on the tracks of a railroad. I have my eyes closed and I do not want to open them lest my sleep escape me. This is my sister here, with some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: I speak of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose. It is an intense pleasure to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word.
When we arrived at the yard they took us to the Eisenröhreplatz, where they unload the iron pipes, and then the normal things of every day began. The Vorarbeiter [foreman] distributed the iron levers among us and the jacks among his friends. The usual little struggle took place to get the lightest levers, and today it went badly for me: mine is the twisted one which weighs perhaps thirty-five pounds. Then we left, each with his own lever, limping in the melting snow. At every step a little snow and mud stuck to the wooden soles of our shoes, until one walked unsteadily on two heavy, formless masses of which it was impossible to free oneself; then, when one suddenly came unstuck, it felt as if one leg was a hand shorter than the other. Today we have to unload an enormous, cast-iron cylinder from the wagon: I think it is a synthesis tube and will weigh several tons. This is better for us, as it is notoriously less exhausting to work with big loads than with small ones; in fact, the work is better subdivided, and we are given adequate tools. However, it is dangerous, one dare not let one’s attention wander, a moment’s oversight is sufficient to find oneself crushed.
We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilised institution is taken away, and that the Häftling [prisoner] is nothing but a man without inhibitions. We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.
To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. If the drowned have no story, and simple and broad is the road to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable. The most travelled road is the ‘Prominenten’, the name for the camp officials, from the Häftling-director to the Kapos, the cooks, the nurses, the night-guards, even to the hut sweepers and to the Scheissminister and Bademeister (superintendents of the latrines and showers). The Jewish prominents form a sad and notable human phenomenon. They are the typical product of the German Lager: if one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a state of slavery, exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept.
Although we do not think for more than a few minutes a day, and then in a strangely detached and external manner, we well know that we will end in selections. I know I am not made of the stuff of those who resist. And now I also know that I can save myself if I become a Specialist, and that I will become a Specialist if I pass a chemistry examination. We have entered. There is only Doktor Pannwitz; Alex, beret in hand, speaks to him in an undertone: ‘….… an Italian, has been here only three months, already half kaputt…. Er sagt er ist Chemikor.’
Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker, brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward. My case was not the only one. There were others of us who had contacts of various kinds with civilians, and derived from them the means to survive. I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still exists a just world outside our own for which it was worth surviving. Lorenzo was a man- his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo I managed not to forget that I was a man.
One feels the selections arriving. Everybody reacts in his own way, but hardly anyone with those attitudes which would seem the most plausible as the most realistic, that is with resignation or despair. In the latrines, in the washroom, we show each other our chests, our buttocks, our thighs, and our comrades reassure us: ‘You are all right, it will certainly not be your turn this time’. Nobody refuses this charity to another: nobody is so sure of his own lot to be able to condemn others. I brazenly lied to old Wertheimer; I told him that if they questioned him, he should reply that he was forty-five, and that he should not forget to have a shave the evening before, even if it cost him a quarter ration of bread; apart from that he need have no fears, and in any case it was by no means certain that it was a selection for the gas chamber; had he not heard the Blockältester say that those chosen would go to a convalescent camp? On this slender basis I also lived through the great selection of October 1944 with inconceivable tranquillity. I was tranquil because I managed to lie to myself sufficiently. The fact that I was not selected depended above all on chance and does not prove that my faith was well-founded.
We were ninety-six when we arrived, we, the Italians of convoy 174,000; only twenty-nine of us survived until October, and of these, eight went in the selection. We are now twenty-one and the winter has hardly begun. How many of us will be alive at the New Year? How many when Spring begins?
The Kapo says:- Doktor Pannwitz has communicated to the Arbeitsdienst that three Häftlinge have been chosen for the Laboratory: 169509 Brackier; 175633 Kandel; 174517 Levi. So it would seem that fate, by a new unsuspected path, has arranged that we three, the object of envy of all the 10,000 condemned, suffer neither hunger nor cold this winter. This means a strong possibility of not falling seriously ill, of not being frozen, of overcoming the selections.
Already for some months now the distant booming of the Russian guns had been heard at intervals when, on 11 January 1945, I fell ill of scarlet fever and was once more sent into Ka-Be. ‘Infektionsabteilung’: it meant a small room, really quite clean, with ten bunks on two levels. When I was admitted I was the thirteenth in the room.
