Primo Levi was a rare kind of man. A Jewish Italian chemist and writer, he was born in Turin, northern Italy, in 1919, survived Auschwitz and committed suicide 30 years ago. His fall over the banister of a staircase on the fourth floor of the building housing his apartment, at the age of 67, occurred in peacetime to a man who witnessed what no human eyes should behold.
What was seen in Nazi death camps could never be unseen; the Shoah offers the extraordinary illustration of civilisation wrenched off its hinges, of modernity in extremis. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Levi’s death and the 70th one of his hugely important book, If This Is a Man.
First translated into English by Stuart Woolf in 1959, If This Is a Man is Levi’s memoir of his wartime arrest and imprisonment in Auschwitz during the Shoah (Holocaust), that central nightmare of World War II. It appeared in the author’s original Italian as Se questo è un uomo in 1947. (The title of the American edition is Survival in Auschwitz).
On December 13 1943, when he was 24, Levi was arrested as part of an anti-fascist resistance movement. He was initially sent to an Italian detention camp in Fóssoli, near Modena, in late January 1944, at which time about 150 Italian Jews were in the camp, their number subsequently rising to 650. On the morning of February 21 1944, Levi and others learned that the Jews would be leaving for another destination the next day.
“All the Jews, without exception,” emphasises Levi. “Even the children, even the old, even the ill. Our destination? Nobody knew. We should be prepared for a fortnight of travel. For every person missing at the roll-call, 10 would be shot.”
The atmosphere in the camp was overwhelmed by fear, despair and resignation. Levi recalls: “Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.”
They got on to buses bound for the station at Carpi, where a transport train and an escort were waiting. The 650 — men, women and children — occupied 12 goods wagons and found out their destination: Auschwitz — in Nazi-occupied Poland.
At the end of the four-day journey, the passengers were divided into two groups. One comprised fit men, the other consisted of women, children and old men.
What was known was “that of our convoy, no more than 96 men and 29 women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than 500 in number, not one was living two days later”.
As Levi recalls: “Those who, by chance, climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber.
“This is the reason why three-year-old Emilia died: the historical necessity of killing the children of Jews was self-demonstrative to the Germans.”
Those bound for the death camp were taken there by lorry, a 20-minute journey. The entrance to the camp had above it a sign whose memory, Levi admits, haunted his dreams: Arbeit macht frei — work sets you free.
Levi’s prison-house for 11 months would be an arbeitslager, a labour camp, called Monowitz-Buna (so named because prisoners there worked in a factory to produce Buna, a kind of synthetic rubber). Most of the prisoners were Jews, but there were also thousands of Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, several other nationalities, as well as homosexual and disabled people. Levi and his fellow prisoners lived in wooden huts in a square surrounded by two fences of barbed wire, one with a high-tension current.
In the camp, the prisoners, who would have had nothing to drink for four days, were made to undress, take off their shoes, have their heads shaved and left to shiver or tremble from freezing temperatures. They would also be deprived of their names and toothbrushes. They would be dressed in striped clothing with red and yellow Star of David badges. They were reduced to numbers rather than names. Levi’s was 174517.
As a result of the appalling conditions of life in the camps from beatings and blows to hunger, loneliness and the cold Levi and the other prisoners were reduced to skeletal frames with swollen ankles, hollowed eyes, wounded feet, thinning necks, pale flesh and swollen cheeks.
The death camp was as close to hell on earth as it is possible to imagine, like something out of the Inferno by Dante, whom Levi admired and whose poetry he recalled and recited to another prisoner.
Prisoners were slave labour for German companies, leaving the camp every morning and returning every evening, both times in squads. The work was usually outside or in the open. It was hard, especially in rain and snow, and could be on farms or construction projects, or in coal mines or factories.
There was also a Special Works Unit, otherwise called the Sonderkommando, comprising Jewish prisoners, stationed in the crematoria at the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau or, in Levi’s words, “attached to the gas chambers and the ovens’’. Their work was to help dispose of the corpses of those who had been exterminated in the gas chambers … before they themselves were exterminated.
Levi remembers how he and his best friend in the camp, Alberto, became racked with guilt and shame because they could do nothing to save the life of a man hanged before their eyes for his part in blowing up a crematorium in Birkenau, the man’s dying words — “Kameraden, ich bin der Letzte!” (Comrades, I am the last one!) — ringing in the ears of the Germans and assembled prisoners.
Levi’s usefulness as a chemist, and his subsequent illness, may have enhanced his survival. Working (from November 1944) as an assistant in Buna Werke, a chemical laboratory under the auspices of the German chemical and pharmaceutical company IG Farben, Levi worked indoors, avoiding the winter cold.
He fell ill with scarlet fever and was admitted to the concentration camp’s sanatorium, missing the death march hastily organised by the Nazis, in desperate retreat from the Soviet’s Red Army that would liberate Auschwitz on January 27 1945.
One person who offered kindness and compassion to Levi was Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian mason “volunteer worker”, a slave labourer, for the Reich.
As Levi recalls in If This Is a Man: “[A]n Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward.
“I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.
“But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”
Perrone died of tuberculosis in 1952. Levi honoured his memory by naming his daughter, Lisa Lorenza, and son, Renzo, after him.
Of the 650 taken to Auschwitz, Levi was one of only three who survived.
If This Is a Man is a work that memorialises not only human inhumanity, but also the extraordinary capacity of humanity to endure the most unimaginable horror wrought by its kind. It is a work of great dignity and delicacy, sensitivity and subtlety, truth and tenderness, heart and humanity.
Idowu Omoyele is a student of the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town.