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Primo Levi and the unquenchable human spirit

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Primo Levi, who gave us some of the strongest eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, died 20 years ago. Henry Maitles looks at his work
Issue 2045
Primo Levi analysed the very essence of humanity in his many novels and essays
Primo Levi analysed the very essence of humanity in his many novels and essays

More than 60 years after the genocide of between 11 and 12 million people, the Nazi Holocaust remains a critical part of the human experience. The recorded testimony of it by eyewitnesses and victims has been turned into thousands of books – virtually all the literature is moving and important.

But among all of them those by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived the Holocaust and who died 20 years ago this month, are the most powerful.

Levi gave us the strongest and most mature eyewitness account of the Holocaust and how it affected both victims and oppressors. From his first work, If This Is A Man, which was rejected by publishers in 1947 and did not reach bookshops until 1958, to his last work, The Drowned And The Saved, published in 1986, Levi waged a personal battle to maintain the memory the Holocaust.

Indeed there is evidence in his work that he was becoming more urgent and insistent as he got older.

The genocide and destruction perpetrated by the US in Vietnam, Pol Pot in Cambodia and the resurgence of fascist organisations in Europe seemed to provide echoes of the 1930s that had brought the Nazis to power. Levi is certain of two things about the Holocaust – it happened, and it can happen again.

It is not hard to understand why Levi’s writing has been so acclaimed. His humanity and spirit of resistance shine through his works. Whether the resistance is an individual or collective response, Levi admires and articulates it.

This is true even as he realises the often terrible cost of opposition and questions his own ability to participate in it. Indeed, the major strength of his works on the Holocaust is the way he presents the contradiction between resistance and the powerlessness that Nazism engendered.

Levi describes the spirit of humanity that the Germans were so keen to destroy. It is this sense of an unquenchable spirit that makes Levi’s chronicle of the camps so moving.

It is impossible not to be moved by these examples of courage and goodness in the face of fascist barbarism. Indeed, it is a major strength of Levi’s work that his books are filled with them.

These examples are all the more uplifting when considered from the perspective of the degradation and humiliation constantly faced by the prisoners. Yet Levi does not give the easy impression of the unstinting nobility of man.

In one moving phrase, he describes Nazism’s effect on the prisoners as being something that “degrades them, it makes them similar to itself.”

“Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses. He will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.

“He will be a man whose life and death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term ‘extermination camp’, and it is now clear what we seek to express by the phrase ‘to lie on the bottom’.”

Powerless corrupts

Levi uses the analogy of animals over and over again to make his point, telling us how, after being in a grossly overcrowded train car for several days without any toilet facilities, the Jews squatted wherever they could to defecate.

To the watching Germans, it must have seemed that “people like this deserve their fate, just look how they behave. These are not Menschen [human beings] but animals, it’s clear as the light of day.”

Power can corrupt but so can powerlessness. The institutional violence of the regime against the prisoners often had its reflection in the actions of the prisoners towards each other.

The conditions made for little camaraderie among the prisoners and the constant fear of theft by other prisoners meant that everything, from washing to eating to sleeping, had to be done with an incredibly watchful eye.

Levi’s summation of survival in the camps is that, in the upside down world of the camps, all that could be called “good” in the outside world was of little use in the battle to survive.

In a chilling phrase, he writes that the law in the camps was “eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour”. After the Allies liberated the camps, Levi wrote of a sense of shame among the inmates that they could not, or did not, behave better.

Levi also tried to explain this in the poem, The Survivor: “Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people, go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone, I haven’t usurped anyone’s bread. No one died in my place. No one. Go back into your mist. It’s not my fault if I live and breathe, eat, drink, sleep, and put on clothes.”

Today Levi continues to hold a special fascination, but not just because of the power of his writing, his lack of hysterical judging, the strength of his intellect or the forcefulness of his ideas.

The very nature of his death has even been an issue for debate. Many assume it was suicide and give a number of reasons for it (a mixture of short-term depression and long-term guilt).

Others reject this saying that he died following an accidental fall. Both are possible, but this is a sterile debate.

We should agree wholeheartedly with his biographer Anthony Rudolf who thinks it probable that Levi committed suicide. But he makes it clear that what counts is that “his life and the actual manner of its living outweigh 12 million fold his death and the actual manner of its dying”.

On a political level, Levi’s work is a reminder that capitalism in crisis can lead to extreme reactions, yet nowhere in his work does he attempt to analyse, other than in psychological terms, the reasons for the rise of fascism. He was never a Zionist and hated Israel’s expansionist policies, yet could speak of Israel as a “lifeboat state” for Jews.

Despite not wanting to engage with contemporary political debates, Levi’s writing is not about the past. Though it is “history”, it is full of relevance to today.

His works are cries of “never again” but he is also aware that reasoned argument is sometimes not enough to combat the violence of the fascists, saying that we must, in the last resort, “find the strength to resist… what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago”.

Socialists have a duty to ensure that the kind of horrors Primo Levi so eloquently warns us of are never allowed to be forgotten, or indeed, to happen again.

What to read

Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, can obtain the following Primo Levi works. To place your order, phone 020 7637 1848 or email [email protected]

  • If Not Now, When? £8.99
  • The Periodic Table £8.99
  • Moments Of Reprieve £10.99
  • The Wrench £7.99
  • If This Is A Man £8.99
  • The Drowned And The Saved £7.99
  • Collected Poems £9.99
  • A Tranquil Star £20.00
  • Voice Of Memory £14.99
  • Black Hole Of Auschwitz £15.99
  • Auschwitz Report £9.99

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