If This is a Man” by Primo Levi: Belated Reading”
Despite owning this book for more than ten years, I haven’t found any compelling attraction that motivates me to read it. Perhaps that is due to the illusion I remained convinced of its correctness: the widespread extermination of Eastern European Jews primarily by the German Nazis during the Second World War, is something belonging to history and will not be repeated in the age of internet and cameras capable of documenting what is happening in the world moment by moment, instead of relying on people’s testimonies that may not be as accurate as cameras. Perhaps the most important thing is that we learn from history.
Similar to his fellow countryman, Dante Alighieri, who preceded him by about six centuries in a journey to hell depicted in his Divine Comedy, Primo Levi also undertook this visit. However, it differs from Dante’s visit to hell, which was through dreams and imagination, as this time it is one hundred percent real.
Levi was twenty-four years old when he was arrested by the Italian Fascist militias on December 13. 1943, for being a suspect in activities against the regime that imposed racial segregation laws on Jews and other minorities, regulating their movements since the beginning of World War II.
During the interrogation, he faced a dilemma: either to declare himself as an opponent of the fascist regime (because it would be difficult to justify his presence in a place too secluded when he was arrested, even for an evacuee); or admit of being Jewish. Fearing torture and execution if he chose the first option, he opted to confirm his status as an “Italian citizen of Jewish race.”
In the camp to which he was transformed, Primo Levi found himself among many individuals and families from minorities that the fascist regime did not recognize as Italian citizens. The Jews constituted the majority among them.
None of them anticipated that a team from the German “SchutZstaffel” known as “SS,” would suddenly arrive at the camp where its detainees had been enjoying a relatively normal life, including daily education for children, healthcare, food, water, and more.
On February 20, some German officers searched the camp’s kitchen and harshly criticized the poor services and the significant shortage of firewood used for heating. However, on the following day, the detainees in the camp heard that the Jews, without any exception, would be deported, including children, the elderly, and even the sick among them.
After cramming the twelve train wagons from Carpi station with six hundred and fifty “pieces” as the German corporal referred to them, the passengers learned the destination: it was the infamous “Auschwitz.” However, at that time, it didn’t hold any significance for them, and many felt a sense of relief – at least it was a place on this earth.
Following a grueling four-day journey, the human “pieces” continued to collide to the cramped space, enduring thirst, hunger, cold, and the constant wailing of accompanying children. Finally, the curtains blocking their view were lifted, the doors of the wagons were opened, and to the commands of German soldiers, everyone disembarked, carrying their bags.
On the brightly lit platform with lights and reflectors turning night into day, Primo Levi could see a large number of military personnel, among whom the distinguished “SS” men in their uniforms were dispersed.
The passengers didn’t stay there long; thanks to a high-ranking military official, a brief inquiry was conducted with each of them. The healthy men and women were separated, while the remaining more than five hundred “pieces” including children, women, the elderly, and the sick were placed on the other side.
When some asked if they could take their bags that were lined up in another place nearby, the officer’s response was: “They will be transported to you later.”
In the eyes of the healthy men surrounding Primo Levi, “the night swallowed the children, the elderly, and most of the women” as they were taken away in lorries parked nearby. As for them, another set of lorries transported them to two camps near Auschwitz: the first named “Monowitz-Buna,” accommodated 96 men, while the “Birkenau” camp received 29 women.
Out of these 125 prisoners, only four individuals returned to Italy, when the war ended, one of them being Primo Levi.
The image of that senior Nazi officer deciding the fate of this large group at that remote station amidst the bright lights, side by side with the Israeli officer sitting in front of his unit, comes to mind. He issues an order (to amuse his distant daughter) to detonate a residential building in Gaza, filled with children, women, and elderly, turning it under his laughter and the laughter of his soldiers into a mass of rubble and dust gradually cascading to the ground.
Between these two officers is a time span of no more than eighty years. This forcefully brings to mind the theory of the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), despite its ludicrousness: time, in its movement defined by the Earth’s orbits around itself and around the sun, is infinite. Meanwhile, the events that occur on our planet are limited, so events will inevitably repeat, sooner or later. It is eternal recurrence!
Primo Levi’s journey with his comrades to the camp specialized in rubber production took no more than twenty minutes. In the truck that transported them, there was only one armed guard, and his presence remained concealed until his voice reached them, politely asking if any of them had a watch, money, or a ring to give him.
As if this scene resembled what the Greek mythological figure “Charon” demanded and was used by Dante in the Divine Comedy: before crossing the Styx River to the realm of the dead, a metallic coin must be given to him as payment for his service, left by the deceased’s relatives with him at the time of burial.
In front of the modestly coloured building, the truck stands in the midst of pitch darkness illuminated by a sign fixed on its upper façade: “Work Grants Freedom.” It’s as if the one who chose this phrase attempted to imitate Dante, who placed a similar sign at the gate of Hell: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”
Inside an empty hall, except for a dripping faucet, a sign warns against drinking the water that leaks in droplets as it is unsafe. However, Levi doubted the truthfulness of that warning. Faced with terrible thirst after four days without water, he took a sip only to discover that it was sweet-tasting poisoned water, which he promptly spat out.
Here they are in the presence of another SS officer. “Who knows German?” he asks them, and one steps forward to act as a translator. His orders come one after another. Stand in rows of five individuals each, with a distance of two yards between each man, then strip off all your clothes and bundle them. They must take off their shoes but pay great attention that they are not stolen!
(Does the scene of naked men in front of the SS officer in that dreadful building remind us of what we see these days on social media, with naked Palestinian men in the streets of Gaza?)
This officer, who had sufficiently enjoyed the sight of these individuals from whom humanity had been stripped away, turning them into mere “beasts” according to the Nazi vision.
“And now, another German officer enters to order us to place our shoes in a specified corner, so we put them there… Then another person comes and starts sweeping our shoes away to a pile behind the door, where ninety-six pairs intertwine.”
“The outside door is open, and freezing wind enters while we stand naked covering ourselves with our arms. The wind blows, and slams the door. The German reopens it and stands watching with interest how we writhe and hide from the wind, one behind the other. Then he leaves and closes it.”
However, the Nazi hellish industry surpasses the bounds of Dante’s Inferno. Did the visions of the collapse of multi-story residential buildings come to the famous French seer Nostradamus as he foresaw the distant future? Perhaps he witnessed the city of Warsaw burning, piece by piece, after being emptied of its inhabitants, but he didn’t see an inhabitable city collapsing on the heads of its residents under a shower of alien bodies coming from the sky.
After the war and his return to his hometown of Turin, Primo Levi spent several years repeatedly doing what had become a habit during his time in the forced labour camp: contemplating the ground, searching for a piece of bread to satisfy the persistent hunger gnawing at him, or anything exchangeable for useful goods with others.
On the first page of this small book, first published in Italian in 1958, Primo Levi composed a poem that reads like a warning against the repetition of what befell him, on another people, in different times and places:
If this is a man
You who live safe
In your warm house,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of yes or no,
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Mediate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
Amy illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.