Extracts from some of Levi’s other books: “The Periodic Table”, “If not now, when?” and “The Drowned and the Saved”.
THE PERIODIC TABLE
In this book Primo Levi takes some of the chemical elements as illustrations of people or situations he has known and experienced. The following are is a small selection of those portraits.
Argon: There are inert gases in the air. They do not combine with any other element. The little I know about my ancestors presents similarities to these gases. They had to be active to earn a living, but were inert in their inner spirits, static, of dignified abstention, voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of life. Never much loved or hated, stories of unusual persecutions have not been handed down, nevertheless, a wall of suspicion, of undefined hostility and mockery, kept them separated from the rest of the population. As always, the rejection was mutual. The minority erected a barrier against all of Christianity, reproducing on a provincial scale the Biblical situation of the chosen people. To Leonid, my great-grandfather, is attributed the inexplicable imprecation ‘C’ai takeissa ‘na medà meshônà faita a paraqua’ (‘May he have an accident shaped like an umbrella’).
Zinc: For five months we had attended Professor P.’s classes in General and Inorganic Chemistry. Now the laboratory opened its doors to us. The first day it was my fate to be assigned the preparation of zinc sulphate. Zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a mouthful, behaves in a very different fashion when it is very pure: then it refuses the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting conclusions: praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, to life. I discarded the first and lingered to consider the second, which I found more congenial. For life to be lived, impurities are needed. Fascism does not want them; it wants everybody to be the same. I am Jewish: the impurity that makes zinc react, the grain of salt or mustard. During those months the magazine Defence of the Race had begun, there was much talk about purity, and I have begun to be proud of being impure.
Iron: Sandro was a loner, a boy of medium height, thin but muscular. A few months before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well. I noticed that something was happening between Sandro and me, not a friendship born of affinity; on the contrary, the difference in our origins made us rich in ‘exchangeable goods’. Fundamentally an honest and open boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky? How could he ignore the fact that chemistry and physics were the antidote to Fascism, because they were clear and verifiable, not a tissue of lies like the radio and newspaper? Sandro seemed to be bound to iron by an ancient kinship: his father’s fathers, he told me, had been tinkers (magnín) and blacksmiths in the Canavese valleys. Sandro was Sandro Delmasto, the first man to be killed fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command.
Potassium: In January 1941 the fate of Europe seemed to be sealed. Only the deluded could think that Germany would not win. Only a deaf and blind man could have any doubts about the fate reserved for the Jews in a German Europe. Neither in us nor in our generation had the idea yet gained ground that one must resist Fascism. The seed of active struggle had been stifled a few years before with the final sweep of the scythe, which had relegated to prison, exile, or silence the last Turinese protagonist- Einaudi, Ginsburg, Monti, Vittorio Foa, Zini, Carlo Levi. We gathered in the Talmud Torah and taught each other to find again in the Bible justice and the strength that overcomes injustice. But where was Kadosh Barukhú: he who breaks the slaves’ chains? He who inspired Ezra and Nehemiah no longer inspired anyone; the sky us was silent and empty: he allowed the Polish ghettos to be exterminated, and slowly the idea was making headway in us that we were alone, that we would have to find in ourselves the strength to resist.
To purify benzene I had to distil in the presence of sodium. I ransacked the Institute in vain. Instead I found a small phial of potassium: sodium’s twin, so I grabbed it and returned. I put in the flask of benzene a lump of potassium, ‘half a pea’, and distilled the contents. Then with a long pointed stick skewered the ‘half pea’ and lifted it out. Potassium is sodium’s twin, but it reacts with air and water with greater energy: it not only develops hydrogen but also ignites. I took the empty flask, put it under a faucet, and turned on the water. From the flask came a flash of flame directed at the window and the curtains caught fire. When it was all over I returned, and found fragments of the flask on the floor: on one of them one could see, barely visible, a tiny white fleck of potassium. One must distrust the almost-the-same (with sodium nothing would have happened). Differences can be small, but can lead to radically different consequences; the chemist’s trade consists in being aware of these differences. And not only the chemist’s trade.
