Rereading Primo Levi

Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at 70 was published in the Guardian. Philippe Sands explores the lessons of Levi’s humanity-filled holocaust memoir: was 19 when I first read If This Is a Man, and the book filled a gap created by the shadows cast across an otherwise happy childhood home by Auschwitz and Treblinka: my maternal grandparents, rare survivors of the horrors, never talked about their experiences or those who were disappeared, and in this way Levi’s account spoke directly, and personally, offering a fuller sense of matters for which words were not permitted.

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His has not been the only such book – there are others, including more recent works such as Thomas Buergenthal’s A Lucky Child, Göran Rosenberg’s A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, and Marceline Loridan-Ivans’s But You Did Not Come Back – but it was the first. He was a messenger of detail, allowing me to see and feel matters of dread and horror: waiting for a deportation order; travelling in a cattle cart by train; descending a ramp for selection; imagining what it must be like to know you are about to be gassed and cremated; struggling for survival surrounded by people you love and hate.

Levi’s voice was especially affecting, so clear, firm and gentle, yet humane and apparently untouched by anger, bitterness or self-pity. If This Is a Man is miraculous, finding the human in every individual who traverses its pages, whether a Häftling (prisoner) or Muselmann (“the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection”), a kapo or a guard.

Levi, a 23-year old chemist, was arrested in December 1943 and transported to Auschwitz in February 1944. There he remained until the camp was liberated on 27 January 1945. He arrived back home in Turin in October, unrecognisable to the concierge who had seen him only a couple of years earlier. This and more I learned from Ian Thomson’s nuanced biography, Primo Levi, which enriches our understanding of the author. On Levi’s return, stories were told and notes prepared, as he went back to work at a paint factory. By February 1946, he had completed a first draft about the last 10 days of his time in the camp, a section that would come to be the book’s last chapter, written “in furious haste”. Ten months later, there was a complete text, worked on “with love and rage”, reflecting a vow “never to forget”.

Extracts appeared in a local newspaper in March 1947. The full book was published on 11 October, by Franco Antonicelli’s small publishing house Francesco de Silva, with a print run of 2,500. The working title was Sul Fondo (In the Abyss), later changed to The Drowned and the Saved. The final title was taken from a poem by Levi that opens the book. Although it had been rejected by numerous publishers, including Einaudi – writers Cesare Pavese and Natalia Ginzburg, who had roles at the firm, thought it too early for such an account – reviews were generally positive. Italo Calvino hailed the work as “magnificent”, yet sales were poor (600 copies in a Florence warehouse were lost in the great flood of 1966). Five years later, it was out of print and Levi was working as a chemist, hopes of becoming a full-time writer frustrated.

In June 1958, Einaudi agreed to republish. Levi introduced alterations, including a new opening sentence, although none to distort, as he put it, the book’s “overall shape”. Attentive readers would have discovered new characters, such as three-year-old Emilia, gassed after being washed by her parents with the “tepid engine water [drawn] from the engine that was dragging us all to death”. The reviews were more numerous and even more positive, and the larger print run quickly sold out. By now, translations were appearing, at first in Argentina, in Spanish, then Germany and France (both in 1961), eventually an English-language edition in the US, and a translation by Stuart Woolf distributed in the UK by André Deutsch. A Hebrew translation had to wait until 1988, four decades after publication and a year after Levi’s death. There were stage productions and well-received adaptations for radio, including the BBC (with Anthony Quayle) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Republication transformed Levi’s renown as a writer, although the burn was slower in Britain and America. From Thomson’s biography it seems that the book would be a constant in defining Levi, running as a dark golden thread through the rest of his life. Many of those who appeared in the book, imperfectly anonymised, would re-enter his life. Some he loved, such as Jean Samuel (subject of the Canto of Ulysses chapter, written almost entirely in the course of a single lunch break), with whom he would remain in frequent contact. “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it,” Levi told his friend, signing some letters with “174517”, the number tattooed on his arm. Others he disliked, such as the French prisoner Paul Steinberg, who was horrified by his depiction in the book (“Henri”, as he is renamed, has “the delicate and subtly perverse body and face of Sodoma’s San Sebastián”, – “inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the Serpent in Genesis”). Yet others offered a greater anxiety, such as Ferdinand Meyer, a German scientist who oversaw Levi’s work at Auschwitz: letters were exchanged, but Levi was never able to agree to meet.

When Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature at the Southbank Centre in London, invited the novelist AL Kennedy and me to co-curate a public reading of Levi’s account of his life at Auschwitz, we seized the chance. The reading, to mark the 70th anniversary of the book’s publication in Italy, offers an occasion to explore the connection between then and now. “Books are the opposite of death and silence, and Levi was literally writing against death in its teeth,” Kennedy explains, “so he’s all the more precious in our strange and hate-filled times.” My own interest is personal, of respect for a writer who deeply informed my views of human nature, power and the world.

Nina Brazier, who directs the forthcoming reading, explains that what touches her most is that Levi “manages to keep his heart throughout, removing all sense of bitterness, and he does so to an extraordinary extent, one that is almost unbelievable”.

A public reading offers a collective connection to his account, yet also one that is experienced individually. Kennedy crystallises what it means for 1,000 or more people to share a space for several hours to hear the words of a humanity-filled book spoken aloud, an experience that offers “a spell to drive back the dark”. “Listening for long periods to live voices lighting up fierce and urgent and necessary words is always a remarkable thing,” she says. “And it’s beautiful to be doing this at the Southbank Centre – somewhere partly built by postwar refugees, a place that welcomes everyone and that began as a physical testament to hope in the years after our first defeat of fascism.”

Each of our 15 readers – like each member of the audience – will arrive with baggage of their own. We the readers are writers and journalists, musicians and lawyers, actors, activists and a chemist. Among us are Susan Pollack and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, both of whom were at Auschwitz while Levi was there (Anita will be joined by her son Raphael and grandson Simon, who will offer short musical interludes under the direction of Tomo Keller, leader of the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields, including pieces performed by the Mädchenorchester of Auschwitz, to which Anita belonged). Kemal Pervanic survived the terrible Omarska camp in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, an experience he describes in his book The Killing Days. Liliane Umubyeyi, who was 15 at the time, witnessed the killing of her family during the Rwanda genocide, in 1995.

Niklas Frank spent some of his childhood in Kraków, close enough to Auschwitz to smell the smoke. His father, Hans, was governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, Hitler’s personal representative. Patrick Lawrence’s grandfather presided over the Nuremberg tribunal and delivered the sentence that condemned Hans Frank to death by hanging. What would Sir Geoffrey Lawrence have thought, I wondered, if he had read Levi’s account of the doomed man who is hanged towards the close of his book, as a band plays, crying out his final words? “Comrades, I am the last one.

In the face of horror and oppression, Levi offers the possibility that humans will not easily – or completely – be demolished. That such a sentiment might not endure was brought into focus by the manner of his death, in 1987, apparently at his own hand – falling into the stairwell of his apartment building. Have his books been read by a British prime minister who castigates those who feel a connection to the idea of global humanity as “citizens of nowhere”? Or by a US president who wants to prevent human beings from entering his country simply because they are nationals of Somalia or Yemen or other countries deemed to be undesirable?

Levi knew where such sentiments lead. “I do not comprehend,” he wrote in the preface to the first German edition of If This Is a Man, “I cannot tolerate – that a man be judged not for what he is, but for the group into which he happens to belong.” His warnings are clear. “Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that every stranger is an enemy,” he continued in the preface to the English edition. It is a privilege to speak Primo Levi’s words, and to read them, and to hear them. For their experience, their hope and humanity.

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