On December 13th 1943 at the age of 24 Primo Levi, a chemist from Turin was captured by the Fascist militia and giving his status as an ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race’ was taken via the detention camp at Fossoli to Auschwitz. Of the 650 who arrived the children, the old men and most of the women were ‘swallowed up by the night’. Ninety six men and twenty nine women entered the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau. The rest were sent to the gas chamber, only 3 made the return journey home. The story of his journey home is told in The Truce.
Written in clear, beautiful, lucid prose Primo Levi describes the day to day personal and social history of the camp. The complex network of hierarchies and cliques, thefts and counter-thefts, the opportunity to strike a deal when everything has a value – Levi recalls at the end when he is home in Turin that ‘only after many months did I lose the habit of walking with my glance fixed to the ground, as if searching for something to eat or to pocket hastily or to sell for bread.’
‘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 will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.’
The essential project of the camps is, in Levi’s words ‘the demolition of a man’, so when everything has been taken away how do you find the strength to survive? Levi meets Lorenzo, an Italian bricklayer working on the expansion of Auschwitz. He gives Levi a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gives him his vest, full of patches; he wrote a postcard to Italy and brings him the reply and he does this for nothing; and this Levi believes is why he survived.
‘I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving. . . Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.’
One paragraph begins, almost like an ordinary diary entry: ‘It is lucky that it is not windy today.’ But goes on to show, I think, a gentle and remarkable strength in his character that is always questioning and seeking answers ‘Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some change happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.’
There’s never a moment of self-pitying but rather as Howard Jacobson says ‘a sort of numbed wonderment’ to Primo Levi’s writing and I think this is why although If This is a Man is about such a harrowing experience I found it incredibly interesting.
The first Russian patrol arrived on the 27th January and this is the beginning of The Truce, which is the story of his long way home via transit camps and trains, travelling through Russia before it starts on its way to Italy. It reads like an enormous carnival of humanity as if the whole of Europe is a mass of displaced people trying to find their way home: Cesare, from the Roman slums, the Russian peasants, Mr Unverdorben, the composer of a fantasy opera, the Moor of Verona, The Greek. In the assembly camp in Slutsk, Russia, there are about ten thousand men, women and children:
‘There were Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Muslims; . . . Germans, Poles, French, Greeks, Dutch, Italians and others; and in addition, Germans pretending to be Austrians, Austrians declaring themselves Swiss, Russians stating that they were Italians, a woman dressed as a man and finally, conspicuous in the midst of this ragged crowd, a Magyar general in full uniform, as quarrelsome, motley and stupid as a cock.’
Paul Bailey in the Afterword calls it ‘a celebration of other men’s uniqueness’! It’s full of life, colour and noise however ragged and Levi finally arrives in Turin on October 19th 1945.
Primo Levi, 1919-1987
‘The death of Primo Levi robs Italy of one of its finest writers . . . One of the few survivors of the Holocaust to speak of his experiences with a gentle voice’ Guardian