Cerium: At a distance of thirty years I find it difficult to reconstruct the sort of human being that corresponded to my number 174517. I must have by then overcome the most terrible crisis of having become part of the Lager system, and developed a strange callousness. We were not normal because we were hungry, a need that had accompanied us now for a year. I stole everything except the bread of my companions.
There was a mysterious jar on one of the shelves. It contained about twenty grey, hard, colourless, tasteless little rods and did not have a label. I showed them to my friend Alberto. Alberto took a penknife and tried to cut into one of them: it resisted the blade. He tried to scrape it: we heard a slight crepitation and saw a shower of yellow sparks. Diagnosis was easy: it was iron-cerium, an alloy from which the flints of cigarette lighter are made. But why so large? Alberto, who had worked with welders, explained that they were mounted on the tips of oxyacetylene torches to ignite the flame. That evening I brought into the camp the small rods and Alberto a metal plate with a round hole: the prescribed calibre to which we had to thin down the rods to transform them into flint and therefore bread. And this is how we won the bread which kept us alive until the arrival of the Russians.
Chromium: Bruni worked from 1955 to 1965 in a factory on the shores of a lake in which I had learned varnish-making during 1946-47. There fell into his hands a formula of a chromate-based anti-rust-paint that contained an absurd component: ammonium chloride, much more apt to corrode iron than preserve it from rust. What use it had nobody knew. The episode flung me back to January 1946. I had returned home three months before and was living badly. The things I had seen were burning inside of me; I felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz. By writing I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again.
The director one day sent for me and took me to a corner of the factory’s yard: piled up were thousands of square blocks of a bright orange colour. Under certain conditions paints turned from liquids into solids, and must be thrown out. The paint contained a chromate and alkyd resin. Perhaps the chromate was too basic or the resin too acidic.
The next day destiny reserved for me a different gift: the encounter with a women, young and made of flesh and blood. In a few hours we knew we belonged to each other, not for one meeting but for life, as has been the case. I felt reborn. My writing became a different adventure. My baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; by writing, I was growing like a plant.
The resin could not be faulted. The chromate had been inspected batch by batch. Some analyst had been betrayed by a defective method. It was necessary to neutralise the excess of basicity due to free lead oxide. I thought of ammonium chloride, capable of combining stably with lead oxide. Tests gave promising results: the paint was fluid and smooth, born again from its ashes like the Phoenix. And so my ammonium chloride, the twin of a happy love and a liberating book, is ground into the chromate anti-rust paint on the shore of that lake, and nobody knows why anymore.
Vanadium: Varnish is an unstable substance: it must turn from a liquid into a solid, but at the right time and place. We had imported a shipment of resin, which, tested by itself, dried as expected, but after having been ground up with a certain kind of lampblack, its ability to dry fell off to the point of disappearing. The supplier was W., a large German company, one of the segments into which the Allies had dismembered IG-Farben. I wrote a letter of protest, and the answer came, signed by Doktor L. Müller: ‘ganz unerwarteterweise’, that is, in a completely unexpected fashion, their lab had discovered that the shipment was cured by the addition of 0.1 percent of vanadium naphthenate. There was a Müller in my previous incarnation, but Müller is a very common name in Germany. In that by now remote, unforgotten lab full of freezing cold, hope and fear, every so often some inspector burrowed through the rubble and snow to make sure that the lab’s work proceeded according to instructions. The civilian who appeared most often was called Dr. Müller. I got in touch with W’s representative, whom I knew quite well, and asked him to look with discretion into Dr. Müller. Yes, the Müller of Buna was indeed he. He was happy to know I had survived. It was obvious that he wanted something like an absolution: I had many questions to ask: Why Auschwitz? Why the children in the gas chambers? Whether he accepted the judgements of my book. Whether he felt that IG-Farben had spontaneously taken on the slave labour force. Whether he knew then about Auschwitz’s ‘installations’, which devoured ten thousand lives a day only seven kilometres away from the Buna rubber plant. He attributed the events at Auschwitz to Man; he deplored them. He told his story: ‘dragged initially along by the general enthusiasm for Hitler’s regime’; when the war came he had been mobilised in the antiaircraft corps, and only then had he experienced ‘shame and indignation’. He had been transferred to Auschwitz