Words

 

Primo Levi: 'If this is a man

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'It was my good fortune (to be deported to Auschwitz) only in 1944.'

'A man of great courtesy and gentleness. He wrote of human vileness and the triumphs of the human spirit, and he recorded what he had seen with an objectivity and calm that were awesome' The Observer.

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Preface

What is chastening about Levi's writing is its freedom from self-indulgence: I hope they find their way into the hands of the practitioners of the new sentimentality. His books remind us that the scaffolding is worth saving.

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'It was my good fortune (to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944).'

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.

We had leant our destination with relief. Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. We had reached the bottom.

P46 the episode with Steinlauf and cleaning oneself. It grieves me that I have forgotten his plain outspoken words. It grieves me because it means that I have to translate his uncertain Italian and his quiet manner of speaking of a good soldier into the language of an incredulous man. .... Precisely because the Larger was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even I this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness.

Resnyk: He told me his story and today I have forgotten it but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story.

For a few hours we can be unhappy in the manner of free men.

The saved and the drowned: In the Larger it is different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone..... If someone by a miracle of savage patience and cunning, finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, a new art which yields him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this and will derive from it an exclusive, personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared and who is feared is ipso facto, a candidate for survival.

'When things change they change for the worst' was one of the proverbs of the camp. Why worry oneself trying to read into the future when no action, no word of ours could have the minimum of influence? We were old Haftlinge: or wisdom lay in 'not trying to understand'

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Lorenzo.

The story of my relationship with Lorenzo is both long and short, plain and enigmatic: it is the story of a time and condition now effaced from every present reality and so I do not think it can be understood except in the manner in which we nowadays understand events of legends. In concrete terms it amounts to little. An Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months.....For all of this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was a good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward.

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The story of 10 days:

(This for me was the most powerful part of the book)

The offering of bread to the workers including Levi: 'It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Haftlinge to men again.

The arrival of the first Russians, young soldiers on horseback. 'They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know that the just man experiences at another mans crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime could exist.

I was overcome by a new and greater pain, previously buried and relegated to the margins of my consciousness by other more immediate pains: the pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost and of the host of corpses all around. (same as you, youth lost)

I felt my sense of freedom, of being a man among men, ebbing like a warm tide away from me. My listeners began to steel away. I had dreamed, we had always dreamed, of something like this, in the nights at Auschwitz: of speaking and not being listened to, and of finding liberty and remaining alone.

The biography of my Greek was linear; it was that of a strong and cold man, solitary and logical, who had acted from his infancy within the rigid framework of his mercantile society. He had been conditioned to drive all (soft, homely, compassionate) things back to the margins of his day and life, so that it would not disturb what he called the 'travail d'homme'. There is always a war, just as man is a wolf to man.

Of the doctor Leonardo: 'He had escaped 3 selections. Besides good fortune, he also possessed another virtue essential for those places: an unlimited capacity for endurance, a silent courage, not innate, not religious, not transcendent, but deliberate and willed hour by hour, a virile patience which sustained him miraculously to the very edge of collapse.

Refugees making a go of it alone: They saw countries and peoples, they went far afield, some as far as Odessa or Moscow, others as far as frontiers; they experienced the lock-ups of isolated villages, the biblical hospitality of the peasants, vague love affairs, stupid interrogations by duty bound police, more hunger and solitude. Almost all of them returned to the camp.

 

 

 

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Posted December 2003
rachelkellett@rediffmail.com