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Lorenzo’s Return

Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman

I have also told about Lorenzo elsewhere, but in terms that were deliberately vague. Lorenzo was still alive when I wrote Survival in Auschwitz, and the task of transforming a living person into a character ties the hand of the writer. This happens because such a task, even when it is undertaken with the best intentions and deals with a respected and loved person, verges on the violation of privacy and is never painless for the subject. Each of us, knowingly or not, creates an image of himself, but inevitably it is different from that, or, rather, from those (which again are different from one another) that are created by whoever comes into contact with us. Finding oneself portrayed in a book with features that are not those we attribute to ourselves is traumatic, as if the mirror of a sudden returned to us the image of somebody else: an image possibly nobler than ours, but not ours. For this reason, and for other, more obvious reasons, it is a good practice not to write biographies of the living, unless the author openly chooses one of two opposed paths: hagiography or the polemical pamphlet, which diverge from reality and are not impartial. What the “true” image of each of us may be in the end is a meaningless question.

Lorenzo has now been dead for many years, and I feel freed from the restraint that previously held me back, and I even feel it my duty to try to re-create the image that I have kept of him in these stories in which are gathered the para-lipomena of my first two “Books of Chronicles.” I met Lorenzo in June 1944, after a bombing that had torn up the big yard in which both of us were working. Lorenzo was not a prisoner like us; in fact he wasn’t a prisoner at all. Officially he was one of the voluntary civilian workers with which Nazi Germany swarmed, but his choice had been anything but voluntary. In 1939 he had been employed as a mason by an Italian firm that operated in France. The war had broken out, all the Italians in France had been interned, but then the Germans had arrived, reconstituted the firm, and transferred it part and parcel to Upper Silesia.

Those workers, even though not militarized, lived like soldiers. They were stationed in a camp not far from ours, slept on cots, had passes on Sundays off, one or two weeks of vacation, were paid in marks, could write and send money to Italy, and from Italy they were allowed to receive clothing and food packages.

The damage done to the buildings in that bombing, one of the first, could be repaired; but bomb fragments and rubble had also hit the delicate machinery that was supposed to start up when the huge complex of the Buna Works was put into production, and here the damage was much greater. The plant management had ordered that the most valuable machines be protected by thick brick walls, and entrusted the construction to Lorenzo’s company. My squad at that time was doing transport work in the same area where the Italian masons worked and by pure chance our Kapo picked me to be the helper for two masons I had never seen before.

The two were working on a scaffolding, putting up a wall that was already high. I stayed on the ground and waited for somebody to tell me what to do; the two men were laying bricks at a good pace, without talking, so that at first I did not realize they were Italian. Then one of them, tall, a bit stooped, with gray hair, said to me in execrable German that the mortar was almost gone and that I should bring up the bucket. A full bucket is heavy and cumbersome and held by the handle it bangs against your legs. It must be hoisted up on your shoulder, but that isn’t easy. Expert helpers go about it like this: they spread their legs, grab the handle with both hands, lift the bucket, and swing it backward between their legs. Then, using the pendulum thus acquired, they bring the load forward again and in one motion carry it up to the shoulder. I tried, with miserable results: the impetus wasn’t strong enough and the bucket fell to the ground, spilling half of the mortar. The tall mason snorted, turned to his companion, and said: “Oh well, what do you expect from people like this…” then he got ready to climb down from the scaffold. I wasn’t dreaming: he had spoken in Italian with a Piedmontese accent.

We belonged to two different castes of the Nazi universe, and therefore when we spoke to each other we were committing a crime, but we spoke anyway, and as a result we found out that Lorenzo was from Fossano, I was from Turin, but had distant relatives in Fossano whom Lorenzo knew by name. I don’t think that we said much more to each other, then or later; not because of the prohibition but because Lorenzo almost never spoke. It seemed he didn’t need to talk; the little I know about him I’ve derived only in small part from his scant hints; the greater part is from what I was told by his comrades down there, and later on by his relatives in Italy. He wasn’t married, he had always been alone; his work, which was in his blood, had invaded him to the point of standing in the way of his human relationships. At the beginning he had worked as a mason in his village and its surroundings, changing employers frequently because he had a difficult personality. If a foreman made a remark about his work, even in the nicest way, he didn’t say a word, put on his hat and left. In the winter he often went to work in France on the Côte d’Azur, where there always was plenty of work: he had neither passport nor papers, he left on foot, alone, slept wherever he happened to be, and crossed the border by smuggler’s paths. In the spring, he returned the same way.