in November 1944. He himself had chosen us three specialists; I was therefore in debt to him for my survival. To my question about IG-Farben he answered that it had employed prisoners, but only to protect them: he put forward the (insane!) opinion that the entire Buna-Monowitz plant had been constructed with the intention of ‘protecting Jews and contributing to their survival’. He ‘had never gained knowledge of any proviso aimed at the killing of Jews’. At that time, among the German silent majority, the common technique was to try to know as little as possible, and not to ask questions. He perceived in my book an overcoming of Judaism, a fulfilment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies. He was trying to settle his accounts with the past and they didn’t tally. He spoke of ‘overcoming the past’, ‘Bewältigung der Vergangenheit’: a stereotyped phrase in today’s Germany, universally understood as ‘redemption from Nazism’; but the root walt also appears in words that express ‘domination’, ‘violence’, and ‘rape’, and translating the expression with ‘distortion of the past’ or ‘violence done to the past’ would not stray very far from its profound meaning. I thanked him for having taken me into the lab; declared myself ready to forgive my enemies but only when they showed certain signs of repentance. I cited two cases of his German colleagues who had done something much more courageous that he claimed to have done. I admitted that we are not all heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but in the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
One of Levi’s novels “from things told me by a friend of mine, who in the summer of 1945, in Milan, had worked as a volunteer at the assistance centre. At that time, some bands similar to the one I have aimed to portray really did arrive in Italy. My purpose has not been to write a true story, but rather to reconstruct the itinerary, invented but plausible, of one of those bands.”
July 1943: “If you want to know the name of the village, the name is Strelka. That one doesn’t exist any more. Half the villagers are scattered, and the other half are in a pit they had to dig themselves, the Jews of Strelka. There are Christians in the pit as well, and now there isn’t much difference between the two. And the man speaking to you, Mendel, the watchmaker, had a wife, and she’s in the pit.” Leonid listened, not daring to interrupt. “I come from Laptevo, near Smolensk, and I come from the Lager of Smolensk, because I escaped in January, and since then I’ve done nothing but walk.”
[Mendel] couldn’t get his mind off the remark the Uzbek had made about the bands hidden in the woods. At the same time he was tired of fighting: tired, empty, bereft of wife, village, friends. Instead of the soldier’s red blood, he felt flowing in his veins the pale blood of the breed he descended from, tailors, merchants, innkeepers, village fiddlers, meek and politic patriarchs, and mystical rabbis. And yet he felt that he couldn’t go on as he had.
July-August 1943: The elder arrived promptly, relaxed, and talkative.
“Yes, there was a group: a band. Fifty, maybe even a hundred, some local and some not. Go to Novoselki, there’s a village of armed Jews there.”
Mendel was brooding on the news. Mussolini in prison and the king back in power; but in Germany there was no king, there was only Hitler. Maybe the Zionists of Kiev and Kharkov were right when they preached that the Jews are well off only in the land of Israel, and they should all settle there to raise oranges, learn Hebrew, and dance the hora all in a ring.
August-November 1943: It wasn’t exactly a village: it was a ‘republic of the marshes’, the man explained. His name was Adam. He, and other old men, had known the Germans in the other war: the Germans were civilised people, why hide or run away? Instead, in Minsk, those Germans had done a thing that he couldn’t tell about. “It’s the first rule of the republic. If we kept on telling one another what we’ve seen, we’d go crazy, and instead we all have to be sane, even the children.”
Dov, the chief, went into details: “The Brest-Kiev line has been blown up, that supplied the German front in south Ukraine. From now on, all the traffic will go by Brest- Gomel. This line runs south of Novoselki: it has to be put out of commission as soon as possible. You’ll have a guide who knows the area.”
Dov sent a delegation to Rovnoye, a village of Ukrainian Baptists, persecuted by both Germans and Russians; they had good relations with the Jews; but the messenger came back. He had seen the peasants of Rovnoye collected in the square, with their hands bound, an SS squad forcing them all to climb into a wagon, men of the auxiliary militia, Ukrainians or Lithuanians, taking armfuls of shovels from a shed and loading them into the wagon. There wasn’t a soul in Novoselki who didn’t know the meaning of the shovels.
Mendel was reminded of a terrible voice, three thousand years old, the protest addressed to Moses by the Jews pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots: ‘Because there were not graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?’ The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow.
