Se questo è un uomo

A book by the Italian author and chemist Primo Levi.

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919 to a family of thoroughly assimilated Italian Jews.  It wasn't until 1938, when Mussolini's government bowed to Nazi pressure and adopted racial regulations similar to Germany's Nuremberg Laws, that Levi felt his Jewishness, which wrapped itself over his shoulders like a terrible yoke.  In spite of the increasing restrictions, Levi received a degree in chemistry from the University of Turin in 1941.  Two years later, he took up a pistol and ran to the mountains.  His stint as a partisan was short-lived: Fascist militiamen captured Levi and his companions.  So it was that Primo Levi, aged 24, a scholar and chemist, passed through the Arbeit Macht Frei gates.

Levi survived.  He was one of only 20 in his "shipment" of Jews to do so.  Luck was the main factor: it happened that the Nazis needed chemists to do lab work in their Buna rubber lab inside Auschwitz.  "Ist gut, chemiker," one of Levi's fellow prisoners told him, and so it was.  In the lab, Levi did not freeze.  He had better food, and there was a wide assortment of goods to smuggle past the guards.  Lucky, too, was Levi's bout of scarlet fever that landed him in the infirmary.  He was too weak to leave with the other prisoners when Auschwitz was abandoned.  Left for dead, he missed the now-infamous deep winter death march toward Buchenwald.

After the war, Levi pursued his career as a chemist.  He also began to write.  English readers know his first book as Survival in Auschwitz, a short, episodic memoir that relates some of his experiences in the Lager (Levi's term for the concentration camps, the literal German word for "warehouse").  Levi's original title was Se questo è un uomo -- If This Is a Man -- but his publisher felt the book needed a title that overtly outlined its contents, so the book is known as Survival in Auschwitz, at least to American audiences.  Not surprisingly, Levi's original title does that much better than the publisher's choice.  Se questo è un uomo is a book more concerned with examining human beings than it is with relating incidents within the Lager.  Though it is often billed as a memoir, that word is woefully incomplete here.  For Levi, the real concern is not outlining what happened, but why, and how it could happen again.

Memoir as Exploration

Like many other scholarly works on Shoah, Se questo è un uomo does not treat the Holocaust as a singular event, divorced from the possibility of recurrence.  Levi is haunted by the idea that treating a group of people as radically other is the first step in a chain of events, and at the end of that chain the Lager waits for someone.  His book is, above all else, a moral exploration of the human, a caution against the human tendencies of divisiveness and indifference that laid the tracks to Auschwitz.

Se questo è un uomo is not, however, a preachy book.  Those who have never read Levi will be surprised by his tone of almost journalistic detachment, his tendency to attempt impartiality.  Some see this as emotional cowardice, an unwillingness on Levi's part to truly confront the emotional experience of his time in Auschwitz.  They compare Levi's book to Elie Wiesel's Night, a Holocaust memoir that occupies the opposite end of the emotional-vs.-intellectual spectrum.  Night is often read alongside Se questo è un uomo in Holocaust course curricula for that very reason.  Levi's angle on the subject is easily explained, however.  He was a scientist, and as such, he quite naturally is inclined to present the facts and leave the critical act of judgment -- the act that, for him, defines what it means to be human -- to his readers.  He is very overt about this technique, often stopping the narrative to say to the reader, "Now that I have presented you with an outline of life in the camp, how do you view the actions of the prisoners?  In this situation, what does theft mean?  What of death?  What of rebellion?"

This is not to say that Levi never interjects his own judgment, or refrains from any emotion.  During one vignette, he tells the story of how an elderly inmate, Kuhn, survives the dreaded selektion, where able-bodied prisoners are kept and the old, the ill, and the weak are sent to the chimneys.  By freak accident, by bureaucratic mishap, Kuhn survives and a young, healthy inmate goes to the gas in his place.  That evening, Levi overhears Kuhn giving thanks to god, and reflects with rage on Kuhn's inability to see that, in thanking god for saving his life, he is also thanking god for sending another man to his death.  "If I were God," Levi writes, "I would spit at Kuhn's prayer."

The Experience of Extremity

In Holocaust courses, instructors often use Levi's book to outline two additional principles:

  1. The impossibility of language: Levi argues that the very act of speaking about the Holocaust is difficult since language itself is unable to express the reality of life in the camp to those who did not experience it.  This makes a good amount of sense: when he says "cold" or "hungry," he means the cold and hunger of Auschwitz, a cold and hunger that most readers have never felt and cannot possibly understand in full.  Levi sees this as an obstacle to combat, and does not condone throwing up one's hands or abandoning words as a communicative medium.
  2. The continuance of experience: living through the Holocaust is not like living through a meal or a job interview in that, when the actual events are finished, the experience does not stop.  Like other kinds of extreme trauma, it stays with a person for the rest of their life.  In the words of Jean Améry, who was interrogated at the hands of the SS, "He who was tortured stays tortured."  The structure of the book itself bears this out: it does not have an ending, a stopping point, but simply ceases in midstory, while relating some postwar events in Levi's life.  It does not allow us the luxury of seeing Levi's story as a discrete nugget of experience, but rather as a segment in an ongoing whole.

Perhaps this helps us explain Levi's death.  Levi was blessed with the gift of total recall.  This served him very well as a student, where he could sit down to an exam and remember, vividly and simultaneously, everything he had ever learned about the subject.  After his experiences in the Lager, this blessing became a rack.  Levi suffered from depression, and, in 1987, like Jean Améry, like many other survivors of the camps, he took his own life.  Levi was one of the most striking moral thinkers of the 20th century in any language, and we mourn his passing.


Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

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