It is Cultural Monday at Scission. Seldom do I post anything from the Nation, if for no other reason then I figure it gets read plenty anyway, but today I read this article and I thought I would like you to read it as well. It is a book review, but it is more than that. You will find it posted at the bottom of my own introduction.
Primo Levi was a chemist, a writer, a philosopher, and a man who survived the Holocaust and survived Auschwitz...and then went on.
Early in 1943, Levi left Turin with a group of ten friends and fled to the mountains with the intention of joining Giustizia e Liberta, the Italian resistance movement. These plans were aborted when Levi was arrested in the December of that year by the Fascists, to whom he admitted being a Jew. By February of 1944, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There, working in a chemical laboratory but expecting death at any moment, he knew he was living what he called “the fundamental experience” of his life.
Primo Levi had a recurrent nightmare at Auschwitz. He dreamed that he had survived, returned home and told his family about his experience —yet nobody listened.
He was determined not to let that happen. In The Drowned and the Saved, his final collection of essays on Holocaust themes, Levi wrote:
Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again.
Levi did not think fascism ended in 1945. He knew better. Levi remained an anti-fascist all his life, He wrote in 1974,
Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.
I have read dozens of books about the Holocaust over the years, went through a period where I was almost obsessed with it for some reason, but I did often stop and ask myself why I was torturing myself.
That question was also asked in a Voice Literary Supplement back in 1986. It was answered this way:
It is necessary. For what the Nazis did has shaped our world as much as any other event in modern history: they lifted up the cover of civilization and showed the horrors lurking under the bed. The horrors are still there. But if we can grasp what happened, we can begin to see how it might have been stopped or limited. We can also see the Nazi impulses that still exist and are a danger to all of us.
But for this to work, each of us must grasp what happened with her imagination, concretely, on the level of individual experience.
Primo Levi helped do this for me (if "helped" can be the right word). I came to realize why I had read all those books, but I still can't put it into words. It's true that I had that need to "grasp what happened," but I really felt I needed to not just grasp it, but to somehow feel it...which is, of course, impossible, for anyone who was not there (as in so many things). Still I learned something about the horrors that human beings are capable of at any time, normal, regular old people. More importantly, I also learned something about the incredible will to survive, the incredible passion for others. I even learned and wondered at those other regular folks who for some unknown reason went against the mass grain and took a stand, or who risking their own lives saved others however they could.
I have tried over the years to figure that last one out the most. What is it that makes one person stand up as a simple human being, stand up for another human being, risk everything while millions of others, at best, do nothing at all. Those people, those who stand alone, always exit, the people who simply act human when no one else does. The question I have is why and how? I wish I knew.
The others, the monsters, and those who look the other way, I don't wonder much about them. I despise them, but wonder, no, I don't think so.
I remember when Primo Levi died. Lots of people said at the time Auschwitz had finally killed him. You know, I don't think so. I don't think so because Primo Levi was a hell of a lot more than prisoner 174517. To think of him that way is simply to have never known the man. To think of him that way is to allow the nazis one final victory. That I will not do.
Sometime after 10:00 a.m., Saturday, April 11, 1987, on the third floor of a late-nineteenth-century building in Turin, the concierge rang the doorbell of Primo Levi's apartment. Levi—research chemist, retired factory manager, author of our most humanly compelling accounts of the Holocaust—had been born in that apartment 67 years earlier. He opened the door and collected his mail from the concierge like every other day. He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt. He smiled, thanked her as usual, and closed the door. The concierge descended on foot the ample spiral staircase occupied in the middle by a caged elevator. She had barely reached her cubicle on the ground floor, she later told the police, when she heard Levi's body hit the bottom of the stairs by the elevator. It was 10:20. A dentist who lived in the building heard her screams. He immediately saw, he subsequently reported, that Levi was dead. The autopsy established that he died instantaneously of a "crushed skull." No signs of violence unrelated to the fall were found on his body. At 12:00, barely an hour and a half after the event, I heard the news on the radio in Rome. There was already mention of suicide. The police inquiry simply confirmed that conclusion.
Levi took his own life. Who can say why? Does it matter why? No, what matters is that he lived. It matters what he gave to those of us who were willing to listen and believe and act and never forget and to say "never again to ANYONE."
We have not accomplished that yet, by the way. Never again has happened, not the same way, but the same idea, the same horrors, the same brutality. It happened before the Nazis came along and it has happened since. Maybe the Nazis did it "better" than anyone else, but too many in the world keep trying their hand at mass murder and genocide.
Gabriel Motola who once interviewed Levi writes:
The year before he jumped to his death Levi published The Drowned and the Saved, in which he spoke of the pain he suffered from having been a prisoner at Auschwitz, the shame that continued to torment him, the revulsion he still felt not only towards those who participated in the brutality but also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. He believed, as he mentioned during our meeting, that all people have a responsibility to each other as well as to other living things, not only because of our moral and ethical tradition, but also because, whether ape or apple, we are all made up of the same material.
As I said at the beginning, the following is from The Nation.
When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.
From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. [W]hen I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.
Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.
The cause of death was judged to be a fall from the landing of Levi’s apartment on the third floor…. There were no witnesses…. The verdict of suicide was thus an inference….
Claims attributing Levi’s suicide to his months in Auschwitz surfaced quickly…
Those who dissented entirely from the verdict of suicide…claimed (and still continue to hold) that for Levi to commit suicide would diminish or contradict too much else in his life and work, what he had lived through and for…he should not have done it or, more strongly, that he could not have done it….
Neither personal relationship nor independent analysis can fully settle the issue, although each item of evidence may add to or subtract from a conclusion in different measures….
Some of his readers have argued that to accept the verdict of Levi’s suicide…would undo the intellectual and emotional strength credited to Levi as survivor and witness.