Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

If This Is a Man

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (There are other memorial days, including Yom HaShoah on April 12th this year.) This year, I wanted to focus on Primo Levi's extraordinary book If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz. I only just read it, although I've previously read Levi's The Drowned and the Saved.

The Drowned and the Saved is powerful as well, and explores (among other things) the fallibilities of memory, the re-writing of history and (I'd say) the dangers of granting undeserved forgiveness to evil men who knew quite well what they were doing. ("The Drowned and the Saved" is also the title of a chapter in If This Is a Man.) The Drowned and the Saved is one of the best Holocaust books I've read, but as I've written before, I think it's better for readers who know the basics of the Holocaust already. If This Is a Man is similarly thoughtful and arresting, but also provides a strong portrait of the grueling daily existence in the camps and the constant struggle to survive. In that respect, it reminded me of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, although Levi apparently took issue with taking such comparisons too far. This is because the death rate was so much higher in the Nazi camps, and in some Nazis camps murder was the express aim. In any case, If This Is a Man is probably the best account I've yet read of the black market in the camps, and all the intricate dealing required to survive (in addition to sheer luck). You're not liable to forget Primo Levi's description of emptying the hut's latrine bucket at night, or many other details. He explains how essential spoons are, how to make or barter for a more valuable knife-spoon, and how shoes (most of the prisoners have ill-fitting wooden ones) can become a matter of life and death. Levi is a chemist, which aids him later in the book, but he's a slight man, and there are times during harsh physical labor where he's terrified and exhausted, and really not sure he can make it.

Younger readers might be better off starting with Night, Maus or The Diary of Anne Frank. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning holds a special place for me. However, If This Is a Man is a powerful introduction to the Holocaust as well, and easily one of the best memoirs on the subject. (It may help to know some French, though, as Levi often uses it to communicate with other prisoners in his accounts, and does not always translate.)

I had read that Levi committed suicide late in life, which seemed especially tragic, but apparently this is disputed and his death may have been accidental.

In one chapter, "The Canto of Ulysses," Levi relates trying to teach a friendly younger prisoner, Pikolo, some Italian as they run a camp errand getting the soup. Levi starts quoting and translating stanzas from... Dante's Inferno. Pikolo is very interested, and this energizes Levi, but his memory fails him, leaving him both excited and frustrated:

I would give today's soup to know how to connect 'the like on any day' to the last lines. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers – but it is no use, the rest is silence. Other verse dance in my head: '...The sodden ground belched wind...' no, it is something else. It is late, it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish:

'And three times round she went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.'

I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understands this, 'as pleased Another' before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today...

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. 'Kraut und Rüben? 'Kraut und Rüben.' The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: 'Choux and navets. Kaposzia és répak.'

'And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.'

[pp. 114-115]

It's more striking in full context, but it reminds me of Frankl's passages about how art, imagination and simple, genuine human connection kept him going. Primo Levi writes movingly of the handful of people who aid him. In the tense days near the end of the war after most of the Germans have left and the prisoners await possible liberation, Levi relates how he and two Frenchmen work together, basically to reclaim their humanity by providing for their small hut of survivors.

The best testament to Levi is of course his work itself. Here's a selection from chapter 13, "October 1944." "Lager" means "camp," "Ka-Be" is the infirmary, and I imagine most people know what a "selection" means in the context of Auschwitz:

We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty cloud, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.

We know what it means because we were here last winter; and the others will soon learn. It means that in the course of these months, from October till April, seven out of ten of us will die. Whoever does not die will suffer minute by minute, all day, every day: from the morning before dawn until the distribution of the evening soup we will have to keep our muscles continually tensed, dance from foot to foot, beat our arms under our shoulders against the cold. We will have to spend bread to acquire gloves, and lose hours of sleep to repair them when they become unstitched. As it will no longer be possible to eat in the open, we will have to eat our meals in the hut, on our feet, everybody will be assigned an area of floor as long as a hand, as it forbidden to rest against the bunks. Wounds will open on everyone's hands, and to be given a bandage will mean waiting every evening for hours on one's feet in the snow and wind.

Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say 'hunger', we say 'tiredness', 'fear', 'pain', we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.

In the same way in which one sees a hope end, winter arrived this morning. We realized it when we left the hut to go and wash: there were no stars, the dark cold air had the smell of snow. In roll-call square, in the grey of dawn, when we assembled for work, no one spoke. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope.

