Jochnowitz, George, Midstream
Primo Levi: A Life, by Ian Thomson. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Company, 2003, xviii + 583 pp., $32.50.
On his tombstone we read his dates, his name, the number tattooed on his arm:
1919-1987 Primo Levi 174517
Levi arrived at Auschwitz on February 26, 1944; Russian troops liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. His year at Auschwitz was one year of his life, but it was all of his life. It is the way we know him.
Levi was many things. He was a Jew, an atheist, and an Italian. He was a scientist with a doctorate in chemistry. He was the author of memoirs, stories, poems, essays, science fiction, and a novel. He was a man with very many friends, who nevertheless was isolated from the world by his depression. And he was 174517. According to Ian Thomson's Primo Levi: A Life, Levi once signed a letter to a fellow survivor that way. (p. 219) We are told, "And he always wore a short-sleeved shirt with a suit, even in winter, so that his prison tattoo was exposed whenever he removed his jacket." (p. 250) Later in the book, we read a letter to Ian Thomson from a Professor De Felice telling us of an occasion when Levi looked out a window, "rolled up his sleeves and placed his hands on his hips, elbows nearly touching behind him. I then saw the tattooed serial number on his forearm." (p. 426)
Levi was determined to be a witness. Slowly and with difficulty, he wrote his story of life in the camp. Surprisingly, he had trouble getting it published. He had a cousin in Massachusetts, Anna Yona, who translated a chapter into English and passed it on to an editor at Little, Brown and Company, which, in turn, passed it on to Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, who was quite well known at the time as the author of the book, Peace of Mind, Rabbi Liebman, for some reason, recommended that the book not be published. Levi "would have to wait forty years until America took notice of him." (p. 228)
The book eventually appeared in America, under the title Survival in Auschwitz In England, it is called If This Is A Man, a translation of the Italian rifle.
Survival in Auschwitz is a lacerating book. Any account of life in a death camp would be upsetting, but Levi's narration, filled with details of existence in the camp, minute by minute, presents the reader with more horrors than one could have imagined, even though one knows about what happened at Auschwitz. Furthermore, Levi's history of his experience is written without expressing the anger and grief he felt. The book is awful fact after awful fact.
Levi believed in facts. His commitment to reality was linked in his mind to his opposition to fascist theory, fan Thomson has written a biography filled with facts, just as Levi himself did in his memoirs. And consequently, Thomson's description of the experiences of Levi and his friends after they were captured is as upsetting as Levi's own writings.
Levi was caught on December 13, 1943 and eventually imprisoned at a Nazi/Fascist internment camp in a town called Fossoli, near a railroad line that led to Auschwitz. After four weeks, the Jews at Fossoli were placed on a train. The ride to Auschwitz took six days, much longer than it had to, with no bathrooms and with only one opportunity to get water to drink.
On the train with Levi were two women who were his friends. One was Luciana Nissim, who survived the war. The other was Vanda Maestro, whom Levi loved and might have married had she lived. In the camp, Vanda said to Luciana, "If I die, promise to call your baby Vanda." (p. 171) "Nissim kept her promise," writes Thomson, at the end of this tragic scene. Later in the book, we read about Luciana: "... she had a baby girl named Vanda who died during labour" (p. 221) I am confused. Did Luciana name a baby who hadn't been born? Or did the baby Vanda eventually grow up and then die during labor twenty years or so later? In any event, the death of both Vandas is doubly lacerating. …