November 1943-January 1944: “Why do the Germans want to kill all you people?” “It’s hard to explain” Mendel answered. “You have to understand Germans, and I’ve never managed that. The Germans think a Jew is worth less than a Russian, and a Russian less than an Englishman, and a German is worth most of all; they think that when one man is worth more than another, he has a right to do what he likes with the other, make a slave of him or even kill him. Maybe not all of them are convinced, but this is what they’re taught in school, and what their propaganda says.”
At Chernigov, then in Kiev, where she had gone to study to be a schoolteacher, Line had frequented Zionist groups and the local Komsomol: she saw no contradiction between Soviet communism and the agrarian collectivism preached by the Zionists. After 1932, Zionist organisations were disbanded. To the Jews who wanted a land of their own Stalin had offered a bleak territory in Eastern Siberia: take it or leave it. But if a Jew wanted to be Russian, what can he do, if the Russians deny him access to the university, and call him zhid, and turn the pogromists on him? The Germans came and sealed the Jews in the ghetto. She found again some Zionist friends from Kiev; with them, and with the help of Soviet partisans, she bought weapons. Line wasn’t inclined to theories; in the ghetto the woman, the Jew, the Zionist, and the Communist had been fused into a single Line, who had a single enemy.
They were not beggars or vagabonds, they were the Jewish band called the Gedaleh, survivors from the communities; a wretched aristocracy, the strongest, the smartest, the luckiest. They had armed themselves with weapons taken from the Germans, and had tasted several times the bitter food of killing. In those haggard but determined faces they didn’t recognise the zhid of their tradition: the world had been turned upside down: these Jews were allies and armed.
May 1944: Comrade Gedaleh’s unit has been officially recognised and supported in Moscow. The members declared themselves Zionists, but of varying tendencies: Jewish nationalism, Marxist orthodoxy, religious orthodoxy, Anarchist egalitarianism, and Tolstoyan return to the earth. We’re the sheep of the ghetto, shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage. Now we have learned the paths of the forest, We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight. Our brothers have gone to heaven through the chimneys of Sobibor and Treblinka Only we few have survived for the honour of our submerged people, For revenge and to bear witness. Brothers, away from this Europe of graves: Let us climb together towards the land where we will be men among men.
June-July 1944: Isidor, one of the Blizna survivors, was the youngest of the band, not yet seventeen. Before joining up with Gedaleh, he had hidden for almost four years, with his father, mother, and a little sister, in a hole dug under the floor of a stable. The peasant, owner of the stable, had extorted all the family’s money, and then reported them to the Polish police. Isodor had been lucky; he was out when the Germans came. He was coming back, hid, and from his hiding place saw the SS, boys only a little older than he, clubbing his father, mother and sister to death.
July-August 1944: The mayor was silent for a few minutes, chewing his ration of potatoes, then he said, “In this village, Jews and Poles lived together, but there was never any friendliness between them. The Poles worked in the fields, the Jews were artisans and merchants, they collected taxes for the landowners, and in church the priest said they were the ones who had sold Christ and crucified him.
When the Germans came in nineteen thirty-nine, and the first thing they did was strip the Jews and shut them up in the ghettos, we were glad. We thought they had come to mete out justice, to take the Jews’ money away from then and give it to us. And people said that the Jews were Bolsheviks and wanted to collectivise the land, like in Russia, and kill all the priests.” “Mayor”, Gedaleh said, “You must realise that a live Jew is a strange Jew. The only ones of us who are saved are those who have chosen our destiny. We will fight until the end of the war; and then we’ll go to Palestine, and we’ll try to build the house we’ve lost, and to start living again.” “What will you do in Palestine?” “We’ll farm,” Line said, “there the land will be ours.” Mendel added: “We’ll do all the jobs there’ll be to do.” “Except collect taxes for landowners.” Gedaleh added. “Our way goes through Italy. The English will hinder us, because they don’t want trouble with the Arabs in Palestine; but the Russians will help us, because Stalin is trying to weaken them in every possible way. Nobody can say when this war will end. It may be that bands like us, will have to keep on with the war when all the rest of the world is at peace. That’s why God singled us out among all peoples, as our rabbis tell us.”