On the fifth day the barber came. Before he entered, I heard him speaking excitedly for a long time in the corridor with one of the doctors. When it was my turn I climbed down laboriously from the bunk. I asked him in Italian if there was anything new: he stopped shaving me, winked in a serious manner, pointed to the window with his chin, and then made a sweeping gesture with his hand towards the west. ‘Morgen, alle Kameraden weg.’ I looked at the faces of my comrades one by one. ‘Did you hear?’ I said to them. ‘Tomorrow they are going to evacuate the camp.’ In the afternoon the Greek doctor came. He said that all patients able to walk would be given shoes and clothes and would leave on the following day with the healthy ones on a twelve mile march.
Then the bombardment began. It was nothing new: it seemed far away. But then there was a near explosion, and before one could think, a second and a third one, loud enough to burst one’s eardrums. Windows were breaking, the hut shook, the spoon I had fixed in the wall fell down. Then it seemed all over. After a few minutes it was obvious that the camp had been struck. Two huts were burning fiercely, another two had been pulverized, but they were all empty. The Germans were no longer there. The towers were empty.
In the first days of January 1945, hard pressed by the Red Army, the Germans hastily evacuated the Silesian mining region. Whereas elsewhere they had not hesitated to destroy the Lagers and their inhabitants by fire or arms, they acted differently in the district of Auschwitz: superior orders had been received (given personally, it would seem, by Hitler) to recover at all costs every man fit for work. One can deduce that originally the Germans did not intend to leave one man alive in the concentration camps, but a fierce night raid and the rapidity of the Russian advance induced them to change their minds and flee. In the sick bay of the Lager at Buna-Monowitz eight hundred of us remained. Of these about five hundred died from illness, cold and hunger before the Russians arrived, and another two hundred succumbed in the following days, despite the Russians’ aid.
It must have been nearly midday when, heralded from afar by the puffing and smoke, the hand of civilisation was stretched out to us charitably in the form of an emaciated string of three or four goods trucks dragged by a small locomotive, such as is used in normal times for shunting wagons. The train travelled slowly and by a tortuous and vague route led us to a place called Szczakowa. Here the Polish Red Cross had established a marvellous field kitchen; a quite substantial hot soup was distributed at all hours of the day and night, and to anyone, without distinction, who presented himself. We left again in the afternoon. Our poor train stopped at dusk; far away the spires of Cracow glowed red. The Greek, revived by the hot soup, felt quite strong. So we left the train and our perplexed companions, and started out on foot in the problematical search for human kind. I was wearing a pair of curious foot-coverings which in Italy I had only seen worn by priests: of extremely delicate leather, reaching higher than the ankle, without laces, but with two large clasps, and two lateral patches of elastic fabric which should have ensured that they remain tight-fitting. We had deceived ourselves grossly about the distance from Cracow: we should have to walk at least four miles. After about twenty minutes, my shoes were finished; the sole of one of them had come off, and the other began to unstitch itself. Until then the Greek had maintained a pregnant silence; when he saw me sit by the side of the road to contemplate the disaster, he asked me: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-five’, I replied. ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a chemist.’ ‘Then you’re a fool’, he said calmly. ‘A man who has no shoes is a fool.’ He explained to me that to be without shoes is a very serious fault. When war is raging, one has to think of two things before all others; in the first place of one’s shoes, in the second place of food to eat; and not vice versa, as the common herd believes, because he who has shoes can search for food, but the inverse is not true.
Cesare and I went to Katowice. We walked into a grocery store and explained our intentions to the shopkeeper as best we could. The shopkeeper was a wrinkled old woman, with a shrewish and diffident air. She was not Polish, but German; formerly she had owned a shop in Berlin with her husband. They had never liked Hitler, and perhaps they had been too incautious in allowing these singular opinions of theirs to leak out in the neighbourhood; in 1935 her husband had been taken away by the Gestapo, and she had never heard of him again. She had continued her business till 1938, when Hitler, ‘der Lump’ had made his famous speech on the radio in which he declared he wanted war. Then she had grown angry and had written to him. She had written to him personally, ‘To Mr Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin’, sending him a long letter in which she advised him strongly not to wage war because too many people would be killed, and pointed out to him that if he did he would lose, because Germany could not win against the whole world; even a child could understand that. She had signed the letter with her name, surname and address; then she had settled down to wait. Five days later the brown-shirts had arrived and, on the pretext of carrying out a search, had sacked and turned her house and shop upside down. What did they find? Nothing. She had never meddled in politics. There was only the draft of the letter. Two weeks later they called her to the Gestapo. She thought they would beat her up and send her to the Lager; instead they treated her with loutish contempt, told her they should hang her, but they were convinced that she was only ‘eine alte blöde Ziege’, a stupid old goat, and that the rope would be wasted on her. However, they had withdrawn her trading licence and had expelled her from Berlin. She had lived from hand to mouth in Silesia on the black market and other expedients, until, as she had foreseen, the Germans had lost the war. Then, since the whole neighbourhood knew what she had done, the Polish authorities had created no difficulties about granting her a licence for a grocery store. So now she lived in peace, fortified by the thought of how much better the world would be if the rulers of this earth had followed her advice.
