Over the summer, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce. They are witness statements to the industrial genocide of the Nazi Holocaust. Levi, an Italian-Jew and chemist, was arrested on 13 December 1943 for being a member of the anti-fascist resistance movement “Justice and Liberty”. On 21 February 1944, he and 124 people were transported to Auschwitz. On his arrival, his arm was tattooed with the number 174517. When the camp was liberated at the beginning of 1945, only Levi and two others from this group had survived the hell of this concentration camp.
These books have, in the words of Philip Roth, a “moral stamina” and it is this which charges them with the creative daring to describe the horrors of the death camps. Levi trains his attention on the molecular makeup of each sadistic act of degradation and, ever the chemist, distils this violence through a prose so precise and diamond cut that it produces a purifying quality. His language exhibits none of the splintered rhetoric of pathos or revenge. This is prose cleansed of exaggeration and literary effect. With the care of a laboratory technician, Levi handles his words, potentially volatile words, with such reverence that they would, as he put it, “assume the calm, sober language of the witness”
In Levi’s writing, the evil of the Shoah is revealed in its proper moral context as the absence of good. For Levi, his experience of Auschwitz is primarily a moral one. There he witnessed man in his most demoralised state, where people freely chose to mutilate their moral natures by butchering their goodness so that they could perpetrate acts of barbarism. But Auschwitz was also the place where Levi saw how when man is stripped of every physical and emotional dignity, he still retains his moral grandeur, his personhood, because that cannot be taken from him by violence or force. Primo Levi could never have become a number. The soul of man rebels against that violence which aims to violate the truth of the human person and in doing so, what is true and good about man asserts itself with greater urgency. Levi writes:
...after only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness completely disappeared in me. I wander aimlessly around the washroom when I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude torso, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) but great energy. Steinlauf sees me and greets me, and without preamble asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? I would probably live a shorter time because to wash is an effort, a waste of energy and warmth...We will all die, we are all about to die...Steinlauf interrupts me. He has finished washing and is now drying himself with his cloth jacket which he was holding before wrapped up between his knees and which he will soon put on. And without interrupting the operation he 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; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization...We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.
Primo Levi was well versed in the periodic table of the material world. But he also came to an understanding that there exists a periodic table of the moral world. Here, elemental virtues, essential to the makeup of man, are to be discovered and even when man is most debased, these cannot be destroyed. The man of sorrows remains a man. We are made to be moral beings and living as such we find in our suffering a redemptive power.
Philip Roth has described If This is a Man and The Truce as “one of the century’s truly necessary books”. It is. This is a book that moved me to tears but it also fired my conviction that we can and must write about suffering, that this is an imperative if we are to continue to believe in a moral universe.
If This is a Man and The Truce, Primo Levi, Penguin Books, 1979