• Email
  • Print

Last Christmas of the War

Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman

In more ways than one, Monowitz, a part of Auschwitz, was not a typical camp. The barrier that separated us from the world—symbolized by the double barbedwire fence—was not hermetic, as elsewhere. Our work brought us into daily contact with people who were “free,” or at least less slaves than we were: technicians, German engineers and foremen, Russian and Polish workers, English, American, French, and Italian prisoners of war. Officially they were forbidden to talk to us, the pariahs of KZ (Konzentrations-Zentrum), but the prohibition was constantly ignored, and what’s more, news from the free world reached us through a thousand channels. In the factory trash bins we found copies of the daily papers (sometimes two or three days old and rain-soaked) and in them we read with trepidation the German bulletins: mutilated, censored, euphemistic, yet eloquent. The Allied POWs listened secretly to Radio London, and even more secretly brought us the news, and it was exhilarating. In December 1944 the Russians had entered Hungary and Poland, the English were in the Romagna, the Americans were heavily engaged in the Ardennes but were winning in the Pacific against Japan.

At any rate, there was no real need of news from far away to find out how the war was going. At night, when all the noises of the Camp had died down, we heard the thunder of the artillery coming closer and closer. The front was no more than a hundred kilometers away; a rumor spread that the Red Army was already in the West Carpathians. The enormous factory in which we worked had been bombed from the air several times with vicious and scientific precision: one bomb, only one, on the central power plant, putting it out of commission for two weeks; as soon as the damage was repaired and the stack began belching smoke again, another bomb and so on. It was clear that the Russians, or the Allies in concert with the Russians, intended to stop production but not destroy the plants. These they wanted to capture intact at the end of the war, as indeed they did; today that is Poland’s largest synthetic rubber factory. Active anti-aircraft defense was nonexistent, no pursuing planes were to be seen; there were guns on the roofs but they didn’t fire. Perhaps they no longer had ammunition.

In short, Germany was moribund, but the Germans didn’t notice. After the attempt on Hitler in July, the country lived in a state of terror: a denunciation, an absence from work, an incautious word were sufficient to land you in the hands of the Gestapo as a defeatist. Therefore both soldiers and civilians fulfilled their tasks as usual, driven at once by fear and an innate sense of discipline. A fanatical and suicidal Germany terrorized a Germany that was by now discouraged and profoundly defeated.

A short time before, toward the end of October, we’d had the opportunity to observe a close-up of a singular school of fanaticism, a typical example of Nazi training. On some unused land next to our camp, a Hitlerjugend—Hitler Youth—encampment had been set up. There were possibly two hundred adolescents, still almost children. In the mornings they practiced flag raising, sang belligerent hymns, and, armed with ancient muskets, were put through marching and shooting drills. We understood later that they were being prepared for enrollment in the Volkssturm, that ragtag army of old men and children that, according to the Führer’s mad plans, was supposed to put up a last-ditch defense against the advancing Russians. But sometimes in the afternoon their instructors, who were SS veterans, would bring them to see us as we worked clearing away rubble from the bombings, or erecting slapdash and useless little protective walls of bricks or sandbags.

They led them among us on a “guided tour” and lectured them in loud voices, as if we had neither ears to hear nor the intelligence to understand. “These that you see are the enemies of the Reich, your enemies. Take a good look at them: would you call them men? They are Untermenschen, submen! They stink because they don’t wash; they’re in rags because they don’t take care of themselves. What’s more, many of them don’t even understand German. They are subversives, bandits, street thieves from the four corners of Europe, but we have rendered them harmless; now they work for us, but they are good only for the most primitive work. Moreover, it is only right that they should repair the war damages; these are the people who wanted the war: the Jews, the Communists, and the agents of the plutocracies.”

The child-soldiers listened, devout and dazed. Seen close up, they inspired both pain and horror. They were haggard and frightened, yet they looked at us with intense hatred. So we were the ones guilty for all the evils, the cities in ruins, the famine, their dead fathers on the Russian front. The Führer was stern but just, and it was just to serve him.

At that time I worked as a “specialist” in a chemical laboratory inside the plant: these are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read.

It was snowing, it was very cold, and working in that laboratory was not easy. At times the heating system didn’t work and at night, ice would form, bursting the phials of reagents and the big bottle of distilled water. Often we lacked the raw materials or reagents necessary for analyses, and it was necessary to improvise or to produce what was missing on the spot. There was no ethyl acetate for a colorimetric measurement. The laboratory head told me to prepare a liter of it and gave me the needed acetic acid and ethyl alcohol. It’s a simple procedure; I had done it in Turin in my organic preparations course in 1941. Only three years before, but it seemed like three thousand…. Everything went smoothly up to the final distillation, but at that point suddenly the water stopped running.

