Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Casual Inhumanity

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a date picked because of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945. This year, I wanted to look again at the work of Primo Levi and his great Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), typically known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz. (A 2010 post featured Levi's accounts of storytelling, human connection and the dread of an impending "selection" that might lead to execution.)

Chapter 10, "Chemical Examination," ends with what is probably Levi's most famous image, but it's more powerful with greater context. (The book is short and well worth a read.) Some background for those who haven't read it or are unfamiliar with life in the camps/Lagers: Levi, an Italian Jew, was a chemist, and explains that he was lucky (relatively) to be shipped to Auschwitz in 1944 when the Nazis decided to stop killing as many prisoners because they needed them for labor instead. "Kapos" were prisoners charged with overseeing the other prisoners, and were generally convicted criminals rather than political prisoners; they also tended to be cruel. At this point in the book, Levi has explained that the prisoners' work is physically grueling, they're fed far too little and live in horrible conditions. But a new assignment may be possible: certain prisoners will be interviewed to work as chemists' assistants, which could significantly increase their chances of survival. The key figures in this chapter are Primo Levi, Doktor Pannwitz and Alex the Kapo.

Kommando 98, called the Chemical Kommando, should have been a squad of skilled workers.

The day on which its formation was officially announced a meagre group of fifteen Häftlinge [prisoners] gathered in the grey of dawn around the new Kapo in the roll-call square.

This was the first disillusion: he was a ‘green triangle’, a professional delinquent, the Arbeitsdienst [Reich labor service] had not thought it necessary for the Kapo of the Chemical Kommando to be a chemist. It was pointless wasting one’s breath asking him questions; he would not have replied, or else he would have replied with kicks and shouts. On the other hand, his not very robust appearance and his smaller than average stature were reassuring.

He made a short speech in the foul German of the barracks, and the disillusion was confirmed. So these were the chemists: well, he was Alex, and if they thought they were entering paradise, they were mistaken. In the first place, until the day production began, Kommando 98 would be no more than an ordinary transport-Kommando attached to the magnesium chloride warehouse. Secondly, if they imagined, being Intelligenten, intellectuals, that they could make a fool of him, Alex, a Reichsdeutscher, well, Herrgottsacrament, he would show them, he would… (and with his fist clenched and index finger extended he cut across the air with the menacing gesture of the Germans); and finally, they should not imagine that they would fool anyone, if they had applied for the position without any qualifications – an examination, yes gentlemen, in the very near future; a chemistry examination, before the triumvirate of the Polymerization Department: Doktor Hagen, Doktor Probst and Doktor Ingenieur Pannwitz.

And with this, meine Herren, enough time had been lost, Kommandos 96 and 97 had already started, forward march, and to begin with, whosoever failed to walk in line and step would have to deal with him.

He was a Kapo like all the other Kapos.


Alex is established as a bully. Meanwhile, Levi and his fellows are anxious about the coming interview/examination. They're all underfed and not at their best. And what if this exercise is nothing but false hope?

With these empty faces of ours, with these sheared craniums, with these shameful clothes, to take a chemical examination. And obviously it will be in German; and we will have to go in front of some blond Aryan doctor hoping that we do not have to blow our noses, because perhaps he will not know that we do not have handkerchiefs, and it will certainly not be possible to explain it to him. And we will have our old comrade hunger with us, and we will hardly be able to stand still on our feet, and he will certainly smell our odour, to which we are by now accustomed, but which persecuted us during the first days, the odour of turnips and cabbages, raw, cooked and digested.

Exactly so, Clausner [a fellow prisoner] confirms. But have the Germans such great need of chemists? Or is it a new trick, a new machine ‘pour faire chier les Juifs? Are they aware of the grotesque and absurd test asked of us, of us who are no longer alive, of us who have already gone half-crazy in the dreary expectation of nothing?'


The examinations take place over three days. Levi's is delayed, until finally (emphasis mine):

Here is Alex. I am a chemist. What have I to do with this man Alex? He plants his feet in front of me, he roughly adjusts the collar of my jacket, he takes out my beret and slaps it on my head, then he steps backwards, eyes the result with a disgusted air, and turns his back, muttering: ‘Was für ein Muselmann Zugang.’ What a messy recruit! . . .

