Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
Primo Levi, fully Primo Michele Levi
Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
The soup-kitchen was behind the cathedral; it remained only to determine which, of the many and beautiful churches of Cracow, was the cathedral. Whom could one ask, and how? A priest walked by; I would ask the priest. Now the priest, young and of benign appearance, understood neither French nor German; as a result, for the first and only time in my post-scholastic career, I reaped the fruits of years of classical studies, carrying on the most extravagant and chaotic of conversations in Latin. After the initial request for information (Pater optime, ubi est menas pauperorum?), we began to speak confusedly of everything, of my being a Jew, of the Lager (castra? better: Lager, only too likely to be understood by everybody), of Italy, of the danger of speaking German in public (which I was to understand soon after, by direct experience), and of innumerable other things, to which the unusual dress of the language gave a curious air of the remotest past.
This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.
Today, this true today when I'm sitting at a table and I write, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.
We travelled here in the sealed wagons; we saw our women and our children leave towards nothingness; we, transformed into slaves, have marched a hundred times backwards and forwards to our silent labors, killed in our spirit long before our anonymous death. No one must leave here and so carry to the world, together with the sign impressed on his skin, the evil tidings of what man?s presumption made of man in Auschwitz.
Except for cases of pathological incapacity, one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy way to the peace of others and oneself, because silence, the absence of signals, is itself a signal, but an ambiguous one, and ambiguity generates anxiety and suspicion. To say that it is impossible to communicate is false; one always can.
He reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.
I have many times been praised for my lack of animosity towards the Germans. It's not a philosophical virtue. It's a habit of having my second reactions before the first.
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term extermination camp, and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: to lie on the bottom.
It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one's mind: this is a temptation one must resist. In fact, the existence of the death squads had a meaning, a message: 'We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies, but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.
Man's capacity to dig himself in, to secrete a shell, to build around himself a tenuous barrier of defense, even in apparently desperate circumstances, is astonishing and merits a serious study.
Pavel interrupted him. I?ll explain what the Talmud is to you, with an example. Now listen carefully: Two chimneysweeps fall down the flue of a chimney; one comes out all covered with soot, the other comes out clean: which of the two goes to wash himself? Suspecting a trap, Piotr looked around, as if seeking help. Then he plucked up his courage and answered: The one who?s dirty goes to wash. Wrong, Pavel said. The one who?s dirty sees the other man?s face, and it?s clean, so he thinks he?s clean, too. Instead, the clean one see? s soot on the other one?s face, believes he?s dirty himself, and goes to wash. You understand? I understand. That makes sense. But wait; I haven?t finished the example. Now I?ll ask you a second question. Those two chimneysweeps fall a second time down the same flue, and again one is dirty and one isn?t. Which one goes to wash? I told you I understand. The clean one goes to wash. Wrong, Pavel said mercilessly. When he washed after the first fall, the clean man saw that the water in his basin didn?t get dirty, and the dirty man realized why the clean man had gone to wash. So, this time, the dirty chimneysweep went and washed. Piotr listened to this, with his mouth open, half in fright and half in curiosity. And now the third question. The pair falls down the flue a third time. Which of the two goes to wash? From now on, the dirty one will go and wash, Wrong again. Did you ever hear of two men falling down the same flue and one remaining clean while the other got dirty? There, that?s what the Talmud is like.
That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conquerer of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to maintain faithful to that nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev?s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed doen in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! ? The chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidotes to Fascism ? because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness like the radio and newspapers.
The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.
This fills me with anger, although I already know that it is in the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the unprivileged: the social structure of the camp is based on this human law.
Translation is difficult work because the barriers between languages are higher than is generally thought ? knowing how to avoid the traps is not enough to make a good translator. The task is more arduous; it is a matter of transferring from one language to another the expressive force of the text, and this is a superhuman task, so much so that some celebrated translations (for example that of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have marked transformations in the history of our civilization. Nonetheless, since writing results from a profound interaction between the creative talent of the writer and the language in which he expresses himself, to each translation is coupled an inevitable loss, comparable to the loss of changing money. This diminution varies in degree, great or small according to the ability of the translator and the nature of the original text. As a rule it is minimal for technical or scientific texts (but in this case the translator, in addition to knowing the two languages, needs to understand what he is translating; possess, that is to say, a third competence). It is maximal for poetry...
We were also born, Line said abruptly. Mendel questioned her with a look, and Line tried to clarify her thought: Born, expelled. Russia conceived us, nourished us, made us grow in her darkness, as in a womb; then she had labor pains, contractions, and threw us out; and now here we are, naked and new, like babies just born. Isn't it the same for you? Narische meidele, vos darst do freden? Mendel rebutted, feeling on his lips and affectionate smile and a light veil over his eyes.
Fascism had silenced them for twenty years, and they explained to us that fascism was not only a bad government clownish and improvident, but the denier of Justice; had not only dragged Italy into an unjust war and poor, but had risen and had established itself as the guardian of legality and a detestable order, founded on coercion of the worker, the uncontrolled profit of those who exploit the labor of others, on silence imposed to those who think and do not want to be a servant, on the systematic lies and calculated. They told us that our mocking indifference was not enough; He had to turn into anger, and anger to be channeled into a revolt organic and timely, but we did not teach you how to plant a bomb, or how to shoot a rifle.
He understood before any of us that this life is war; he permitted himself no indulgences, he lost no time complaining or commiserating with himself and with others, but entered the battle from the beginning.
I live in my house as I live inside my skin: I know more beautiful, more ample, more sturdy and more picturesque skins: but it would seem to me unnatural to exchange them for mine.
In countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph. The well-known example of this is the crazy genetics preached in the USSR by Lysenko, which in the absence of discussion (his opponents were exiled to Siberia) compromised the harvests for twenty years. Intolerance is inclined to censor, and censorship promotes ignorance of the arguments of others and thus intolerance itself: a rigid, vicious circle that is hard to break.
It is not at all an idle matter trying to define what a human being is.
Many people ? many nations ? can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ?every stranger is an enemy?. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.
Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.
The aims of life are the best defense against death.
The triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi?s writing.