The Drowned and the Saved
by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
Summit, 203 pp., $17.95
Those of us who have been alive for seventy years or more are sometimes visited with a strange impulse: to take the middle-aged and the young in a firm grip and urge them to listen to the stories of our lives. We feel ourselves driven to interrupt wedding feasts and other such happy occasions. Of course, we don’t suppose our lives to be especially interesting in themselves; but we want to talk about what we have witnessed, at first or second hand, things that are, for those we wish to harangue, mere history, sad events of long ago, as the American Civil War or the September Massacres are for us.
We remember the Great Depression and the waxen faces of the poor, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and his crew of sinister buffoons, the conquests of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the German-Soviet pact—no one who opened a newspaper and saw that remarkable photograph of the little Georgian looking faintly amused and the German champagne merchant looking gratified, as though he had received an uncommonly large order, will ever forget it. Yet another partition of Poland had been arranged and the Baltic states were once again to be brought under Russian rule.
What most of us didn’t know then, but we learned it later, and this would be an important episode in our story, was that Jewish and other opponents of Nazism were handed over by the Soviets to the SS on the bridge at Brest-Litovsk. Margarethe Buber-Neumann, who was one of those transferred—her husband Heinz Neumann, a left-deviating Communist, was murdered by the Soviet police—describes in an unforgettable passage of her memoirs how one of these unfortunates, seeing those black and evil figures waiting at the other end of the bridge, clung to the railings of the bridge and cried out in agony but was in the end detached and sent to his fate by the NKVD men in charge of the operation. Then, after the German attack on the Soviet Union, we began to hear of other horrors: the virtual annihilation of the Polish elites in the Nazi death camps, the slaughter of Russian prisoners of war, and, most disquieting of all, what seemed an attempt to kill all the Jews of Europe.
The scale and inner logic of the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people were not at first widely credited in the West, though some political and ecclesiastical authorities with good intelligence sources knew very soon what was going on. There was an inclination not to believe all these reports. They were incredible. And sometimes there was an attempt to deny or minimize them, lest a preoccupation with this great massacre should affect the strategy and tactics of the Allied powers. What was least credible was the inner logic, the rationale (if this isn’t to abuse the term) of the Final Solution: that the political authorities in Germany were captivated by a crackpot racial theory that required all Jews to …