Academic journal article Shofar

The Memory of the Holocaust in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man

Academic journal article Shofar

The Memory of the Holocaust in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man

Article excerpt

Primo Levi's If This Is a Man is a central work in understanding the way in which the subjective memory of a Holocaust survival receives a general meaning. This requires a context in which the duty to prevent the repetition of the tragic events endured by European Jews becomes a universal responsibility we must assume. This text examines the process of dehumanization and total degradation of a human being in the conditions of the death camp, and examines the antidote that Levi proposes for escaping the state of existential pathology. Particular emphasis is placed on the way in which Levi, who embraces secular humanist values, uses religious background and religious symbolic structures in order to provide additional understanding of the fact that in the absence of God, the world itself becomes void of humanity.

The Holocaust as a Continuous Challenge

Among the original contributions of Jewish thinking to the development of Western thought can be mentioned the positioning at the center of philosophical reflection and the theological and philosophical re-signification of the extreme experience lived by European Jews throughout the Nazi extermination period. The history of ideas stresses the fact that reflection upon the Holocaust is not to be reduced to merely the existential problems, moral predicaments, and religious preoccupations of the Jews, but that it must put into discussion the fundamental aspects of Occidental religion and civilization.1 Not accidentally, there are authors who claim, more or less convincingly, that the very project of modernity itself must be discussed. The successive waves of manifestations of irrationality and violence are considered to be relevant to the serious gaps in this project, at the same time revealing the necessity for the project to be continuously rethought and refined.

One indicator of the crisis status is the fact that the survivors of the tragic events that have marked contemporary history are unable to find sufficient reason to believe that such extreme attitudes are not repeatable. At the same time, the secularization of the modern world intensifies the necessity of certain actions of celebration of the community.2 Among these, the commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust has an important place. In this way, in an era characterized by the headlong rush into the future in which the sequential often overwhelms historical evolution, we find that the appeal to memory is the red thread that binds the past and the future.

There are multiple possible schematizations regarding the memory of the Holocaust and the continuous reflection that the Holocaust claims. We can recall perspectives such as: personal memory understood as memory of humanity (Primo Levi);3 the valorization of memory as an indicator of the necessity of leaving behind the traditional paradigm (Richard Rubenstein);4 keeping memory alive understood as an act of restoring the world that is adrift and in dissolution (Emil Fackenheim);5 memory as a mold of history (Paul Ricoeur),6 and so on. Each of these can orient the controversies and the complementary or divergent opinions brought by other literary creations or philosophical and theological interpretations of the Holocaust. Taking into consideration the issue of memory closely related to the survival and avowal of the Holocaust, which is concerned with the continuous challenge that the Holocaust addresses to contemporary society, in the present text we shall focus on the personal, subjective memory in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. In this way, the subjective memory is constituted as a continual challenge to the conscience of humanity, because "the purpose of memory was not to metabolize an event of the past into a consolatory tradition, but deliberately to disturb and ensure that the memory would not be forgotten, to awaken and keep alive a sense of responsibility."7

The Exile and the Dismissal from Humanity

Primo Levi is not a theoretician. …

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