When Words Failed the Great Primo Levi

Perhaps one reason the Italian-born Holocaust survivor lived until the 1980s – unlike his German-speaking counterparts who quickly took their own lives – was because he wrote in his native tongue. Yet the famed author ultimately suffered the same fate

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The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Levi recognized the blurred boundary between the victim and the executioner.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Levi recognized the blurred boundary between the victim and the executioner.Credit: Matthias Schrader / AP
Iris Leal
Iris Leal
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

To Ruth Ben Asher

When he was in Auschwitz, Italian Jewish author Primo Levi had a recurring nightmare that he recounts in his book “If This is a Man” (1947). He returns home; his sister, friends and strangers surround him and listen to his story. And he tells them everything, about the siren heard from afar as an accompaniment to the arduous labor he performed, about the hard bed, the distressing hunger, the lice check “and the kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding.”

In the dream, Levi experiences bodily pleasure, inexpressible in words, at being home, among friends, sharing with them every single detail about his daily suffering in the lager (camp) – until he realizes that his friends are listening to him without any interest, some of them even conversing with one another; in the end his sister stands up and leaves, unruffled. “A desolating grief is now born in me, like certain barely remembered pains of one’s early infancy. It is pain in its pure state, not tempered by a sense of reality and by the intrusion of extraneous circumstances, like that which makes children cry,” he writes.

To escape the pain caused him by the indifference of his friends and family when relating his story to them, Levi would wake himself up each time to reality, on his wooden bunk in Auschwitz, which at those moment he found more bearable than the reality in his dream.

After liberation and his return home in 1945, Levi talked and talked and talked. He spoke at schools, he lectured before various audiences, and held endless conversations intended for print and radio until his final days. Conveying his suffering to others in the first person, directly, constituted a sort of double knot: On the one hand, it made it possible for the world of the camps to continue to drive stakes into his life. On the other, the repetition of every detail in his memory made it possible for him to exorcise the dybbuk from within and to rescue himself from the recurring nightmare.

This is the approach in Levi’s nonfictional works, among them “If This is the Man,” an account of his year in Auschwitz; “Moments of Reprieve,” which recounts his liberation and return home; and finally “The Drowned and the Saved,” published about a year before his death in 1987. This trilogy of memoirs helped Levi traverse the emptiness of the desert of indifference where he wandered for about 40 years, from the day the camp was liberated until the tragic end of his life in an unremarkable apartment building in Turin where he was born and lived, and from which he leapt to his death one morning, four days before Passover.

Before Levi, many other thinkers and writers had committed suicide – Jewish intellectuals who witnessed the years of the extermination, and some of whom also experienced it on their flesh. These included Stefan Zweig and Jean Améry (Hanns Chaim Mayer), who wrote in his book “At the Mind’s Limits”: “A special set of problems in connection with the social function or – no matter to what he turned, it did not belong to him, but to the enemy.”

Primo Levi
Primo LeviCredit: Doron Flamm

If at this point I dare to offer a tentative, hesitant answer to the troubling question of why the others took their own lives during the war or shortly after it ended, whereas Levi survived for another four decades – I would reply that language played a major part. Levi believed that his limited knowledge of German saved him from death in the camp, since it helped him get a job. But unlike the others, for whom it was their mother tongue and primary language when it came to poetry, literature and philosophy, Levi could abandon it immediately upon his liberation. When Austrian Jewish writer Karl Kraus said of the Third Reich that when that world came to life, speech died, he probably meant the (temporary) death of the language of the genocide.

‘Deluded souls’

Levi was born in Turin, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, into a world of secular Italian Jews. His family was liberal, his parents were well educated, their house was a bourgeois European home. They read, they listened to music, they played musical instruments, they learned additional languages. He attended a prestigious local high school where he stood out because of his intelligence, his diminutive stature and his Jewishness. Levi was delicate and shy, and during the period when he was mocked by his schoolmates, he withdrew into himself even further. Later he defined their attitude toward him as “uniquely anti-Semitic.”

In the early 1930s the Jews of Italy numbered 50,000. The vast majority of them, among them Levi’s father, supported the fascist government until the moment in 1938 when the Interior Ministry drafted anti-Jewish regulations, to which were added a series of orders distancing them from public life that quickly became race laws.

