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How to Write About the Holocaust

There are writers, a few of them, who stir an immediate personal response. You need only read a few of their pages and you know right off that an unspoken, subterranean kinship will blossom. Usually it’s not the writers’ opinions or subjects that really grip you, it’s the tone of voice, perhaps a lilt of wry sincerity or a murmur of reflectiveness.

For me, the Italian Jewish memoirist and novelist Primo Levi is such a writer. I stand at some distance from his culture and even more from his experience—he is a survivor of Auschwitz—yet when I read his books I feel a sense of exhilarating closeness. I want to start holding imaginary conversations, as if Primo Levi and I were friends who have known each other for years.

In his native Italy Primo Levi has a considerable reputation, but here in America his books have still not reached a sufficiently large public. There are the familiar reasons: delays in translation, a recent shift in American taste to a narrow self-involvement that cuts out a good many foreign writers. But there’s another and more complex reason. Levi is associated with Holocaust literature, and some people feel they have taken in as much of this writing as they need to or can bear. Others, more justifiably, are dismayed by the vulgarizations to which public discourse on the Holocaust has recently been subjected and therefore prefer to keep away from writings on this theme.

Real as all these barriers are, we should find ways of dismantling or evading them, for Levi is a writer of integrity, seriousness, and charm. He is also a writer molded and marked by our century. He knows—can it really be a matter for dispute?—that he has lived through the most terrible decades in the history of mankind. Writers burdened with this awareness cannot pretend to “understand” Auschwitz and the Gulag. But they know, especially those who are survivors of the concentration camps, that they must live with an experience that has scarred them forever. Repeatedly and often compulsively, they return to their subject—even as, I feel certain, they wince at the shoddy rhetoric it evokes from publicists and politicians. The writers of whom I speak have no choice: they are captives of history, they write from their need.

So somber a fate can hardly have been anticipated for the young Primo Levi, born in 1919 to a cultivated middle-class Jewish family in Turin. The Italian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe and has behind it notable religious and literary traditions. By the time, however, that Levi entered adolescence, the Jews were being increasingly assimilated into Italian society, often into the professional and intellectual classes. Some Italian Jews kept a fragile tie to their past, a filament of memory with Jewish traditions and learning, if not with Judaism as a religion. At least some Jewish families held on to fragments of the Hebrew language and its linked rituals and customs. At the age of thirteen Primo Levi went through the bar mitzvah ceremony, but this didn’t really signify a strong attachment to Jewishness. Thinking back in later years to the time of his youth, he would speak of being Jewish as “a cheerful little anomaly” occasionally disturbing his relations with gentile friends. For in those years Italy seemed free of the racial anti-Semitism that was poisoning European society.

The young Levi studied to be a chemist. But for a “sudden” blow—which now, with the easy wisdom of retrospect, we can see was not so “sudden”—he might have continued along the conventional path of professional life. In the late 1930s Mussolini, in his nasty clownish style, began to imitate the anti-Semitic brutalities of his partner Hitler. Quite unprepared by his family or milieu for the kind of persecutions that Jews over the centuries had come to take for granted, the young Levi found himself “cut” by haughty or shamefaced professors. Only one teacher of low rank took him on as a doctoral student, with the curt, memorable sentence: “Follow me.” In 1941 Levi received his doctorate, but because of the racial laws could not find work as a chemist. He took odd jobs in a varnish factory, a nickel mine.1

Levi soon drifted over to Milan, the intellectual capital of Italy, and only there did he begin to acquire a bit of political awareness. He learned about isolated clusters of Italian anti-Fascists who had not “bent their backs.” He heard stories about such intrepid (and, it’s worth noting, Jewish) libertarians as the Rosselli brothers, murdered by Mussolini’s thugs, and Carlo Levi, sentenced to internal exile. Most of the Italian Jewish community had kept a wary distance from politics, with a small minority attaching itself opportunistically to the Fascists and another small minority joining the opposition, much of it scattered in exile. But now, during the war years, a new and substantial resistance movement came into being and “Jewish participation,” writes Levi, “was actually fairly considerable.”

In September 1943 he joined a unit of partisans in the hills of Piedmont. Inexperienced, the group soon suffered betrayal by an informer. Levi was arrested in December. At the Fascist interrogation, he admitted to being a Jew, “partly out of fatigue, but partly out of a sudden surge…of haughty pride.” In February 1944 the Italian Fascists handed him over to the German Nazis for deportation to Auschwitz:

The railroad convoy that took us to the Lager contained 650 persons; of these, 525 were immediately put to death; 29 women were interned at Birkenau; 96 men, myself among them, were sent to Monowitz-Auschwitz, a Nebenlager belonging to IG Farbenindustrie. Of these, only about twenty of the men and women returned to their homes. I survived imprisonment by a fortunate chain of circumstances: by never falling ill; by the help of an Italian brick-layer [who brought Levi food]; by being able to work two months as a chemist in an IG Farbenindustrie laboratory. I was liberated thanks to the rapid advance of the Red Army in January, 1945.