September 1944-January 1945: “We want to go to Palestine; in Europe there’s no place for us anymore. Hitler’s won the war against the Jews, and even his pupils have done a good job. Everybody has learned his gospel: Russians, Lithuanians, Croats, Slovaks. Your people have also learned it.” Gedaleh said. Edek sighed. “Poland’s a sad country, crushed by neighbours that were too powerful. It’s hard to be unhappy and not hate, and we’ve hated everybody for all the centuries of our servitude and our partition; we’ve hated your people, because you had scattered over our country but didn’t want to become like us, and we didn’t understand you. We began to understand you when you rose up in Warsaw. You showed us the way; you taught us that even in desperation, people can fight.”
One morning they found on the façade of the school a swastika painted with tar; under it was written: ‘NSZ- Death to the Bolshevik Jews’. That same evening, while they were seated, eating, the window pane was shattered, and, between the legs of the table, a bottle fell, with a burning fuse. Piotr was the quickest: in a flash he grabbed the bottle, which hadn’t broken, and flung it back into the street. There was a thud, and on the pavement a burning puddle formed, which went on burning for a long time: the smoke flame rose all the way to their window. Gedaleh said, ‘We have to go. These NSZ people are Fascists and cowards, but there’s one thing we agree with them and the Russians about: they want to send us away, and we want to go.
February-July 1945: She had been lucky. Every living Jew was a lucky person. But she had been lucky in other ways, too: she still had her hair, since she was a doctor they hadn’t cut it off; the Germans have very precise rules. Francine declared herself a Jew, but she didn’t resemble any Jew the Gedalists had ever encountered. On the contrary, they wouldn’t even have believed it, if they hadn’t thought that there’s nothing to be gained by declaring yourself a Jew when you aren’t one. She didn’t speak Yiddish, didn’t understand it, and told them that when she was in Paris she didn’t even know what language it was: she had vaguely heard it mentioned, she thought it was a kind of corrupt Hebrew. Yes, in the Lager she had come to know the Jewish women of eastern Europe, but she had felt they were foreign, a hundred times more distant than her French Christian women friends. She had felt irritation and compassion for their passivity, their ignorance, the dumb resignation with which they went to the gas. “I held out: I don’t know why; perhaps because I believed life had a meaning. It’s strange: it was easier to believe that back there than it is here. In the Lager nobody killed himself. There wasn’t
time, there were other things to think about, bread, boils. Here there’s time, and people kill themselves. Also out of shame.” “What shame?” Line asked. “They aren’t guilty of anything.” “Ashamed of not being dead,” Francine said. “I feel it, too. It’s the impression that the others died in your place, that you’re alive gratis, thanks to a privilege you haven’t earned, a trick you’ve played on the dead. Being alive isn’t a crime, but we feel it like a crime.” “Come with us,” Sissl said to her, “now it’s all over; you’ll be our doctor.” “I’m not like the rest of you.” Francine answered. “I’m going back to France, it’s my country.”
As the saying goes, ‘Ibergekumene tsores is gut tsu derseyln’; it’s good to tell your troubles. The proverb holds true in all languages of the world, but in Yiddish it sounds particularly appropriate.
July-August 1945: Mingled with them, less noisy, anxious to avoid notice, other passengers were travelling, swarming from occupied Germany to elude the Allies’ justice: SS men; functionaries of the Gestapo and the party. For them, as for the transient Jews, Italy was the land of least resistance, the best jumping-off place for more hospitable countries: South America, Syria, Egypt.
They climbed towards the pass: the climb, the alia, this was the word for the road when you are coming out of exile, out of the depths, and you climb towards the light. The train reached the Brenner at noon on 25th July 1945. On the platform were four young men in neat, khaki uniforms; on their heads they had a black beret with British insignia, but on their short-sleeved shirts a six-point star was sewn, the shield of David. “We belong to the Palestinian Brigade, we come from the land of Israel, but we belong to the British Army. We are moving around Germany, Hungary and Poland: looking for Jews who have survived the Lager, the ones who were hidden, the sick, and the children.” “And what do you do with them?” “We help them, we treat them, we collect them, and we escort them here, to Italy. In Italy there’s never been a pogrom, not even when the Roman Church told the Christians to despise the Jews and accused them of being usurers. And since, to get to Palestine, we have to cheat the English, this is really the ideal place. The English and the Americans won’t understand you at all. They’re fed up with partisans; partisans are convenient as long as there was fighting, but now nobody wants to hear them even mentioned. So you can imagine how they’ll feel about foreign partisans, especially coming from Russia.”
