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.

Close to the finely woven surface of If This Is a Man there hover all the terrible questions that the Holocaust has forced upon us, questions about the nature of man and the absence of God, or, if you prefer, the failure of man and the search for God. But Levi is sufficiently shrewd a writer to avoid a head-on collision with his theme—even when writing about the Holocaust, a writer needs a little shrewdness. Perhaps later; perhaps future generations will be able to “make sense” of it all, but not now.

For “we became aware,” as Levi writes, “that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.” Every writer of sensibility who has ventured to approach the Holocaust has been afflicted with this problem: “Our language lacks words.” If there is a solution it lies in the kind of muted tactfulness that Levi shows in his work. He recognizes that there are some things that can be said and some that cannot. Employing a prose of refined simplicity, he seldom presses for large “meanings” or a rhetoric of “transcendence,” since he knows how treacherous these can be, how sadly they can betray the limits of thought and imagination when we try to confront the Holocaust.

I would cite here a passage from T.S. Eliot:

Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sins of language.

Exactly what Eliot meant by that astounding phrase, “the natural sins of language,” I cannot say with assurance, but that it applies to a fair portion of Holocaust writing, both memoir and fiction, strikes me as true. A “natural sin” of such writing can be a mistaken effort—sincere or grandiose—to whip language into doing more than it can possibly do, more than thought and imagination and prayer can do. Or it may signify our inclination to grow wanton over our deepest griefs, learning comfortably to exploit them. Or, worst of all, to employ the Holocaust as “evidence” for ready-made ideological and pietistic doctrines. To warn against “the natural sins of language” in Holocaust writings is to say that writers must curb, resist, even deny some part of their spontaneous outcry. Not everything that “comes out” of the heart is true or good; it must be sifted and tempered. “Our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man,” and the words we do have—so badly abused and degraded in public declamation—can easily betray.

One reason we are tempted to succumb to such “natural sins” is that anyone thinking or writing about the Holocaust must finally come up against a wall of blank incomprehension: how could it be? If we fall back on intellectual shorthand, we call this the problem of radical evil, a phrase that strongly implies the impossibility of coping with the problem. Finally, we cannot “understand” the Holocaust, we can only live with it, in a state of numb agitation. And it is Levi’s tacit acceptance of this view that makes him so fine a writer. A feeling of guilt, he remarks, suffuses modern consciousness, guilt that such a crime as the Holocaust “should have been introduced irrevocably into the world.” The key word here is irrevocably, with its implication that after the Holocaust human consciousness cannot quite be the same as it was before. But exactly what this might mean, exactly how consciousness might be transformed, it is extremely hard to say. Nor does Levi try to say. “It is foolish,” he writes, “to think that human justice can eradicate” the crimes of Auschwitz. Foolish, also, to think that any theorizing can find a point either of rest or satisfaction in trying to grasp it. With some subjects writers need a pledge of stringent omission.

Toward those, however, with whom he shared suffering and death, Levi is invariably generous. He writes not so much to record the horrors, though there is no shortage of them in If This Is a Man, but to salvage memories of human beings refusing, if only through helpless symbolic gestures, to cease being human. There is a stirring passage in If This Is a Man: Levi recalls a day when he and a few other prisoners were put to work scraping an underground gasoline tank. They worked in almost total darkness, and the work was very hard. Then, from some inner fold of memory, Levi began telling the young French prisoners about Dante’s great poem, reciting the lines,

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.

Coming “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God,” these lines flood the hearts of the prisoners, so that “for a moment I forget who I am and where I am” and the wretched might suppose they are still human beings.

Quietly, without any overbearing pressure, Levi tells of another incident, also concerning human salvage. A week after arriving in the camp, Levi grew demoralized and began to neglect himself and his body. A prisoner named Steinlauf sternly

administers me a complete lesson…. This was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts…and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization….

A few weeks later Steinlauf was swept away in one of the “selections” of “the great machine.” Levi clung to his words.