This could have ended in a small disaster, because I was using a glass refrigerator. If the water returned, the refrigerating tube, which had been heated on the inside by the product’s vapor, would certainly have shattered on contact with the icy water. I turned off the faucet, found a small pail, filled it with distilled water, and immersed in it the small pump of a Höppler thermostat. The pump pushed the water into the refrigerator, and the hot water fell into the pail as it came out. Everything went well for a few minutes, then I noticed that the ethyl acetate was no longer condensing; almost all of it was coming out of the pipe in the form of vapor. I had been able to find only a small amount of distilled water (there was no other) and by now it had become warm.

What to do? There was a lot of snow on the windowsills, so I made balls with it and put them into the pail one by one. While I was busy with my gray snowballs, Dr. Pannwitz, the German chemist who had subjected me to a singular “state examination” to determine whether my professional knowledge was sufficient, came into the lab. He was a fanatical Nazi. He looked suspiciously at my makeshift installation and the murky water that could have damaged the precious pump, but said nothing and left.

A few days later, toward the middle of December, the basin of one of the suction hoods was blocked and the chief told me to unplug it. It seemed natural to him that the dirty job should fall to me and not to the lab technician, a girl named Frau Mayer, and actually it seemed natural to me too. I was the only one who could stretch out serenely on the floor without fear of getting dirty; my striped suit was already completely filthy….

I was getting up after having screwed the siphon back on when I noticed Frau Mayer standing close to me. She spoke to me in a whisper with a guilty air; she was the only one of the eight or ten girls in the lab—German, Polish, and Ukrainian—who showed no contempt for me. Since my hands were already dirty, she asked, could I fix her bicycle, which had a flat? She would, of course, give me something for my trouble.

This apparently neutral request was actually full of sociological implications. She had said “please” to me, which in itself represented an infraction of the upside-down code that regulated our relationships with the Germans. She had spoken to me for reasons not connected with work; she had made a kind of contract with me, and a contract is made between equals; and she had expressed, or at least implied, gratitude for the work I had done on the basin in her stead. However, the girl was also inviting me to break the rules, which could be very dangerous for me, since I was there as a chemist, and by repairing her bike I would be taking time away from my professional work. She was proposing, in other works, a kind of complicity, risky but potentially useful. Having a human relationship with someone “on the other side” involved danger, a social promotion, and more food for today and the day after. In a flash I did the algebraic sum of the three addends: hunger won by several lengths, and I accepted the proposal.

Frau Mayer held out the key to the padlock, saying that I should go and get the bicycle; it was in the courtyard. That was out of the question; I explained as best I could that she must go herself, or send someone else. “We” were by definition thieves and liars: if anybody saw me with a bicycle I’d really be in for it. Another problem arose when I saw the bicycle. In its tool bag there were pieces of rubber, rubber cement, and small irons to remove the tire, but there was no pump, and without a pump I couldn’t locate the hole in the inner tube. I must explain, incidentally, that in those days bicycles and flat tires were much more common than they are now, and almost all Europeans, especially young ones, knew how to patch a tire. A pump? No problem, said Frau Mayer; all I had to do was get Meister Grubach, her colleague next door, to lend me one. But this too wasn’t so simple. With some embarrassment I had to ask her to write and sign a note: “Bitte um die Fahrradpumpe.”

I made the repair, and Frau Mayer, in great secrecy, gave me a hard-boiled egg and four lumps of sugar. Don’t misunderstand; given the situation and the going rates, it was a more than generous reward. As she furtively slipped me the packet, she whispered something that gave me a lot to think about: “Christmas will soon be here.” Obvious words, absurd actually when addressed to a Jewish prisoner; certainly they were intended to mean something else, something no German at that time would have dared to put into words.

In telling this story after forty years, I’m not trying to make excuses for Nazi Germany. One human German does not whitewash the innumerable inhuman or indifferent ones, but it does have the merit of breaking a stereotype.

It was a memorable Christmas for the world at war; memorable for me too, because it was marked by a miracle. At Auschwitz, the various categories of prisoners (political, common criminals, social misfits, homosexuals, etc.) were allowed to receive gift packages from home, but not the Jews. Anyway, from whom could the Jews have received them? From their families, exterminated or confined in the surviving ghettos? From the very few who had escaped the roundups, hidden in cellars, in attics, terrified and penniless? And who knew our address? For all the world knew, we were dead.

