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 …

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