Scholar Unearths Previously Unknown Primo Levi Text at Yad Vashem

"A declaration by Doctor Primo Levi, living in Torino, Corso Vittorio 67..." Thus, with characteristic dryness and equally typical humility, begins a document that lay for more than 45 years in the archive of the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority, until it was discovered a year ago by Dr. Margalit Shlain, a Holocaust scholar and director of the Beit Theresienstadt Museum at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud. Shlain was looking for materials for an article she was writing about how Holocaust writer Primo Levi came to be accepted in Israel.

The anonymity with which this text waited for discovery reveals something about the subject of Shlain's research. Israel was very late in discovering Levi, an Auschwitz survivor considered one of the greatest Holocaust writers, if not the greatest.

The text was first published by the Italian weekly L'Espresso about two weeks ago. Marco Belpoliti, the editor of all Levi's works in Italian, wrote in L'Espresso that the document expands our knowledge about Levi, shedding light in particular on the identity of the people who handed his group of partisans over to the Germans. The style of the testimony, Belpoliti wrote, is the same "tranquil, precise and elegant" style that characterizes Levi's other writings about the Holocaust.

Of the betrayal, Levi wrote: "We were joined by a certain man who had called himself Moelli, and - being a spy - he wasted no time in denouncing us. With the exception of Cesare Vita, who managed to escape, we were all arrested on September 13, 1943 and transferred to Aosa, to the camp of the Fascist militia. There we encountered the centurion Ferro, who, upon learning that we were university graduates, treated us benignly. He was later killed by partisans, in 1945."

When "the centurion" found out that they were Jews rather than "true partisans," Levi wrote, he pledged that no harm would come to them and that he would send them to Fossoli camp, near Modena. "We were given, on a regular basis, a food ration destined for the soldiers," Levi's testimony continued, "and at the end of January 1944, we were taken to Fossoli on a passenger train. Our conditions in the camp were quite good. There was no talk of executions and the atmosphere was quite calm. We were allowed to keep the money we had brought with us and to receive money from the outside. We worked in the kitchen in turn and performed other services in the camp. We even prepared a dining room, a rather sparse one, I must admit."

Levi's testimony also sheds light on those people who belonged to the "gray area" about which he wrote with such pain in the last book he published before his death, "The Drowned and the Saved" - the Jewish doctors who treated the prisoners in Auschwitz, and the kapo in charge of the barracks. "I remember Dr. Coenka from Athens, Dr. Weiss from Strasbourg, [and] Dr. Orensztejn, a Pole, who behaved rather well. I cannot say the same about Dr. Samuelidis from Saloniki, who did not pay attention to the patients who came to seek his help and denounced the sick ones to the German SS. A French doctor by the name of Levy turned out to be rather humane. The head of our barracks was a Dutch Jew, Josef Lessing, a musician by profession. He had 20 to 60 men under his supervision, and in his role as the head of the 98th barracks, he showed himself to be not only tough, but also wicked," Levi wrote.

The only thing Yad Vashem can currently say about the text is that it reached the institution at the end of 1960, together with a group of documents from Italy. The archivists could not say why Levi wrote the document in Rome (he was living in Torino) or what its purpose was.

However, based on interviews that Shlain conducted, she believes Levi wrote the text in the context of Israel's efforts to gather testimony for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had been captured in Argentina a few months earlier. The prosecution was collecting evidence at the time from survivors all over the world. It is not known what happened subsequently to his testimony, but it is known that Primo Levi was not called to the witness stand facing Eichmann's glass booth.

In June 1960, by the time Levi was writing the testimony that appears here, he was quite well-known in Italy. His book "If This Is a Man," about the year he spent in Auschwitz, had been reissued with marked success two years earlier by one of the most respected publishing houses in Italy. Three years later, Levi brought out "The Truce," about his journey from Auschwitz to Italy after the death camp's liberation; the book was widely publicized, became a commercial success and was translated into several languages. Levi, with his exceptionally human voice, became of the best-known Holocaust speakers in Europe.

But not in Israel. Dr. Itzhak Garti met Levi on his one and only visit to Israel in 1968. Garti wanted to translate "If This Is a Man" into Hebrew, and Levi, Garti said, "wanted to meet me because he was very strict in matters of translation." Garti added: "Levi told me that he had gone to publishing houses in Israel and proposed that they translate 'If This Is a Man,'" but "they told him: 'Holocaust? We are up to our ears in it. No one will buy it.'"

An echo of this frustration can be found in the foreword Levi wrote for the translation of his book "The Truce," his first to be published in Hebrew, in 1979. "I am pleased and very proud that my 'The Truce,' many years after its birth in Italy, has been published in Israel. It is not strange that my first book, 'If This Is a Man,' was not translated into Hebrew. 'If This Is a Man' is the diary of a concentration camp, too familiar a subject to attract attention."

Aside from highlighting Levi's humility ("If This Is a Man," which he describes as merely "the diary of a concentration camp," became a 20th-century classic), this statement attests to his lack of faith that he would ever win recognition in Israel as he had in Europe. Shlain says that the book sold about 500 copies.

Levi attained success in Israel only after achieving it in the United States in the mid-1980s. Professor Ariel Rathaus, an expert on Italian literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the delay stemmed from the fact that Israel is provincial and imitates the U.S. Professor Dan Miron, in an article he wrote about 10 years ago, argued that official Israel could not accept Levi because he saw the Holocaust as "an extension of 'normal' human behavior and not 'another planet,'" as it was described by the establishment author Ka-tzetnik, whose books about the Holocaust, including the most horrific descriptions, were distributed free to students in all schools in Israel.

Shlain says that today, Levi is part of the Israeli consensus. He appears in textbooks and Israel Defense Forces officers quote him on trips to Auschwitz. But for Levi, the discovery came too late. He did not live to see the publication of "If This Is a Man," in Hebrew, which came out in Garti's translation in 1987. That was a year after Levi was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of Corso Vittorio 67 in Torino, the same address that appears on his testimony.