And yet a package did finally find its way to me, through a chain of friends, sent by my sister and my mother, who were hidden in Italy. The last link of that chain was Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano, of whom I have spoken in Survival in Auschwitz, and whose heartbreaking end I have recounted here in “Lorenzo’s Return.”* The package contained ersatz chocolate, cookies, and powdered milk, but to describe its real value, the impact it had on me and on my friend Alberto, is beyond the powers of ordinary language. In the Camp, the terms eating, food, hunger had meanings totally different from their usual ones. That unexpected, improbable, impossible package was like a meteorite, a heavenly object, charged with symbols, immensely precious, and with an enormous momentum.

We were no longer alone: a link with the outside world had been established, and there were delicious things to eat for days and days. But there were also serious practical problems to resolve immediately: we found ourselves in the situation of a passer-by who is handed a gold ingot in full view of everyone. Where to put the food? How to keep it? How to protect it from other people’s greediness? How to invest it wisely? Our year-old hunger kept pushing us toward the worst possible solution: to eat everything right then and there. But we had to resist that temptation. Our weakened stomachs could not have coped with the abuse; within an hour, it would have ended in indigestion or worse.

We had no safe hiding places so we distributed the food in all the regular pockets in our clothes, and sewed secret ones inside the backs of our jackets so that even in case of a body search something could be saved. But to have to take everything with us, to work, to the washhouse, to the latrine, was inconvenient and awkward. Alberto and I talked it over at length in the evening after curfew. The two of us had made a pact: everything either one of us managed to scrounge beyond our ration had to be divided into two exactly equal parts. Alberto was always more successful than I in these enterprises, and I often asked why he wanted to stay partners with anyone as inefficient as I was. But he always replied: “You never know. I’m faster but you’re luckier.” For once, he turned out to be right.

Alberto came up with an ingenious scheme. The cookies were the biggest problem. We had them stored, a few here, a few there. I even had some in the lining of my cap, and had to be careful not to crush them when I had to yank it off fast to salute a passing SS. The cookies weren’t all that good but they looked nice. We could, he suggested, divide them into two packages and give them as gifts to the Kapo and the barracks Elder. According to Alberto, that was the best investment. We would acquire prestige, and the two big shots, even without a formal agreement, would reward us with various favors. The rest of the food we could eat ourselves, in small, reasonable daily rations, and with the greatest possible precautions.

But in camp, the crowding, the total lack of privacy, the gossip and disorder were such that our secret quickly became an open one. In the space of a few days we noticed that our companions and Kapos were looking at us with different eyes. That’s the point: they were looking at us, the way you do at something or someone outside the norm, that no longer melts into the background but stands out. According to how much they liked “the two Italians,” they looked at us with envy, with understanding, complacency, or open desire. Mendi, a Slovakian rabbi friend of mine, winked at me and said “Mazel tov,” the lovely Yiddish and Hebrew phrase used to congratulate someone on a happy event. Quite a few people knew or had guessed something, which made us both happy and uneasy; we would have to be on our guard. In any case, we decided by mutual consent to speed up the consumption: something eaten cannot be stolen.

On Christmas Day we worked as usual. As a matter of fact, since the laboratory was closed, I was sent along with the others to remove rubble and carry sacks of chemical products from a bombed warehouse to an undamaged one. When I got back to camp in the evening, I went to the washhouse. I still had quite a lot of chocolate and powdered milk in my pockets, so I waited until there was a free spot in the corner farthest from the entrance. I hung my jacket on a nail, right behind me; no one could have approached without my seeing him. I began to wash, when out of the corner of my eye I saw my jacket rising in the air. I turned but it was already too late. The jacket, with all its contents, and with my registration number sewed on the breast, was already out of reach. Someone had lowered a string and hook from the small window above the nail. I ran outside, half undressed as I was, but no one was there. No one had seen anything, no one knew anything. Along with everything else, I was now without a jacket. I had to go to the barracks supply master to confess my “crime,” because in the Camp being robbed was a crime. He gave me another jacket, but ordered me to find a needle and thread, never mind how, rip the registration number off my pants and sew it on the new jacket as quickly as possible. Otherwise “bekommst du fünfundzwanzig“: I’d get twenty-five whacks with a stick.

We divided up the contents of Alberto’s pockets. His had remained unscathed, and he proceeded to display his finest philosophical resources. We two had eaten more than half of the food, right? And the rest wasn’t completely wasted. Some other famished man was celebrating Christmas at our expense, maybe even blessing us. And anyway, we could be sure of one thing: that this would be our last Christmas of war and imprisonment.

translated by Ruth Feldman

  1. *

    The New York Review, November 7, 1985.

  • Email
  • Print