It was during his months in Auschwitz that Levi’s mature consciousness was formed, that humane sensibility, at once modest and resolute, one encounters in his books. Auschwitz would be “the fundamental experience of my life…. I knew that if I survived, I would have to tell the story.” Many survivors have also wanted “to tell the story,” and some of them suffered even more than Levi did, but very few would be able to write with the reflective depth that he has.

One reason is that in the hell of Auschwitz he formed friendships with prisoners, East European Jews, who passed on to him bits of knowledge about Yiddish culture—its spiritual and moral resources—which helped Levi to gain new personal strength. Some of these Jews from Poland and Russia were humane even in this most inhumane of places, some were twisted psychically and morally by their ordeals. But all had stories to tell. All opened up to Levi the values of a Jewishness he had never before encountered. Auschwitz became for him “a brutal confirmation of my condition as a Jew: a condemnation, a relapse, a reliving of Biblical stories of exile and migration. It was a tragic return.”

After the war, back in Italy, he heard from a friend reports about a Yiddish-speaking partisan unit that had survived the fighting in Eastern Europe and somehow had ended up in Milan. This story, together with the stories he had heard in Auschwitz, seems to have lodged itself deeply in his mind, though it was not until many years later, after publishing several other books, that he would come back to the Yiddish partisans. In 1982 he published a novel based on their experiences, with the title If Not Now, When?2

A great success in Italy, If Not Now, When? should be read first of all as a tribute to those East European Jews who tried to offer some resistance to the Nazis. It is a gesture of solidarity and, in a quiet way, identification. The immediate occasion for this novel, Levi has written, was a noisy controversy—and probably a fruitless one too—that has been raging for several decades about the behavior of the Jews during the Holocaust:

Did [the Jews] really allow themselves to be led to the slaughter without resistance?… In my opinion, this discussion is unhistorical and polluted by prejudices. As a former partisan and deportee, I know very well that there are some political and psychological conditions in which resistance is possible, and others in which it is not. It was not my intention to enter the controversy. But it seemed to me to carry a sufficient narrative charge so that I could draw [from it] a story worthy of being read…. Beyond that I wanted to do homage to those Jews, whether few or many, who in the unequal struggle had found their dignity and freedom anew.

Once liberated from Auschwitz in early 1945, Levi still could not return to his home. Because of bureaucratic confusion, he had to spend eight months in a bizarre journey through Poland and Russia before finally arriving in Turin. This journey would also become part of his “fundamental experience,” indeed, the matter of what is probably his best book.

Back home, Levi began to make notes, and then a coherent account from his notes, about the Auschwitz experience. He knew, or in the course of writing learned, that with materials so dreadful in nature, so without historical precedent and therefore so resistant to conceptual grasp, the writer needs most of all to keep a strict discipline of exactitude in recall and description. It is his recollection, and he must be there, in the remembrance, as the one who saw and suffered; but precisely the terribleness of his story requires an austere self-effacement as well. How difficult and at times impossible this discipline can be, anyone who has read Holocaust memoirs and fictions can testify. It requires an emotional restraint and a steadiness of creative purpose that can seem almost indecent to demand from survivors. Yet if such memoirs are to constitute more than a howl of rage or pain, there is no other way to write them.

Speaking about Levi’s first book, the recollection of Auschwitz entitled If This Is a Man (1947), H. Stuart Hughes finds its point of distinction in Levi’s “equanimity, punctuated by an occasional note of quiet humor.” That is right, but I would also speak about a quality in Levi’s work that might be called moral poise. I mean by this an act of complete reckoning with the past, insofar as there can be a complete reckoning with such a past. I mean a strength of remembrance that leads Levi into despair and then at least partly beyond it, so that he does not flinch from anything, neither shame nor degradation, that actually happened at Auschwitz, yet refuses in his writing to indulge in those outbursts of self-pity, sometimes sliding into self-aggrandizement, which understandably mar a fair number of Holocaust memoirs and fictions.

  1. 1

    I draw these facts, necessary for understanding Levi’s career as a writer, from his memoir, “Beyond Survival,” translated into English in Prooftexts, no. 4, 1984, and from a lovely little book by the historian H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (Harvard University Press, 1983), in which he discusses twentieth-century Italian Jewish writers.

  2. 2

    To be published in April by Summit Books. This essay will appear as the introduction. Levi’s title is taken from a famous passage of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” (Sayings of the Fathers)

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