WHAT CAN YOU SAY about a book that says so much? If there were a universe in three of Primo Levi’s books — If This Is a Man, The Truce, The Drowned and the Saved — then combined in them is a black hole formed by their collision, a void of human understanding, an abyss of comprehension lying between what is possible and the real. Primo Levi managed to re-create the un-re-creatable and to speak the unspeakable. Without pathos, without plot, without even theme, he reveals the depths of human suffering where there exists an event horizon of what can only be called evil. Beyond that boundary, there is the nothingness of the other — not the other to whom we can relate as humans, as victims, as fellow sufferers, or even bearers of indifference — rather, the boundary that separates the individuated self from the human automaton, the Nazi, the tool of evil, a bolt-gun in the hands of a being who is not properly of this world.
One of the strangest things to be found in Levi’s work is, ironically, the taxonomy of horrors which was not just inflicted by the Germans but, first, imagined by them. Each one is different, each fascinating in its symmetries, in its unexpectedness, in its total bigness (the Thousand Year Reich and its Final Solution), as well as in its microscopic pettiness (as Levi describes the little, pointless tortures, like providing camp inmates too little time, and too few latrines, to adequately relieve themselves in the morning). They form a radiolaria of torture that, for Levi, is the flower of evil. It is the unthinkable and the unmistakable, the true signs of a singular species. It’s what sends the question of Why? spinning into infinite regress — an echo in the history of hatred.
What is truly odd, but also sadly and sometimes pathetically uplifting, is the levity that appears in Levi’s description of the events. We experience this most sharply through character: the three of four figures-of-fun for whom an extreme and immediate adaptation is only a natural reaction to life in the lager, or camp, and who, on account of this, make up a sideshow of the human spirit. Their display is not grand and revealing, much like an actual sideshow, but fleeting: the less you see of them, the more wondrous their appearance (and their existence) becomes.
This is the dwarf Elias described in If This Is a Man (I use the translation of the title closer to the original Italian, rather than its American conversion). Elias, a lunatic, a dolt, a sick man “out there” in the pre- and postwar world, is in the lager a naturally comfortable creature, running around, working with the strength of 10 men, making himself into a battering ram as he flies head first into the midsections of enemies and adversaries, all of whom are fellow inmates, and most of whom are fellow Jews. This is the young man who takes up empathy as an art of survival, turning it on like a charm, transforming the most fundamental of human values — deeper than a value, a substrate of values — into a chisel, even a weapon.
This is the tin-man tyrant, Chaim Rumkowski, who, colluding with the Nazis, managed to rule the Łódź Ghetto as a “king of the Jews.” In the face of certain death, this figure lorded over his fellow ghetto prisoners while believing himself to be their savior, a smalltime Herod who, in the end, supervised his own demise.
And yet the delight of these characters surviving as individuals dissolves in a noxious solution, a by-product of mechanized genocide. But the teller of the tale, Levi, survives, making it seem — to him, to us, to the condemned? — as if that were his purpose, as if that were the reason for his survival.
How can that be? We know that morally, logically, it can’t. We know that a man writing down the story of what happened has no more right to live than a mother trying to protect her hounded, harassed, tortured, and starved children. Or does he? We vacillate with Levi, who was forever trapped in that uncomfortable equilibrium, knowing that the basis for his own survival is invalid but somehow unable to argue with the inescapability of his own survival.
And we vacillate too, asking, What is this we’re reading? Is it a fiction so deep it has drawn us into a newly created world, a world demonic and horrible in every detail? Of course not. This is recorded reality, an unimaginable truth that violates all the knowledge, feeling, and collective assumptions that make us who we are. It’s a reality that tears through everything we think we know about the world.
Which is why we almost physically reject the book. To get through it, we read through a lens. We invent all sorts of reasons to permit ourselves to believe in it, including those, chronicled by Levi, that come in the form of questions about why “they” didn’t escape, why they didn’t revolt, why they didn’t … didn’t what?
Others choose, maybe not unwisely, to avoid these books. Balking at even their suggestion, they reference an aversion to reading about the Holocaust. They don’t know about that “stuff.” And, of course, they are right. They don’t. But in confronting these books, in allowing ourselves to be drawn into the horror, we face not the evil that Levi faced, but rather ourselves. We face our cowardice, and the possibility of what might beset us, too. We see in this reckoning how ill-prepared we are. We see, tragically, that the lesson of the Holocaust has given us nothing; or, rather, that we’ve taken nothing from it.
In our ongoing search for meaning, we yearn to be absorbed by something beyond us, by something bigger and greater that can reveal truth — and in their 200 and some short pages, each of these books reveals dire, necessary truths. But, living beyond skepticism, we may consider ourselves too cynical, too familiar with the hard realities of life, to need further instruction in those difficult truths.
The irony is that we are not as wide-eyed and innocent, not as susceptible and believing as the Jews, and all the others, who stepped off the cattle cars to be stripped, layer by layer, fiber by fiber, word by word, memory by memory, and made with frightening speed into something less than, lower than, beasts. We are, instead, more wide-eyed, more innocent to its reality since we, unlike them, have what you might call the benefit of history. Turning our faces away from that lived experience of history, which can be gained only through books like Levi’s, we strengthen our weakness. Knowing that it once occurred, we firmly expect it to never happen again. Like a Maginot Line of memory, our slogan of vigilance, Never again, becomes not a call to action but a statement of belief.
Those “privileged” (in the eerie words of Isaac Bashevis Singer) to have fallen victim to the Holocaust at least had no expectation of even its possibility; once confronted, they could see for themselves where they were, even if that amounted, as it mostly did, to nothing. Not wanting to know, we continue consuming the all-but-guaranteed Holocaust best sellers carrying clear-cut messages. We snap selfies at the memorials. We make our treacly pronouncements, next to which silence is infinitely preferable. We hide in the notion that, if not history, then at least our own lives constitute some sort of line, always pointed upward. And if outliers like disease or accident happen to disrupt the line, no matter, we can simply disregard them.
What we absolutely refuse to acknowledge is the notion we can be them, the privileged who were subject not just to the lunatic automatons and their bolt-guns but also to the sideshow freaks of lager life. We cannot, and will not, accept the idea that they were once us. Standing on that certainty, knowing we will not permit a flicker of self-identification with those who perished (or even those who lived), we have already forgotten.