This time it really is my turn. Alex looks at me blackly on the doorstep; he feels himself in some way responsible for my miserable appearance. He dislikes me because I am Italian, because I am Jewish and because of all of us, I am the one furthest from his sergeants’ mess ideal of virility. By analogy, without understanding anything, and proud of this very ignorance, he shows a profound disbelief in my chances for the examination.

We have entered. There is only Doktor Pannwitz; Alex, beret in hand, speaks to him in an undertone: ‘…an Italian, has been here only three months, already half kaputt… Er sagt er ist Chemiker…” But he, Alex, apparently has his reservations on the subject.

Alex is briefly dismissed and put aside, and I feel like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx. My ideas are clear, and I am aware even at this moment that the position at stake is important; yet I feel a mad desire to disappear, not to take the test.

Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them, and sits formidably behind a complicated writing-table. I, Hafding 174517, stand in his office, which is a real office, shining, clean and ordered, and I feel that I would leave a dirty stain whatever I touched.

When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he filled his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.

One felt in that moment, in an immediate manner, what we all thought and said of the Germans. The brain which governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said: ‘This something in front of me belongs to a species which it is obviously opportune to suppress. In this particular case, one has to first make sure that it does not contain some utilizable element.’ And in my head, like seeds in an empty pumpkin: ‘Blue eyes and fair hair are essentially wicked. No communication possible. I am a specialist in mine chemistry. I am a specialist in organic syntheses. I am a specialist…’


Levi does well; his knowledge and intellect have saved him – for the moment, at least – because a man who does not view him as fully human has judged that he can be useful. And then it is time to return to the barracks (emphasis mine):

Here we are again on the steps. Alex flies down the stairs: he has leather shoes because he is not a Jew, he is as light on his feet as the devils of Malabolge. At the bottom he turns and looks at me sourly as I walk down hesitantly and noisily in my two enormous unpaired wooden shoes, clinging on to the rail like an old man.

It seems to have gone well, but I would be crazy to rely on it. I already know the Lager well enough to realize that one should never anticipate, especially optimistically. What is certain is that I have spent a day without working, so that tonight I will have a little less hunger, and this is a concrete advantage, not to be taken away.

To re-enter Bude, one has to cross a space cluttered up with piles of cross-beams and metal frames. The steel cable of a crane cuts across the road, and Alex catches hold of it to climb over: Donnerwetter, he looks at his hand black with thick grease. In the meanwhile I have joined him. Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.


It's a striking image, all the more so because it's not intentionally, consciously cruel; Levi suffers this indignity because Alex is thoughtless and views Levi as a lesser being, obviously unworthy of basic respect, and thus can be treated like a disposable rag. It's a gesture of casual inhumanity. And Alex, brute though he is, is not that different from the educated Pannwitz and his dehumanizing gaze. (Levi's insights and reflections throughout the book make for memorable reading.)

Few injustices can compete with the Holocaust, but it's always worth remembering that cruelty and dehumanization exist on a spectrum and manifest in different forms, with varying degrees of toxicity. Most fall far short of genocide or even legalized discrimination, but nonetheless should be questioned and challenged.

Sometimes these impulses erupt as angry demonization and obvious bigotry. Other times it's as casual inhumanity. I'm reminded of the false belief that most poor people live in poverty because of a lack of moral character instead of misfortune. There's the self-serving notion that I and others of my chosen political tribe deserve government services but those other people not like us that I don't like are unworthy moochers. We've heard arguments that amount to: feeding children or providing them health care doesn't directly benefit me, so not only should a miniscule amount of my taxes not pay for such programs, but no one should be able to call me selfish or monstrous. And an entire set of beliefs endures holding that, due to race, gender, sexual orientation or ancestry, certain other people are inherently lesser and not worthy of basic respect or even legal rights. A whole range of cruel, punishment-minded or harmfully indifferent mindsets exist. The good news is their corrosive power can be countered with a little reflection and compassion, by fine teaching, human connection and sharing good stories. "Never forget" is a wise adage applying to the past; in the present, maybe that best translates to "never stop listening and learning."

2 comments:

Tata said...

And an entire set of beliefs endures holding that, due to race, gender, sexual orientation or ancestry, certain other people are inherently lesser and not worthy of basic respect or even legal rights.

As you say, the whole point of describing groups as Black or gay or poor, etc., is to avoid describing them as people. We're people. We have things in common with people. But not with [fill in the blank].

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