If one can detect traces of a “Jewish” spirit or tone in Levi’s first book, then the next one, published in Italy in 1963 and as The Reawakening in English translation,3 seems rather more “Italian.” Something of what we like to suppose as essentially Italian—a gaiety of voice, a fine, free pleasure in the things of this world—breaks through in The Reawakening, even as its figures still bear the stigmata of the camps. The book, a memoir of Levi’s wanderings through Eastern Europe after being released from Auschwitz, moves with a strong, even lyrical, narrative force. It is filled with vibrant sketches of former prisoners and stray soldiers, mostly young, who marvel at their own survival. In their rags and in the midst of their hunger, they are overwhelmed with a guilty joy at being free to savor the commonplace sensations of existence. The book itself also radiates that guilty joy, as its narrator yields to the pleasure of being able to smile at misadventures that still carry pain but, in representing a return to the realm of the human, can be endured, even accepted.

Wandering across Poland and Russia, Levi and his companions enact a curious version of picaresque adventure. Outwardly, along the skin of narrative, The Reawakening appears to follow the traditional pattern of picaresque: a series of more or less comic episodes loosely strung together with a central narrator–observer who does not so much act on his own as “receive” the actions of others. But in basic spirit the book is anti-picaresque. Between the external form of the narrative and its inner vibrations of memory there is a strong nervous tension—like that between the first hesitant taste of freedom and the overpowering image of the camps. To sustain this tension throughout the narrative is a remarkable feat of literary craft.

Levi has a special gift for the vignette, and in this book it reaches an easy fruition. He moves from figure to figure, each of whom enacts a sort of ritual return to life by yielding to the delights of free sensation, even the sensation of that bewilderment and pain that is one’s own, not imposed. For Cesare, a young roughneck from Trastevere, the plebeian neighborhood of Rome, this means using all the tricks of street huckstering that he remembers, as he now charms and swindles the residents of a ruined Polish city:

The art of the charlatan is not so widespread as I thought; the Polish public seemed to be unaware of it, and was fascinated. Moreover, Cesare was also a first-class mimic; he waved the shirt [which he wanted to sell] in the sun, holding it tightly by the collar (under the collar there was a hole, but Cesare held the shirt in his hand at the very place with the hole), and he declaimed its praises with torrential eloquence, with new and senseless additional digressions, suddenly addressing one or another member of the public with obscene nicknames which he invented on the spot. He stopped abruptly (he knew by instinct the oratorical value of pauses), kissed the shirt with affection, and then began again, with a resolute yet desolate voice, as if it tore his heart to part with it, and he was only doing it for love of his neighbor: “You, Big Belly,” he said, “how much will you give me for this little koshoola of mine?”

A darker note is struck toward the end of The Reawakening, as if the narrator, once separated from the companions of his mad journey, must again be overcome by the pain of his memories:

I reached Turin on 19th October [1945]…my house was still standing, all my family was alive, no one was expecting me. I was swollen, bearded and in rags, and had difficulty in making myself recognized. I found my friends full of life, the warmth of secure meals, the solidity of daily work…. I found a large clean bed, which in the evening (a moment of terror) yielded softly under my weight. But only after many months did I lose the habit of walking with my glance fixed to the ground, as if searching for something to eat or to pocket hastily or to sell for bread; and a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals.

Soon after The Reawakening appeared in English translation, a British critic, John Gross, wrote some thoughtful comments upon reading it:

We are all predisposed to praise books by concentration camp survivors; and indeed no record of that most terrible of experiences can be without value. Under the circumstances, it usually seems tactless to raise questions of literary merit…. Yet the sad fact is that the quality of the writing does count, however harrowing the subject, and that much of [Holocaust] literature…is effective only at the level of poignant documentary. To have been a witness, and a survivor, and a born writer was a rare combination.