He would have liked to tell the young man their whole story. He confined himself to saying that he and his companions had nothing against Stalin; on the contrary, they were grateful to him for having destroyed Hitler; but their homes had also been destroyed. “But they are the ones who help us most. It’s the Italian Communist party that declares the strikes; when the English try to stop a refugee ship, all the workers in the port go out on strike, and the English have to let it sail.”
Mendel felt disoriented. He felt like a pawn in a gigantic, cruel game. Perhaps always, always a pawn. You think you’re making a decision and instead you are following the destiny someone else has already written. Who? Stalin, or Roosevelt, or the Lord of Hosts.
THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED
Levi’s final book, completed shortly before his death in 1987.
The Memory of the Offence:
A memory evoked often, and expressed in a story, tends to become a stereotype. In the end they all say substantially the same things: I did it because I was ordered to; others (my superiors) have committed acts worse than mine; in view of the upbringing I received, I could not act differently; if I had not done it, another would have done it more harshly in my place. There are those who lie consciously, but more numerous are those who fabricate a convenient reality, a comforting truth which allows [them] to live in peace. To the questions ‘Why did you do this?’ or ‘What were you thinking as you did it?’, no reliable answers exist. The Einsatzkommandos, who behind the front lines in Russia machine-gunned civilians at the side of common graves which the victims themselves had been forced to dig, were given all the liquor they wanted so that the massacre would be blurred by drunkenness.
The Grey Zone: The network of relationships inside the Lagers was not simple. Newcomers to the Lagers expected to find a terrible but decipherable world. Instead, the arrival in the Lager was a shock. One entered hoping at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune, but the hoped-for allies, except in special cases, were not there. It must be remembered that the food ration was insufficient even for the most frugal prisoner: death by hunger, or by diseases induced by hunger, was the prisoner’s normal destiny. This could be avoided only with additional food, and to obtain it a large or small privilege was necessary. Very few survived the test and this thanks to the coming together of many improbable events: in short, they were saved by luck, and there is not much sense in trying to find something common to all their destinies, beyond perhaps their initial good health. An extreme case is represented by the Sonderkommandos (‘Special Squads’) of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps: prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the operation of the ovens. These Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate; on the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance. In October 1944 the squad rebelled, blew up one of the crematoria, and was exterminated in an unequal battle. It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet it must be done, because what it was possible to perpetrate yesterday can be attempted again tomorrow. One is tempted to close one’s mind: a temptation one must resist.
The network of relationships inside the Lagers was not simple. Newcomers to the Lagers expected to find a terrible but decipherable world. Instead, the arrival in the Lager was a shock. One entered hoping at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune, but the hoped-for allies, except in special cases, were not there. It must be remembered that the food ration was insufficient even for the most frugal prisoner: death by hunger, or by diseases induced by hunger, was the prisoner’s normal destiny. This could be avoided only with additional food, and to obtain it a large or small privilege was necessary. Very few survived the test and this thanks to the coming together of many improbable events: in short, they were saved by luck, and there is not much sense in trying to find something common to all their destinies, beyond perhaps their initial good health. An extreme case is represented by the Sonderkommandos (‘Special Squads’) of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps: prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the operation of the ovens. These Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate; on the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance. In October 1944 the squad rebelled, blew up one of the crematoria, and was exterminated in an unequal battle. It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet it must be done, because what it was possible to perpetrate yesterday can be attempted again tomorrow. One is tempted to close one’s mind: a temptation one must resist.
