lunedì 23 marzo 2015

70 years after. Auschwitz in the eyes of Primo Levi

Primo Levi
by Olga Lenczewska


In 2015, the year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, it is important to remember the significance of those events, in the hope that they will never be repeated. In the United Kingdom, a new documentary on the liberation of Auschwitz has been recently released. André Singer’s documentary “Night Will Fall” uses original footage collected by the soldiers in 1945 and powerfully reminds us of how easy it is to live unaware of the tragedies which take place in a country neighbouring one’s own. It is also worth reminding ourselves about literary testimonies from that time, amongst which prominently figures Primo Levi’s ‘Se questo è un uomo’ [‘If this is a man’] – one of the most crucial books on Auschwitz ever written.

What was Levi’s goal when he was starting to write ‘Se questo è un uomo’? Why did he decide to immerse himself in the horrifying experience once more, and again and again, writing about it so much during his whole life after Auschwitz? Would it not have been easier to simply forget, or at least try to forget? The author answers these questions himself in the preface: ‘Il bisogno di raccontare agli ‘altri’, di fare di ‘altri’ partecipi, aveva assunto fra noi, prima della liberazione e dopo, il carattere di un impulso immediato e violento, tanto da rivaleggiare con gli altri bisogni elementari; il libro è stato scritto per soddisfare questo bisogno; in primo luogo quindi ha scopo di liberazione interiore’.

From the very moment when Levi decided to write not only a testimony, but a collective description of the Auschwitz imprisonment on behalf of those who died and cannot speak for themselves, it was clear that his work would be much more than just an account of his days in Auschwitz, in the centre of events that shaped the modern Western cultural legacy and changed the way we look at the man. Levi underlines the need to both remember and sanctify those who died in Auschwitz – the need that existed inside him during his time in the death camp and was nearly as strong as the hunger or cold. To save himself from Auschwitz was not enough; to save the others meant to write about the sufferings and to consecrate them. ‘Auschwitz mi ha segnato, ma non mi ha tolto il desiderio di vivere: anzi, me l’ha accresciuto, perché alla mia vita ha conferito uno scopo, quello di portare testimonianza, affinché nulla di simile avvenga mai più’, Levi writes in the afterword to his book. By passing the essence of his memories to future generations the author attempts to ‘normalise’ his experience, which he himself finds hard to believe in. It is only when he realises that he must write about his past that he undergoes an ethical turn from involuntary to voluntary memory.

In one of the most important chapters of the book, ‘I sommersi e i salvati’, Levi raises the moral problem of salvation. Who could be saved? How could one be saved? Who deserved being saved and why did I survive? These disturbing and repetitive questions indicate how hard it was for Levi to remain unemotional, not to go beyond a mere description of facts. He portrays the prisoners and the whole Lager society through philosophical aspects such as ‘the value of man’, ‘the value of human personality’, ‘the value of moral responsibility each of us towards others’. Moreover, the author analyses people as equal human beings, paying no attention to the ethnic categories that were in fact crucial to the Nazis. The discourse, carried out in a way that leads to universal ethical statements, is therefore separated from the Auschwitz law. In ‘I sommersi e i salvati’, he compares the Lager’s set of rules to a juridical system. He also, almost academically, defines Auschwitz as a perfect example of injustice, providing a historical and biblical context for his hypothesis: ‘Nella storia e nella vita pare talvolta di discernere una legge feroce, che suona ‘a chi ha, sarà dato; a chi non ha, a quello sarà tolto’. Nel Lager, dove l’uomo è solo e la lotta per la vita si riduce al suo meccanismo primordiale, la legge iniqua è apertamente in vigore, è riconosciuta da tutti’.

In ‘Se questo è un uomo’, Levi truly engages the reader in his philosophical discourse and the description of the loss of human dignity. His work is subjective, coherent with the facts (although not always chronological), and at the same time truly academic, as it manages to philosophically analyse the Holocaust phenomenon. Such a range of various approaches allowed him to create an original book that cannot be labeled as just one literary genre. Thanks to Levi’s determination and faith, we can now be aware of what had happened not that long ago and what can happen in the future if we do not respect each other, for, as it wrote Bruno Bettelheim, ‘Those who seek to protect the body at all cost die many times over. Those who risk the body to survive as man have a good chance to live on’.


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