Now, on the face of it, Gross is surely right: “the quality of the writing does count.” Yet even while nodding agreement, we are likely to notice within ourselves a decided inner resistance. Before so intolerable a subject, may not the whole apparatus of literary criticism, with all its nice discriminations and categories, seem incongruous, even trivial? A Yiddish poet, Aron Tsaitlin, wrote shortly after the Holocaust, “The Almighty Himself…would maintain a deep silence. For even an outcry is now a lie, even tears are mere literature, even prayers are false.” In context the phrase mere literature seems crushing. Yet we also know that it has proved impossible for most writers to remain silent. Nor did Tsaitlin himself, even as he excoriated his need to “cry out.”

I am inclined to think that there is no easy answer, perhaps no answer at all, to this problem. The more sensitive writers on Holocaust themes have apparently felt that their subject cannot be met full-face or head-on. Before the unspeakable, a muteness, a numbed refusal, comes upon one. If approached at all, the Holocaust must be taken on a tangent, with extreme wariness, through oblique symbols, strategies of indirection, and circuitous narratives. Yet the irony is this: no sooner do we speak about ways of approaching this subject than we return to a fundamental concern of literary criticism, thereby perhaps acknowledging that John Gross was right, after all, in what he wrote about Levi’s work.

Several of Levi’s books, including some collections of short stories, have not been translated into English, and one can only hope that they soon will be.4 Here I need only add a few words about If Not Now, When?, a book that presents no major impediments to a direct encounter.

If Not Now, When? is a curious work of fiction. Levi stakes everything on his capacity to imagine experiences that by their very nature must be alien to him. And it is because these experiences—the ordeals of the East European Jews—are not known to him firsthand that he chooses to take the risk of rendering them. Since he has had “to reconstruct an era, a scenario, and a language [Yiddish]” which he “knew only spottily” the result cannot quite have the sensuous immediacy and abundance of many episodes in The Reawakening.

Yet it’s in If Not Now, When? that certain of Levi’s strongest literary gifts are allowed full play. All along he had shown a large and “natural” gift for narrative movement, although his early books, by their very nature, could not bring that gift to full development. But If Not Now, When? speeds along with an accumulating energy, even suspense, its treatment of the struggle undertaken by the powerless Jewish partisans resembling somewhat an adventure story. True, a strange kind of adventure, with pitifully few possibilities for external action. It’s rather an adventure in which a few desperate acts and small deeds must be taken as tokens of a large spiritual intention. What these partisans do has little military significance, it is closer to gesture than achievement; but through their raids and escapades they are trying to establish that a pacific people can muster the use of arms without, perhaps, abandoning its deep repugnance at having to take up arms. These ill-trained fighters making themselves learn how to kill retain the hope that they may avoid becoming killers.

Quite the strongest part of the novel is, I think, the one in which the two stragglers, Mendel and Leonid, stumble upon the “republic of the marshes,” an encampment of Jews who have fled the Nazi terror of the cities and are now huddling together in a precarious community. Levi’s evocation of life in this little oasis is simply brilliant, starting with his physical description of the place and proceeding to sharply etched portrayals of the figures who have here found a moment or two of rest. This little settlement comes to seem emblematic of the Jewish situation during these years—a moment of breath before asphyxiation, a wish to hold together even though everyone knows this to be impossible. It is like the soul’s last cry for air and sun.

Later, the novel changes course, and Levi presents an often fierce and exciting story of partisan activities: their relations with Russian and Polish guerrilla fighters, their occasional encounters with the Germans, and their inner crises and transformations. Reading this portion of Levi’s book, I found myself responding to it less as a depiction of events supposedly happening than as an effort by this writer from Turin to thrust himself into the situation of the East European Jews, indeed, to become one with them. It’s as if the novel here turned into a kind of exemplary fable, a story mediated through the desires of a writer who has yielded himself utterly to unseen brothers and sisters in martyrdom.

And I felt about Primo Levi: he is a friend, this writer who creates for us a miniature universe of moral striving and reflectiveness, filtered through ordeals of memory, reinforced by resources of imagination. I kept hearing the voice of a man struggling to retrieve the sense of what it means in the twentieth century to be, or become, a Mensch. How would you say that in Italian?

Copyright © 1985 Irving Howe

This Issue

March 28, 1985