It’d be impossible to read Primo Levi’s “If This is a Man” and not be affected by it. The memoir, first published in Italian in 1947*, is about Levi’s time in Auschwitz, a place from which few** survived the Holocaust to tell the world their story.
If This is a Man is one of the best books I’ve read. In spite of what Levi experienced during his imprisonment in Auschwitz, his memoir assumes an objective tone of a clearheaded witness, unaffected by the despair, fear and pain that plagued him.
For instance, he starts the chapter “October 1944” describing the onset of winter and what it meant for him and fellow prisoners:
We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain… Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say ‘hunger’, we say ‘tiredness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’, we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.
One month later, the rain was relentless. He wrote:
When it rains we would like to cry. It is November, it has been raining for 10 days now and the ground is like the bottom of a swamp… It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, of some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.
Reading If This is a Man was depressing, yet uplifting in rare moments when the human spirit shone through – like Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker who brought Levi some bread and what remained of his ration every day for six months.
I was at a cafe when I was reading the final chapters. It was sunny, breezy and warm. People around me were happy. I was close to tears.
When news came that the camp was to be evacuated as Russian forces closed in, Levi – who happened to be down with scarlet fever – was left behind with other sickly prisoners. His best friend, Alberto, came to bid him goodbye. Unbeknownst to them, this was to be the last time.
All the healthy prisoners left during the night of 18 January 1945. They must have been about 20,000, coming from different camps. Almost in their entirety they vanished during the evacuation march: Alberto was among them. Perhaps someone will write their story one day.
His writing is beautiful and heartfelt. His memories, haunting and disturbing. It is unfathomable how any of what he described in the book could have happened. In his opinion, “most Germans didn’t know (about what happened in the camps) because they didn’t want to know”.
It’s important that today’s as well as the future generations are aware of the atrocities that have been committed. I was horrified, saddened and angered by what I was learning about the Holocaust through his memoir. It’s important that none of these is erased from the history books so that we remember, and hopefully will not allow history to repeat itself.
If This is a Man opens with a poem, with which I shall end my post. I hope that you’ll have the chance to read it, as well as its sequel The Truce which traces his long journey home from Auschwitz.
If This Is a Man
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
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 a yes or a 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.
Meditate 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,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
* The manuscript for “Se questo è un uomo” was turned down by several prominent publishers before it was accepted in 1947 by a small publisher which printed 2,500 copies before it folded. It might have been the society was not ready to re-live the war. It was republished in 1958 and went on to become a bestseller in Italy, as well as translated into many languages. The book is published as “Survival in Auschwitz” in the US.
** According to Levi, only about 5% of the Italian deportees returned home.