Saturday 27 January 2018

"I am constantly amazed by man's inhumanity to man." Primo Levi

Primo Michele Levi was an Italian chemist. And he was a Holocaust survivor. In 1944, he was incarcerated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where he was "one of the three out of the 125 people consigned with him to survive". Levi wrote several books. At first rejected by numerous publishers, "If This Is a Man" - which he wrote soon after being liberated from the concentration camp - was later translated into several languages and became his most famous piece of work. The book is about humanity in extremis, the collective madness he experienced but nevertheless life-affirming and without any bitterness (via and via).
27th of January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet Armed Forces. It is also the day Primo Levi was liberated.

If this is a man, by Primo Levi (via)

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

There are speculations about Levi's death; some say it was a suicide, others say it was an accident. On 11 April 1987, at around 10:20 o'clock in the morning, the concierge rang the doorbell of Primo Levi's flat on the third floor. He opened the door, collected his letters, smiling, thanking her, then closed the door. When the concierge descended, she heard his body hit the bottom of the stairs by the lift (via).

"Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later."
Elie Wiesel

"Of those years [in Auschwitz] he must have had terrible memories: a wound he always carried with great fortitude, but which must have been nonetheless atrocious. I think it was the memory of those years which lead him towards his death."
Natalia Ginzburg

"This suicide must be backdated to 1945. It did not happen then because Primo wanted (and had to) write."
Ferdinando Camon

"Many Jews survived the concentration camps and yet killed themselves later."
Lester (2005)

"Now everyone wants to understand, to grasp, to probe. I think my father had already written the last act of his existence. Read the conclusion of The Truce and you will understand."
Renzo, Primo Levi's son
[And] a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals. It is a dream within a dream, varied in detail, one in substance. I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short, in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And in fact, as the dream proceeds, slowly and brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses, and disintegrates around me, the scenery, the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed into chaos; I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, 'Wstawàch.'
Primo Levi, 1962
After the liberation in 1945, a majority of the survivors were kept in interim displaced persons camps. Interested observers conducted physical and psychological analyses of the survivors and noted the most obvious consequences, i.e., extreme physical disabilities. Apart from that, this period seemed to be a "symptom-free interval". It was only during the late 1940s and early 1950s that "the delayed effect of the Holocaust experience began to manifest in survivors". The major psyhological effect became visible after survivors had resettled and started a new life. First called "Concentration Camp Syndrome" or "Survivor Syndrome", this is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Rosenberg, 1984). 50 years after the horrible experiences, a significantly higher rate of PTSD  was reported among Holocaust survivors than for war veterans. Ageing is said to be a phase of severe crisis for Holocaust survivors (Barak & Szor, 2000).

Excerpts taken from "If This Is a Man" (via)

“It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and it is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium - as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom - well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.”

“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man.. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again - even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were "charismatic leaders" ; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”

“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last - the power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.”

“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we ill have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”

- Barak, Y. & Szor, H. (2000). Lifelong posttraumatic stress disorder: evidence from aging Holocaust survivors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2(1), 57-62.
- Lester, D. (2005). Suicide and the Holocaust. New York: Nova Science Publishers
- Levi, P. (1989). Se questo è un uomo. La tregua. Turin: Einaudi Tascabili
- Rosenberg, J. (1984). Holocaust Survivors and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders: The Need for Conceptual Reassessment and Development. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 11(4), 930-938
- photographs via and via and via and via


  1. Food for thought, thanks

    1. And hard to digest.
      Thank you for dropping by, Kenneth!

  2. What an astonishing mind! He should never be forgotten!, Stephan