He didn’t speak, but he understood. I don’t think I ever asked him for help, because then I didn’t have a clear idea of how these Italians lived and what they could afford. Lorenzo did everything on his own. Two or three days after our meeting, he brought me an Alpine troop mess tin (the aluminum type that holds over two quarts) full of soup and told me to bring it back empty before evening. From then on, there always was soup, sometimes accompanied by a slice of bread. He brought it to me every day for six months: as long as I was working as his helper the delivery encountered no difficulty, but after a couple of weeks he (or I—I can’t remember) was transferred to another corner of the work grounds, and then the danger increased. The danger was for us to be seen together: the Gestapo had eyes everywhere and any one of us seen talking with a “civilian” for reasons not justified by work risked being tried for espionage. Actually, the Gestapo had other fears: they feared that the secret of the Birkenau gas chambers would leak into the outside world through the civilian workers. Also the civilian workers ran a risk: whoever among them proved guilty of illegal contacts with us ended up in our Camp. Not indefinitely like us; temporarily, for a few months, for the purpose of Umschulung: reeducation. I myself made a point of warning Lorenzo of this danger, but he shrugged his shoulders without a word.

I shared Lorenzo’s soup with my friend Alberto. Without it we would not have been able to survive until the evacuation of the Camp. The bottom line is that that extra quart of soup helped to balance the daily calorie count. The camp food supplied us with about 1,600, which are not enough to live on while working. Lorenzo’s soup supplied another four or five hundred calories, still insufficient for a man of medium build, but Alberto and I had already started out small and skinny, and our requirements were lower. It was weird soup. In it we found plum pits, salami peels, once even the wing of a sparrow with all its feathers; another time a scrap of Italian newspaper. I became acquainted with the origin of these ingredients later on when I again saw Lorenzo in Italy: he had told his comrades that among the Jews of Auschwitz were two Italians and every evening he made the round of his dormitory to collect their leftovers. They too were hungry, even if not as hungry as we, and many managed to do a little private cooking with stuff stolen in the fields or found by scouting around. Later Lorenzo had found a way to take directly from his camp kitchen what was left in the cauldrons, but in order to do so he had to go into the kitchen on the sly, when everyone was asleep at three o’clock in the morning: he did this for four months.

To avoid being seen together, we decided that upon arriving at his place of work in the morning Lorenzo would leave the mess tin in an agreed-upon hiding place under a pile of boards. This arrangement worked for a few weeks, then evidently somebody must have watched and followed me because one day in the hiding place I found neither mess tin nor soup. Alberto and I were humiliated by this affront and also terrified because the mess tin belonged to Lorenzo and his name was scratched on it. The thief could denounce or, more probably, blackmail us. Lorenzo, to whom I immediately reported the theft, said he didn’t care about the mess tin, he would get another one, but I knew this wasn’t true: it was his army mess tin, he had carried it with him in all his travels, he certainly was attached to it. Alberto didn’t stop roaming about the Camp until he identified the thief, who was much stronger than we were and brazenly carried around the beautiful and rare Italian mess tin. My friend hit on a plan: to offer Elias three bread rations, in installments, provided he would agree to recover the mess tin, by fair means or foul, from the hands of the thief, who was a Pole like himself. Elias was the Herculean dwarf I described in Survival in Auschwitz, and about whom I have spoken in the story “Our Seal” in this collection.* We flattered him, praising his strength, and he accepted. He liked to show off. One morning, before roll call, he confronted the Pole and ordered him to return the stolen mess tin to us. The fellow of course denied everything: he had bought it, not stolen it. Elias attacked him by surprise. They struggled for ten minutes, then the Pole fell into the mud, and Elias, applauded by the audience attracted by the unusual spectacle, triumphantly restored the mess tin to us: from then on he became our friend.

Alberto and I were amazed by Lorenzo. In the violent and degraded environment of Auschwitz, a man helping other men out of pure altruism was incomprehensible, alien, like a savior who’s come from heaven. But he was a morose savior, with whom it was difficult to communicate. I offered to have some money sent to his sister, who lived in Italy, in exchange for what he did for us, but he refused to give us her address. However, in order not to humiliate us by this refusal, he accepted from us another form of compensation, more appropriate to the place. His leather work boots were worn out; there was no shoemaker in his camp, and repairs were very expensive in the city of Auschwitz. But in our camp anyone who had leather shoes could have them repaired free, because (officially) none of us were allowed to have money. So one day he and I exchanged shoes. For four days he walked and worked in my wooden shoes, and I had his repaired by the Monowitz shoemakers, who in the meantime had given me a pair of temporary replacements.

At the end of December, a short time before I fell ill with the scarlet fever which saved my life, Lorenzo had started working near us again and I could again accept the mess tin directly from his hands. I saw him arrive one morning, wrapped in a short, gray-green military cape, surrounded by snow, in the work-grounds devastated by the nighttime bombings. He walked with his long, assured, slow step. He handed me the mess tin, which was bent out of shape and dented, and said that the soup was a bit dirty. I asked him to explain but he shook his head and left, and I did not see him again until a year later in Italy. As a matter of fact, in the soup there were pebbles and grit, and only a year later, almost as an apology, he told me how that morning, while he was on his collection round, his camp had been hit by an air raid. A bomb had fallen close to him and exploded in the soft ground; it had buried the mess tin and burst one of his eardrums, but he had the soup to deliver and had come to work anyway.

