Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
Primo Levi, fully Primo Michele Levi
Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
It is a pretty structure isn?t it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that ?beautiful? edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals of the arches of bridges.
Ka-Be is the Lager without the physical discomforts. So that, whoever still has some seeds of conscience, feels his conscience re-awaken; and in the long empty days, one speaks of other things than hunger and work and one begins to consider what they have made us become, how much they have taken away from us, what this life is. In this Ka-Be, an enclosure of relative peace, we have learnt that our personality is fragile, that it is much more in danger than our life; and the old wise ones, instead of warning us 'remember that you must die', would have done much better to remind us of this great danger that threatens us. If from inside the Lager, a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: take care not to suffer in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.
One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death ?death?, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.
Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people, go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone, haven't usurped anyone's bread. No one died in my place. No one. Go back into your mist. It's not my fault if I live and breathe, eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.
The living are more demanding; the dead can wait.
They all keep repeating that the Russians will come rather soon; all were convinced and still nobody hoped deep down. Because the bearings person loses the habit hopes even confidence in your own mind. To think the camp is unnecessary because the events occurred unpredictable and harmful, because this habit kept alive sensitivity, which is a source of grief and that provident natural laws dull as suffering pass certain limits. One gets tired not only of joy, fear and grief, but also of expectation
Today I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence.
We spoke of strangers: Gramsci, Salvemini, Gobetti, the Rosselli; who were they? There was therefore a second story, a parallel story to the one that the school had given us from above?
Each of us bears the imprint of a friend met along the way; In each the trace of each.
He could hardly read or write but his heart spoke the language of the good.
I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly 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 saving. The personages in these pages are not men. Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offense received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and insane SS men, the Kapos, the politicals, the criminals, the prominents, great and small, down to the indifferent slave H„ftlinge, all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans paradoxically fraternized in a uniform internal desolation. But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.
If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live.
It is curious how this animal-like condition would repeat itself in language: in German there are two words for eating. One is essen and it refers to people, and the other is fressen, referring to animals. We say a horse frisst, for example, or a cat. In the lager, without anyone having decided that it should be so, the verb for eating was fressen. As if the perception of the animalesque regression was clear to all.
Let us now imagine a man deprived not only of the people he loves, but his house, his habits, his clothes, everything, in short, literally everything he has: it will be an empty man, reduced to suffering and need, devoid of discernment, forgetful of dignity: for it is not unusual when you have lost everything, to lose oneself; it will be a man we can decide of life and death with a light heart, without any consideration of human order, if not, at most, the utility criterion. So we understand the double meaning of the word extermination camp and what we mean by hit bottom.
One of them declared: 'Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.' Another, though: 'Certainly I could have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear witness. You mustn't think that we are monsters; we are the same as you, only much more unhappy.
Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium?as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom,?well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
The prisoners who saved themselves were not the best, the predestined to good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and experienced showed the exact opposite. Survived the worst of preference, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the 'gray area', the spies. It was not a certain rule (there were, nor are there in human affairs, certain rules), but was also a rule. I felt so innocent, but trooped among the saved, and therefore constantly looking for an excuse, before me and the others. Survived the worst, that is the most suitable; the best are all dead.
They are the typical product of the structure of the German Lager: if one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a state of slavery, exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept. He will be withdrawn from the common law and will become untouchable; the more power that he is given, the more he will be consequently hateful and hated. When he is given the command of a group of unfortunates, with the right of life or death over them, he will be cruel and tyrannical, because he will understand that if he is not sufficiently so, someone else, judged more suitable, will take over his post. Moreover, his capacity for hatred, unfulfilled in the direction of the oppressors, will double back, beyond all reason, on the oppressed; and he will only be satisfied when he has unloaded onto his underlings the injury received from above.
Today the only thing left of the life of those days is what one needs to suffer hunger and cold; I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.
We the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in possession of the unspeakable truth are the drowned, the dead, the disappeared.
Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last ? the power to refuse our consent.
He fights for his life but still remains everybody's friend. He knows whom to corrupt, whom to avoid, whose compassion to arouse, whom to resist.
I do not know what I will think tomorrow and later; today I feel no distinct emotion.
If you and your child were going to be killed tomorrow, would you not give him to eat today?
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and it is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium - as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom - well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.