We stayed at Starye Dorogi, in that Red House full of mystery and pitfalls like a fair castle, for two long months: from 15 July to 15 September 1945. They were months of idleness and relative comfort, and full, therefore of penetrating nostalgia. Nostalgia is a fragile and tender anguish, basically different, more intimate, more human than the other pains we had endured until then.
We had resisted, after all; we had won. After the year of Lager, of anguish and patience, after the wave of death that followed the liberation, after the cold and hunger, after the illness and misery of Katowice, after the senseless journeys which had made us feel condemned to orbit for eternity in Russian space, after the idleness and bitter nostalgia of Starye Dorogi, we were rising once more, travelling upwards, on the journey home. But soon, from the very first hours of the journey, we were to realize that the hour of impatience had not yet sounded; the happy journey promised to be long and laborious and not without surprises. Patience was still needed, in unforeseeable doses. It was quite clear that we were travelling south, but with exasperating slowness and irregularity, with incomprehensible deviations and stops, sometimes travelling only a few dozen miles in twenty-four hours.
We entered German territory in the evening; on the 8th [October] we were stranded at the goods depot of Leopoldau, a suburban station of Vienna, and we felt almost at home. We had felt no joy in seeing Vienna undone and the Germans broken, but rather anguish: not compassion, but a larger anguish, which was mixed up with our own misery, with the heavy, threatening sensation of an irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling like gangrene in the guts of Europe and the world, the seed of future harm.
On 15 October, the thirty-first day of our journey, we crossed a new frontier and entered Munich, prey to a disconsolate railway tiredness, a loathing for trains. We were tired of everything, tired of perforating endless frontiers. But from another point of view, the fact of feeling a piece of Germany under our feet for the first time, not Upper Silesia or Austria, but of Germany itself, overlaid our tiredness with a complex attitude composed of intolerance, frustration and tension. We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, like chess players at the end of a game. Did ‘they’ know about Auschwitz, about the silent daily massacre, a step away from their doors? If they did, how could they walk about, return home and look at their children, cross the threshold of a church? If they did not, they ought, as a sacred duty, to listen, to learn everything, immediately, from us, from me; I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore.
As I wandered around the streets of Munich, full of ruins, I felt I was moving among throngs of insolvent debtors, as if everybody owed me something, and refused to pay. I was among them, in the enemy camp, among the Herrenvolk; but the men were few, many were mutilated, many dressed in rags like us. I felt that everybody should interrogate us, read in our faces who we were, and listen to our take in humility. But no one looked us in the eyes, no one accepted the challenge; they were deaf, blind and dumb, imprisoned in their ruins, as if a fortress of wilful ignorance, still strong, still capable of hatred and contempt, still prisoners of their old tangle of pride and guilt. I found myself searching for other faces; someone who could not but know, remember, reply; who had commanded and obeyed, killed, humiliated, corrupted. A vain and foolish search; because not they, but others, the few just ones, would reply for them.
A new truck was travelling with us towards Italy at the end of our train, crammed with young Jews, boys and girls, coming from all the countries of Eastern Europe. None of them seemed more than twenty years old, but they were extremely self-confident and resolute people; they were young Zionists on their way to Israel, travelling where they were able to, and finding a path where they could. A ship was waiting for them at Bari; they had purchased their truck, and it had proved the simplest thing in the world to attach it to our train; they had not asked anybody’s permission n, but had hooked it on, and that was that. I was amazed, but they laughed at my amazement: ‘Hitler’s dead, isn’t he?’ replied their leader, with his intense hawk-like glance. They felt immensely free and strong, lords of the world and their destiny.