Shame: In the majority of cases, the hour of liberation was neither joyful nor lighthearted. I exclude the prisoners who, almost all of them political, had the strength and possibility to act within the Lager in defence of their companions. We, the majority of common prisoners, did not know about them, did not even suspect their existence: they were forced to operate secretly, not only where the Germans were concerned, but to everyone. Anyone who had the ability and will to oppose the machine of the Lager, was beyond the reach of ‘shame’: or at least the shame of which I am speaking. When all was over, the awareness emerged that we had not done enough against the system into which we had been absorbed. Anyone who made the attempt knows that there existed situations in which active resistance was possible; and others, much more frequent, in which it was not. Almost everybody feels guilty of having omitted to offer help. I remember with a certain relief that I once
tried to give courage to an eighteen-year-old who had just arrived, who was floundering in the bottomless despair of his first days in the camp. I also remember that much more often I shrugged my shoulder impatiently at other requests, when I had been in the camp for almost a year and so had accumulated a good store of experience: but I had also deeply assimilated the principal rule of the place, which made it mandatory that you should first of all take care of yourself. The ‘saved’ of the Lager were not the best. What I lived through proved the exact contrary. The worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators, the spies. It was not a certain rule, but it was, nevertheless, a rule. I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The best all died. I must repeat- we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.
Communicating: The greater part of the prisoners who did not understand German died during the first ten or fifteen days after their arrival: at first sight from hunger, cold, fatigue, and disease; but after a more attentive examination, due to insufficient information. In several Lagers, isolation was total; mine, Monowitz-Auschwitz, could be considered privileged: almost every week arrived ‘new’ prisoners from all the countries of occupied Europe, who brought recent news, in spite of the danger of being denounced to the Gestapo.
I was given the rare good fortune of being able to exchange some letters with my family. For this I am indebted to two person: an old, almost illiterate bricklayer, and a courageous young woman, who is now a well-known attorney. I know that this was one of the factors that allowed me to survive: but each of us survivors is in more than one way an exception; something we tend to forget.
Useless Violence: National Socialism had a rationality of its own: the drive towards the East (an old German dream), the stifling of the workers’ movements, hegemony over continental Europe, annihilation of Bolshevism and Judaism, the sharing of world power with England and the United States, the apotheosis of the German race with the elimination of the mentally ill and useless mouths: all these elements can be deduced with undeniable clarity in Mein Kampf. Arrogance and insolent logic, not insanity. Hateful also, but not insane, were the means foreseen to achieve these ends.
For an orthodox Nazi it must have been obvious that all Jews must be killed: that was a dogma. The children also, of course and especially pregnant women, so that no future enemies should be born. But why, during the furious round-ups in all the cities and villages of their boundless empire, violate the houses of the dying? “Considering that you were going to kill them all. what was the point of the humiliations, the cruelties?” the writer asks Stangl, imprisoned for life in the Düsseldorf gaol, and he replies: “To condition those who were to be the executors of the operations. To make it possible for them to do what they were doing.” In other words: the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt. This is an explanation not devoid of logic but which shouts to heaven: it is the sole usefulness of useless violence.
The Intellectual in Auschwitz: Reason, art and poetry are no help in deciphering a place from which they are banned. To try to understand was a futile effort, a waste of energy that it would have been more useful to invest in the daily struggle against hunger and fatigue. Logic and morality made it impossible to accept an illogical and immoral reality: which as a rule rapidly led the cultivated man to despair. I entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day; the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity has prevented me, and still prevents me,
from conceiving of any sort of providence or transcendent justice. I must admit that I experienced (only once) the temptation to seek refuge in prayer: in the October of 1944, in the moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd but blasphemous, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.
