Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

By Frederic D. Homer | Go to book overview

4
Violence

We had worked together for a long time in the Polish mud. All of us had fallen in the deep slippery workyard mud but, thanks to that bit of animal nobility that survives even in a man reduced to despair, we struggled to avoid falling, and to minimize its effects; in fact, a man prostrate on the ground is endangered, for he stirs fierce instincts, and inspires derision rather than pity.

—Moments of Reprieve

The human ashes coming from the crematoria, tons daily, were easily recognized as such, because they often contained teeth or vertebrae. Nevertheless, they were employed for several purposes: and especially notable, they were used instead of gravel to cover the paths of the SS village located near the camp, whether out of pure callousness or because, due to their origins, they were regarded as material to be trampled on, I couldn't say.

—The Drowned and the Saved

Primo Levi's work is replete with keen insights on violence, from the descriptions and analyses of the Holocaust in Survival in Auschwitz to his retrospective thoughts on the Lager forty years later as carefully rendered in The Drowned and the Saved. In his initial writings, Levi closely works with what he observed about violence firsthand. In his later works, he collects his observations on nature and, in addition, returns to the Holocaust to try and understand many of the incidents of violence that those at the bottom, including Levi himself, didn't know about. By engaging himself in the questions of why the Holocaust occurred, he avoids the problem that Omer Bartov speaks of when analysts choose to talk either of the perpetrators

-57-

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