In 1943 Levi and some of his friends formed a ragtag group of anti-fascist partisans and intended to join the Resistance movement. They had pathetic training, they were not properly equipped and within a short time they were captured by the fascist militia. Under interrogation, Levi confessed to being Jewish and was sent to the internment camp at Fossoli, where the conditions were decent. Two months later, in the middle of February, S.S. soldiers took command of the camp and ordered all the Jews two prepare for a journey that would take about two weeks. “Only a minority of ingenuous and deluded souls continued to hope; we others had often spoken with the Polish and Croat refugees and we knew what departure meant.”He spent a total of 11 months in Auschwitz until the camp was liberated by the Red Army. Of the 650 Italian Jews who were in his original camp transport, “three of us returned home,” Levi related. “These are the despicable and valuable facts.”

He was often asked whether he would have become a writer were it not for having survived Auschwitz. To this he replied that, as he never lived a life in which he had not been in Auschwitz, he had no way of knowing what would or would not have happened in such a life. In any event, and despite his modesty, Levi, who even as a child planned to be a scientist and was already a chemist before he was sent to the death camp (he called his first books incidental) – he is the greatest Holocaust writer and one of the giants of 20th-century literature. There is nothing comparable to his standpoint as a witness-narrator, to which he harnessed his training as a chemist, his tendency to engage in scientific observation, and his modest and mild character suffused with the desire to tell stories. His writing is full of refined and precise observations. He does it as someone who is conducting a trial of the murderers before the tribunal of his readers, and his prose maneuvers between the powerfulness of the subject matter and the softness of its expression in language.

Levi found and adopted a quiet voice, devastating in its politeness and its measured and removed prose. With curiosity undamaged by his experience, he reports on his findings from the laboratory in which a multi-dimensional biological and sociological experiment was conducted, in which he served both as scientist and as lab mouse.

Primo Levi
Primo LeviCredit: Mondadori Collection

And yet, Levi believed that despite its uniqueness, Auschwitz was a by-product of the degeneration of Western culture, the rotten fruit of its philosophy in which the Italians, the Germans, Jews and Christians and Nazis all had a part. And therefore everyone must feel shared human responsibility, because Auschwitz was a product of human beings, and we are all human beings. This was a brutal acknowledgment of something many still reject in self-righteous anger – among them the phalanxes of “one mustn’t compare” – but Levi, who recognized that the Holocaust was a one-time human and historical event, also recognized the blurred boundary between the victim and the executioner.

Thus, his relations with the State of Israel were enthusiastic but tortured. Levi was not neutral or indifferent toward it. He felt a profound connection to the other Holocaust survivors who found refuge there. However, when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his opinions were close to “the left” – that persecuted group, the object of deep hatred in Israeli society today. The Lebanon War and the slaughter in 1982 in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps caused him to speak out for the first time and demand that Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whom he perceived as a “fascist,” resign.

Levi also signed a petition that demanded that Israel withdraw from Lebanon, called for a solution to the regional conflict that would recognize the rights of all peoples to sovereignty and national security, and contained prophetic lines about the nature of a Israeli democracy where tendencies toward very dangerous separatism prevailed that would be deadly in the case of annexation of the West Bank.

In 1984 Levi said that the deterioration of political life in Israel was disturbing to him. He, who had said that “the oppressed of those days were human beings like ourselves” – meaning that someone who is oppressed can become an oppressor – now had to watch this reversal taking place before his eyes. He therefore believed that Israel’s role as the unifying center of Judaism was in decline and believed that this center was moving to the Diaspora where it would be preserved better than it had been to date. If so, then the mad idea that realization of the Zionist option and immigration to the Land of Israel would afford a universalist Jew like Stefan Zweig a reason to live, shatters in light of the pain and shame the Zionist state caused Levi (and other Jewish intellectuals) in the last years of his life.

And those years were bitter. Levi sank into a severe depression from which, ultimately, he did not manage to extricate himself. The survivors, he wrote to a woman friend, did not actually survive but only appeared to have done so. On Saturday morning, April 11, 1987, the concierge of his apartment building rang “Dr. Levi’s” doorbell to hand him his mail, which he accepted every day with a smile. A few minutes after she returned to her quarters, she heard a terrible noise. She went out and found his bleeding and smashed body at the bottom of the stairwell, where it remained when his wife returned from her shopping rounds in the neighborhood.

“It seems to me that I have used up the reservoir of what I have to say and the stories I have to tell,” said Levi shortly before his death. We will never know if he was right about this. However, the things he said about Franz Kafka, with some small adjustments, express my own feelings toward him since the first time I opened “If This is a Man” and began to read it: I love him and I am afraid of him as I would be of a prophet who is about to announce the day of my death.