Stereotypes: For the pariahs of the Nazi universe (among whom must be included gypsies and Soviet prisoners), escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The case of the Jews was the most tragic. Goebbels’ and Streicher’s anti-Semitic propaganda had borne fruit: the great majority of Germans, and young people in particular, hated Jews and considered them the enemies of the people; the rest, with very few heroic exceptions, abstained from any form of help because of fear of the Gestapo. Whoever sheltered or even assisted a Jew risked terrifying punishment. In this regard it is right to remember that a few thousand Jews survived through the entire Hitlerian period, hidden in Germany and Poland in convents, cellars and attics by citizens who were courageous and sufficiently intelligent to observe for years the strictest discretion. The escape of a slave, especially ‘of inferior biological value’, was also an objective damage since every prisoner had seen things that the world must not know. The co-nationals, friends or neighbours of the fugitive were interrogated under torture and then killed; escape was a difficult undertaking and it was unlikely that the fugitive had no accomplices or that his preparations had not been noticed. This was not ‘useless violence’: it served very well to crush at its inception any idea of escaping; in fact it was common for escape preparation to be denounced by third parties, afraid of the reprisals I have described. Why didn’t you run away before the borders were closed? Many did leave ‘before’. Nevertheless for the greater part families remained in Italy and Germany. To emigrate is always painful; at that time it was also difficult and costly. One needed not only a lot of money, but also a ‘bridgehead’ in the country of destination: relatives or friends willing to offer sponsorship and/or hospitality. Confronted by the Hitlerian menace, the majority of Jews chose to remain in what they felt was their patria. From his first books and speeches Hitler had spoken clearly: the Jews were the parasites of humanity and must be eliminated as noxious insects are eliminated. But until the incursion of the Nazi dervishes from house to house, one found a way to deny the signals. The German Jews were almost all bourgeois and like their compatriots loved law and order. They were incapable of conceiving of a terrorism directed by the state, even when it was already all around them. There is a famous verse, written in 1910: Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf. (What may not be cannot be). Many behaved and still behave like [that], denying the existence of things that ought not to exist.
Letters from Germans: If This Is A Man was published for the first time in 1947, a run of 2,500 copies, but sold only in part. After ten years it came back to life when the Einaudi publishing company accepted it in 1957. One stage was of fundamental importance for me: its translation in German and publication in West Germany. Today I, prisoner No. 174517, can speak to the German people, remind them of what they have done, and say: ‘I am alive, and I would like to understand.’ I never harboured hatred for the German people. But I cannot say that I understand the Germans.
From Doctor T.H. of Hamburg: “You certainly expect a specific answer to the question why Hitler came to power. In 1933, all moderate parties disappeared, and there remained only the choice between National Socialists and Communists. We knew the Communists because of the large revolts that took place after the First World War. Hitler appeared suspect to us, but decisively as the lesser evil. That all his beautiful words were falsehood we did not understand at the beginning.
W.A., a physician, writes from Württemberg: “Much though I try to remove myself from the evil spirit of the past, I still remain a member of this people whom I love and who has given birth in equal measure to works of noble peace and to others filled with demonic peril.”
H.L., from Bavaria, a student, to a question about the school, answers: “The entire teaching body was at the proper time put through the ‘de-Nazification’ demanded by the Allies, but in an amateurish manner and widely sabotaged. Pupils are not very interest in this period, but immediately pass to the opposition if one speaks to them about a collective German guilt. Many state that they’ve had enough of the mea culpa of the press and their teachers.”
Mrs Hety S. of Wiesbaden’s father was a Social Democratic activist, deported to Dachau. [He] had just returned when Thomas Mann spoke on the radio about Auschwitz, the gas and the crematoria. And he, even though he came from Dachau, answered, “No, it is not thinkable. A Thomas Mann should not give credence to such horrors.” “And yet it was all true: a few weeks later we had proof of it and were convinced.” A refugee from East Prussia said to her: “Do not take it in bad part if I cannot bear to read or listen to these concerns of yours. When we had to escape it was terrible; and the worst thing was that we were forced to go down the route by which the Auschwitz prisoners had been evacuated. The road ran between two hedges of dead bodies. I would like to forget those images and I cannot: I continue to see them in my dreams.”
Conclusion: Incredibly, an entire civilised people followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, yet Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, therefore it can happen again. Few countries can be immune to a future tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties, religious or political fanaticism, and racialist attritions. It is therefore necessary to sharpen our senses, distrust the prophets, the enchanters, those who speak and write ‘beautiful words’.
Desperate, the Jewish survivors, in flight from Europe after the great shipwreck, have created in the bosom of the Arab world an island of Western civilisation, the pretext for renewed hatred.
The term torturers brings to mind twisted individuals, sadists. Instead, they were average human beings: save for exceptions, they were not monsters. They were diligent followers and functionaries: some fanatically convinced of the Nazi doctrine, many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient, all subjected to the terrifying miseducation provided for and imposed by the schools created in accordance with the wishes of Hitler and his collaborators. Behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans, who accepted in the beginning the ‘beautiful words’ of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and lack of scruples favoured him, were swept away by his ruin, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.