Because 'winter' means yet another thing.

Last spring the Germans had constructed huge tents in an open space in the Lager. For the whole the good season, each of them had catered for over a thousand men: now the tents had been taken down, and an excess two thousand guests crowded our huts. We old prisoners knew that the Germans did not like these irregularities and that something would soon happen to reduce our number.

One feels the selections arriving. 'Selekcja': the hybrid Latin and Polish word is heard once, twice, many times, interpolated in foreign conversations, at first we cannot distinguish it, then it forces itself on our attention, and in the end it persecutes us.

This morning the Poles had said 'Selekcja'. The Poles are the first to find out the news, and they generally try not to let it spread around, because to know something which the others still do not know can always be useful. By the time that everyone realizes that a selection is imminent, the few possibilities of evading it (corrupting some doctor or some prominent with bread or tobacco; leaving the hut for Ka-Be or vice-versa at the right moment so as to cross with the commission) are already their monopoly.

In the days which follow, the atmosphere of the Lager and the yard is filled with 'Selekcja': nobody knows anything definite, but all speak about it, even the Polish, Italian, French civilian workers whom we secretly see in the yard. Yet the result is hardly a wave of despondency: our collective morale is too inarticulate and flat to be unstable. The fight against hunger, cold and work leaves little margin for thought, even for this thought. Everybody reacts in his own way, but hardly anyone with those attitudes which would seem the most plausible as the most realistic, that is with resignation or despair.

All those able to find a way out, try to take it, but they are the minority because it is very difficult to escape from a selection. The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence.

Whoever is unable to prepare for it materially, seeks defense elsewhere. In the latrines, in the washroom, we show each other our chests, our buttocks, our thighs, and our comrades reassure us: 'You are all right, it will certainly not be your turn this time,... du bist kein Muselmann... more probably mine...' and they undo their braces in turn and pull up their shirts.

Nobody refuses this charity to another: nobody is so sure of his own lot to be able to condemn others. I brazenly lied to old Werthheimer; I told him that if they questioned him, he should reply that his was forty-five, and he should not forget to have a shave the evening before, even if it cost him a quarter-ration of bread; apart from that he need have no fears, and in any case it was by no means certain that it was a selection for the gas chamber; had he not heard the Blockältester say that those chosen would go to Jaworszno to a convalescent camp?

It is absurd of Werthheimer to hope: he looks sixty, he has enormous varicose veins, he hardly even notices the hunger any more. But he lies down on his bed, serene and quiet, and replies to someone who asks him with my own words; they are the command-words in the camps these days: I myself repeated them just as – apart from details – Chajim told them to me, Chajim, who has been in Lager for three years, and being strong and robust is wonderfully sure of himself; and I believed him.

On this slender basis I also lived through the great selection of October 1944 with inconceivable tranquility. I was tranquil because I managed to lie to myself sufficiently. The fact that I was not selected depended above all on chance and does not prove my faith was well-founded.

[pp. 123-125]


oyster said...

Excellent review! I appreciated the recommendation of this work, and look forward to reading it.

aimai said...

I loved "If This Is A Man" and also his other book entitled (if my own memory doesn't betray me) "The Periodic Table." Another very good book is "This Way To the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." I spent some time, years ago (really years ago) reading diaries of Concentration camp members while in the stacks at Widener library. To be able to construct works of literary and emotional art out of those experiences is a pretty stunning accomplishment.


Batocchio said...

Thanks as always for the recs, aimai. I agree, it's stunning. Years back, I read that among Holocaust survivors who were artists, writers had the highest suicide rate, perhaps because finding the right words was just so challenging.

aimai said...

Batocchio, have you ever read a very different book about a related issue "The Endless Steppe?" That is a rather amazing book, which I read as a young girl, about a young Polish girl who is deported, with some of her family, to Siberia. It is supposed to be a real memoir, one of the kinds of books that were written long after the events described and after the author had come to America. Its very well done. Dreamlike and childlike--I've never forgotten the scene when they get off the train and they see bottles of cologne which she, as a child, naivley thinks may be for them to "freshen up" and then she sees the guards drinking it for the alcohol.


Batocchio said...

I haven't. I'm going to have to start an aimai reading list!