‘You were made men’: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

In a recent post about choosing The Road as one of the texts for my Introduction to Literature class next year, I mentioned that I’m also assigning Eli Wiesel’s Night. In the comments, Dorian said that he considered Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz “the more compelling text, both formally and conceptually.” As I said to him then, I’ve known for a while that I should read Levi, and his remark  was just the instigation I needed to make it a priority.

I finished reading Survival in Auschwitz this afternoon, so it’s too soon for me to say whether I think it is better or greater than Night. It is certainly a very different book, and as I work up my notes on Night again in the fall I know I’ll be thinking a lot about the contrasts. My first impression is that it is a much less overtly literary book than NightNight is heavily symbolic, organized around motifs and vignettes and characterized (at least in the translation I’m familiar with) by striking images and words freighted with significance. Levi’s approach is more indirect, his vignettes or episodes more elusive or ambiguous. In some ways, I think Night is more artful, but also, as a result, it feels more artificial. There’s a raw quality to Levi’s book: it’s not sleek, he’s honest about things he forgets, there are awkward but heartfelt gestures towards people he remembers. The book is unified in a different way than Night  is–not emotionally or symbolically but associatively, conceptually, a section at a time. It does not conclude but ends, again awkwardly, without flourish. Though both books immerse us in the horror of Auschwitz, Levi’s account seems somehow less visceral, more appalled than angry, more inquisitive than despairing. It is not any less devastating. It is, perhaps, more morally challenging: where Wiesel deals in searing absolutes, Levi puzzles us, as he was puzzled: “We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.”

The differences between the books are not superficial, but at the same time I don’t think they are fundamental: both books are ultimately preoccupied with the loss or preservation of humanity under conditions that deliberately seek to exterminate it, conditions so psychically brutalizing that physical death seems little more than a bureaucratic afterthought. The original English title of Survival in Auschwitz was If This Is a Man, which is a direct translation of the Italian title. The current title seems apt to the book’s attention to literal survival: a lot of Levi’s attention is given to the complex economy of the camp, driven by desperation but also fueled by people’s endless ingenuity: spoons, shoes, bowls, bread–the things that mean, for just a little longer, endurance. The title has another dimension, though, more consonant with the Italian title, which is the survival of the person: memories, dreams, knowledge. For Levi, his knowledge of chemistry, which helps define him, to himself, as a man (“Yet I am he, the B. Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him”) also contributes to his physical survival, as his job in the laboratory protects him from a second winter of hard labor. But one of the most profound and moving sections of the book for me was section 11, “The Canto of Ulysses,” in which Levi tries to teach a fellow prisoner Italian by reciting and translating some of the Divine Comedy:

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.’

As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.

Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.

Levi’s urgency increases as their time runs out and he can’t remember the lines, can’t bridge the gaps in his memory, can’t explain, can’t hold on. The poetry is unbearable because it awakens what the camp refuses–what you too must refuse to survive the camp (“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”). But the loss of the poetry is also unbearable, because it is the negation of the camp. It is the antidote, not to the regimented brutality, the beatings and murders, the starvation, but to what Levi calls early in the book “the demolition of a man.”

This Week in My Classes (September 29, 2008)

I didn’t post anything about my classes last week. Mental clutter is my lame excuse–that, and I used what ‘extra’ energy I had to get done one of the book reviews I’ve been working on, and to read two quite long graduate thesis chapters. So really, I wasn’t slacking off! Actually, since one thing I was doing was launching Vanity Fair in my 19th-century fiction class, the little piece I posted on that at The Valve sort of counts. Anyway, here’s what’s up at this point.

English 1010: This week we start our work on Elie Wiesel’s Night. I chose this text for this course because it seemed to epitomize the idea I pitch in the class about great writing not being aimed at college classrooms and anthologies but being a form of intervention in the world. Night is a highly-wrought text, conspicuously literary, deliberate in its language and devices, and urgent in its attempt to reach us on an important subject. It’s also enormously moving–and (not an insignificant consideration for a first-year class) it’s very short. My experience has been that students arrive in class without much historical background (my own view would be that, at the very least, modern history should be a graduation requirement for all high school students, but here at least, it is optional). I opened today, therefore, with an overview of the Holocaust, beginning with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and going briefly through the steps towards the ‘final solution.’ Throughout I emphasize the problems Wiesel and others have raised about finding appropriate language to refer to the mass murders, including objections to the term “Holocaust”; I also (again, following Wiesel’s prompts) try to balance a sense of the overwhelming scale of suffering and death with attention to individual faces and stories. In my introductory lecture I also talk a bit about Wiesel himself, about the textual history of Night, and about its status (and, perhaps, limits) as a memoir, rather than a comprehensive or authoritative history. Finally, I try to give some fresh urgency to his mantra of “never forget” by mentioning some notorious contemporary Holocaust deniers.

I worked hard on my PowerPoint slides for this lecture, trying first to put faces on the abstractions, but also to provide starting points for the problems of language and representation that we will work on. It is an almost unbearable job to do; I found myself in tears several times, particularly as I worked on the topic of “selection.” In the Preface, Wiesel asks,

Was there a way to describe . . . the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of their arrival? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity? . . . And yet, having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent, no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak.

Here’s the account of that incident he gives:

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

Tzipora was seven, the same age as my own daughter. It’s the mother I mourn for most, though: she would have known, or feared, more of the truth, and felt the devastation of walking her child towards it.

Did it seem trivial to move to Vanity Fair for my afternoon class? It did, a bit, and though I got my head into it and enjoyed myself, and I think it was a pretty good session, I find that now, having returned imaginatively and emotionally to that scene on the platform at Auschwitz, I don’t feel like writing it up. Instead, here are some links to some remarkable online resources for learning about (and teaching about) the Holocaust:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority

Holocaust Denial on Trial

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

Elie Wiesel Nobel Prize Interview

Elie Wiesel Academy of Achievement Interview

Night on Oprah’s Book Club