Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
Primo Levi, fully Primo Michele Levi
Italian Jewish Chemist, Writer and Holocaust Survivor
All took leave from life in the manner which most suited them. Some praying, some deliberately drunk, others lustfully intoxicated for the last time. But the mothers stayed up to prepare the food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed their luggage; and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children's washing hung out in the wind to dry. Nor did they forget the diapers, the toys, the cushions and the hundreds other small things which mothers remember and which children always need. Would you not do the same? If you and your child were going to die tomorrow, would you not give him to eat today?
Clausner shows me the bottom of his bowl. Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: 'Ne pas chercher … comprendre.
Alongside the liberating relief of the veteran who tells us his story, I now felt in the writing a complex, intense, and new pleasure, similar to that I felt as a student when penetrating the solemn order of differentials calculus. It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter.
Compassion and brutality can coexist in the same individual and in the same moment.
An enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.
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 learning to unravel, was poetry...
Anyone who has obeyed nature by transmitting a piece of gossip experiences the explosive relief that accompanies the satisfying of a primary need.
At that time I had not yet been taught the doctrine I was later to learn so hurriedly in the Lager: that man is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly
At the time I was very young and still imagined that it was possible to dissuade his boss for anything, so I laid two or three arguments against it, but immediately saw that beneath their blows Commander hardens as copper plate under hammer.
Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.
Better not to do than to do, better to meditate than to act, better his astrophysics, the threshold of the Unknowable, than my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions and small futile mysteries. I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened_, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. the difference can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad's switch points; the chemist's trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist's trade.
Better to err through omission than through commission: better to refrain from steering the fate of others, since it is already so difficult to navigate one's own.
A country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.
Beware of analogies: for millenia they corrupted medicine, and it may be their fault that today's pedagogical systems are so numerous, and after three thousand years of argument we still don't know which is best.
A man who would mutilate himself is well damned, isn't he?
But Gedalah had something in mind. He sent four men to collect a dozen pumpkins, and he had them set in the pylons that supported the overhead power line that ran the train, one pumpkin to each pylon.
A memory evoked too often and expressed as history tends to become a... crystallized, perfected, ornate, settling itself rather than pure and memory stereotype, and growing at their expense.
But here in the Lager there are no criminals nor madmen; no criminals because there is no moral law to contravene, no madmen because we are wholly devoid of free will, as our every action is, in time and place, the only conceivable one.
A scientist's life, the author says, is indeed conflictual, formed by battles, defeats, and victories: but the adversary is always and only the unknown, the problem to be solved, the mystery to be clarified. It is never a matter of civil war; even though of different opinions, or of different political leanings, scientists dispute each other, they compete, but they do not battle: they are bound together by a strong alliance, by the common faith "in the validity of Maxwell's or Boltzmann's equations," and by the common acceptance of Darwinism and the molecular structure of DNA.
But many, many stories were told; from what could be gathered, all fifty of the mine's inhabitants had reacted on each other, two by two, as in combinatorial analysis, that is to say, everyone with all the others, and especially every man with all the women, old maids or married, and every woman with all the men. All I had to do was to select two names at random, better if different sex, and ask a third person, "What happened with those two?" and lo and behold, a splendid story was unfolded for me, since everyone knew the story of everyone else.