Of 650, our number when we left, three were returning. We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. We felt in our veins the poison of Auschwitz, flowing together with our thin blood; where should we find the strength to begin our lives again, to break down the barriers, the brushwood which grows up spontaneously in all absences, around every deserted house, every empty refuge? Soon, tomorrow, we should have to give battle, against enemies still unknown, outside ourselves and inside; with what weapons, what energies, what willpower? We felt the weight of centuries on our shoulders, we felt oppressed by a year of ferocious memories; we felt emptied and defenceless. The months just past, although hard, of wandering on the margins of civilization, now seemed to us like a truce, a parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but unrepeatable gift of fate. With these thoughts, which kept us from sleep, we passed our first night in Italy, as the train slowly descended the deserted, dark Adige Valley. On 17 October, we reached the camp of Pescantina, near Verona.
I reached Turin on 19 October, after thirty-five days of travel; my house was still standing, all my family was alive, no one was expecting me. I was swollen, bearded and in rags, and had difficulty making myself recognized. Only after many months did I lose the habit of walking with my glance fixed to the ground, as if searching for something to eat or to pocket hastily or to sell for bread; and a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals. I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends or at work, or in the countryside; in short, it is a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And as the dream proceeds, each time in a different way, everything collapses and disintegrates around me. I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, a well-known voice resounds, a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, ‘Wstawàch’.
In the course of years, I have been asked to comment on the two books hundreds of times, before the most diverse audiences: young and adult, uneducated and cultivated, in Italy and abroad. I have had to answer many questions: naïve, acute, highly emotional, superficial, at times provocative. I soon realised that some of these questions occurred constantly. I propose to reply to those questions here. (Note: this is only a selection of the questions Levi deals with).
In these books there are no expressions of hate for the Germans, no desire for revenge. Have you forgiven them?
My personal temperament is not inclined to hatred. I regard it as bestial, crude, and prefer on the contrary that my actions and thoughts should be the product of reason; therefore I have never cultivated within myself hatred as a desire for revenge. All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgement to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon. No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterwards) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.
Did the Germans know what was happening? In an authoritarian State it is considered permissible to alter the truth; to rewrite history; to distort the news, suppress the true, add the false. However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. Nevertheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. In official language only cautious and cynical euphemisms were employed: one did not write “extermination” but “final solution”, not “deportation” but “transfer”, not “killing by gas” but “special treatment” and so on. Because of their very enormity, the horrors of the camps, described many times by Allied radio, were not generally believed.
One other [point] must be added: in spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.
Were there prisoners who escaped? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts? Only a few hundred prisoners tried to escape from Auschwitz, and of those perhaps a few score succeeded, made up almost exclusively of a few Polish prisoners who lived not far from the camp. Uprisings did actually take place in certain camps: Treblinka, Sobibor, even Birkenau, one of the Auschwitz dependencies. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way and in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner. In the camps for political prisoners, or where political prisoners were in the majority, the experience of these people proved valuable and often resulted in quite effective defensive activities, rather than in open revolt. In camps with a majority of Jews, like those in the Auschwitz area, an active or passive defence was particularly difficult: the length of their stays in the camps was tragically brief. When prisoners showed the smallest signs of knowing or suspecting their imminent fate, the SS and their collaborators used surprise tactics, intervening with extreme brutality. Remember that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were tested on a group of three hundred Russian prisoners of war, young, army-trained, politically indoctrinated, and not hampered by the presence of women and children, and even they did not revolt. You must not forget that the first victims of the German camps were the cadres of the anti-Nazi political parties. Without their contribution, the popular will to resist sprang up again much later, thanks, above all, to the European Communist parties that hurled themselves into the struggle against Nazism after Germany, in 1941, had unexpectedly attacked the Soviet Union, breaking the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of September 1939.
Why do you speak only about German camps and not the Russian ones as well? The principal difference lies in the finality. The German camps constituted something unique in history. To the ancient aim of eliminating or terrifying political adversaries, they set a monstrous modern goal, that of erasing entire peoples and cultures from the world. One entered the German camps, in general never to emerge. Death was the only foreseen outcome. In the Soviet Union, it seems that in the harshest periods mortality hovered around 30 percent of those who entered. This is certainly an intolerably high figure, but in the German camps mortality mounted to between 90 and 98 percent.
How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained? This collective madness, this “running off the rails”, is usually explained by postulating the combination of many diverse factors, insufficient if considered singly, and the greatest of these factors is Hitler’s personality itself and its profound interaction with the German people. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. It is, therefore, necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgement and our will. Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion.