Primo Levi, Witness

By Gordon, Robert S. C. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Primo Levi, Witness


Gordon, Robert S. C., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Primo Levi's If This is a Man and Responses to the Lager in Italy 1945-47

AFTER ELEVEN MONTHS IN AUSCHWITZ-MONOWITZ AND TEN months wandering through war-torn central Europe, Prima Levi returned to Turin in October 1945. On his journey home and in Turin, he took to telling what had happened to friends, family, and strangers, and very soon--by December 1945 at the latest--he had begun writing these stories down, at work or on commuter trains. Over 1946 the stories grew into a book, which he sent to three publishers, including liberal-leftwing Einaudi in Turin. They all turned him down. In early 1947, several chapters were published in a local Communist Party journal, L'amico del popolo run by his friend Silvio Ortona, and one in the more established journal, Il ponte in August. Finally, De Silva, a small publisher run by Franco Antonicelli, enthusiastically accepted the book, suggested the title If This is a Man, taken from a poem by Levi, and published swiftly in October 1947. The book was well reviewed by one or two interesting figures, including Italo Calvino and the critic Arrigo Cajumi, but was neglected and then forgotten until the mid-1950s when Einaudi showed renewed interest, finally republishing the book as we now know it in 1958. [1]

This is not the whole story of Levi's first turn to writing after his return. He had also tried out two other forms of writing to chronicle his experience. In 1946, together with doctor and fellow-survivor Leonardo De Benedetti, Levi wrote a long article for a medical journal, Minerva medica, entitled "Report on the hygienic and sanitary conditions in the concentration camp for Jews at Monowitz (Auschwitz, Upper Silesia)." [2] The report, based in part on one drafted for the Russian authorities while Levi and De Benedetti were in the detention camp at Katowice awaiting return (described in The Truce), [3] presents in detached, scientific detail, several themes that Levi is writing in narrative form at that same time: the train journey, arrival and initiation, work and food in the camp, the final days after the departure of the Germans. It also dwells on an aspect notably and deliberately omitted from If This is a Man: the gas chambers and the crematoria.

At the same time, Levi was also writing poems about Auschwitz, "bloody and concise poems" as he called them. Between December 1945 and June 1946, he wrote fifteen poems of which nine are about the camps. As work by Italo Rosato among others has shown, [4] there is a dense and persistent symbiosis between the imagery of these poems, and Levi's prose in If This is a Man and beyond. Even the six poems not about the camps--love poems or whimsical games--written as he was drafting If This is a Man, have been related to the serenity and levity of certain moments of the book.

Levi's turn to three different forms of writing in 1945-47--what Marco Belpoliti, editor of the very rich new edition of Levi's Opere, has called his "laboratory" for the distillation and composition of testimony--is vitally important for what it tells us about the power of If This is a Man. But it is also part of a broader picture of survivors' progress from return to the first written accounts of the camps in those years. It is evidence of an impulse to write which was shared by many returnees, as Levi himself points out more than once. Indeed Levi's first book is one among many written accounts published in the immediate postwar years. A reading of this largely forgotten corpus of responses to the Lager provides an important context for our historical and literary understanding of If This Is a Man.

Numbers

Bare numbers throw up several points of interest. At least fifty-five accounts of deportation were published in Italy in 1945-47 (from amongst the approximately 8,800 Jewish, 600,000 military and 35,000 political deportees). [5] Most were first-hand accounts although, significantly, a handful were fictionalized. …

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