Lorenzo knew that the Russians were about to arrive, but he was afraid of them. Perhaps he was right: if he had waited for them, he would have returned to Italy much later, as in fact happened to us. When the front was close, on January 1, 1945, the Germans disbanded the Italian camp, everyone free to go where he pleased. Lorenzo and his comrades had a very vague idea of the geographical position of Auschwitz, and in fact even of its name, which Lorenzo didn’t know how to write and pronounced “Suíss,” perhaps placing it near Switzerland. Nevertheless he set out on his march, together with Peruch, the colleague who had worked with him on the scaffolding. Peruch was from Friuli, and he was to Lorenzo what Sancho Panza was to Don Quixote. Lorenzo moved with the natural dignity of the person who is oblivious of danger, whereas Peruch, small and sturdy, was restless and nervous, and incessantly turned his head this way and that, with little jerks. Peruch was wall-eyed; his eyes diverged greatly, almost as if in his permanent anxiety he was striving to look ahead and to both sides at the same time, like a chameleon. He too had brought bread to the Italian prisoners, but secretly and without regularity, because he was too afraid of the incomprehensible and sinister world into which he had been flung. He would hold out the food and immediately hurry off, without even waiting for a thank you.

The two men left on foot. From the Auschwitz station they had taken a railroad map, one of those schematic and distorted maps on which only the stations are indicated, joined by the straight lines of the tracks. They walked by night, aiming themselves toward the Brenner, piloting by their map and the stars. They slept in haylofts and ate potatoes they stole in the fields; when they were tired of walking they stopped in villages where there was always some work for two masons. They rested by working and requested payment in money or kind. For four months they walked. They arrived at the Brenner exactly on April 25, meeting the stream of German divisions in flight from northern Italy. A tank opened fire on them with its machine gun but missed them.

After the Brenner, Peruch was almost home and headed east. Lorenzo continued, still on foot, and in about twenty days arrived in Turin. He had my family’s address and found my mother, to whom he brought news of me. He was a man who did not know how to lie; or perhaps he thought that lying was futile, ridiculous, after having seen the abomination of Auschwitz and the dissolution of Europe. He told my mother I would not return, that the Jews in Auschwitz were all dead, from the gas chambers, or from work, or killed in the end by the fleeing Germans (which was almost literally true). Moreover, he had heard from my comrades that at the camp’s evacuation I was sick. It was best for my mother to resign herself.

My mother offered him some money so that he should at least be able to take a train for the last stage of his journey from Turin to Fossano, but Lorenzo didn’t want it. He had walked for four months and who knows how many thousands of kilometers; there really was no point in getting on a train. Just past Genola, six kilometers from Fossano, he met his cousin on his cart; the cousin asked him to get on but at this point it would have really been a pity, and Lorenzo arrived home on foot, the way he had always traveled all his life. To him time meant little.

When I too had gotten back, five months later, after my long tour through Russia, I went to Fossano to see him again and bring him a woollen sweater for the winter. I found a tired man; not tired from the walk, mortally tired, a weariness without remedy. We went to the osteria for some wine together and from the few words I managed to wrest from him I understood that his margin of love for life had thinned, almost disappeared. He had stopped working as a mason. He went from farm to farm with a small cart buying and selling scrap iron. He wanted no more rules or bosses or schedules. The little he earned he spent at the tavern; he did not drink as a vice but to get away from the world. He had seen the world, he didn’t like it, he felt it was going to ruin. To live no longer interested him.

I thought he needed a change of environment and found him a mason’s job in Turin, but Lorenzo refused it. By now he lived like a nomad, sleeping wherever he happened to be, even in the open during the harsh winter of 1945–1946. He drank but was lucid; he was not a believer, didn’t know much about the Gospel, but he then told me something which in Auschwitz I hadn’t suspected. Down there he helped not only me. He had other protégés, Italian and not, but he had thought it right not to tell me about it: we are in this world to do good, not to boast about it. In “Suíss” he had been a rich man, at least compared to us, and had been able to help us, but now it was over; he had no more opportunities.

He fell ill, and thanks to some physician friends of mine I was able to get him into a hospital, but they gave him no wine and he ran away. He was assured and coherent in his rejection of life. He was found nearly dead a few days later, and died in the hospital alone. He, who was not a survivor, had died of the survivors’ disease.

translated by Ruth Feldman

  1. *

    Moments of Reprieve, to be published by Summit Books in 1986.

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