There are less than two weeks to go until I meet the other members of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma in Orvieto, Italy, and I can feel our excitement pulsing through introductory emails, chats and questions about logistics.
As part of our preparations, we have assigned readings. There is a list of close to 30 scholarly articles of which eight are strongly suggested and a number of books.
Today I finished Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, his classic memoir and the second of the four books on the list.
A 25-year-old chemist who was involved in the anti-Fascist movement in Italy, Levi was captured and sent to Auschwitz in late 1943, where he stayed for the remainder of the war.
While I have read and written before about Elie Wiesel’s Night, I had never before read Levi’s account of his experiences.
It is a bitter tale, drenched and coated in pain, hunger, cold and a gradual dehumanization that turns people into Haftlinge, or prisoners, only concerned with their own existence, and, at times, barely that.
Levi writes in spare precise prose, describing the selections that lead to the murder of ever greater numbers of prisoners, the endless lengths prisoners must go to ensure that they keep whatever meager possessions they have, the constant vigilant calculations people make to try to boost their meager chances of emerging alive, and their increasingly degraded state.
Others have written about the musselman, the German word for “Muslim.” In this context, the term was used to describe people who are spiritually dead before their bodies are gone. Levi writes in depth about the psychology of the musselmanner and those struggling to survive in his chapter, The Drowned and the Saved.
He shows repeatedly the role fortune plays in people making it through alive and the high price they pay for their survival. In one of the most haunting scenes, he describes the temporary joy of having a zinc pot being transmuted into shame as one of the last resisters to Nazi rule is hanged while Levi and the other prisoners are forced to walk by the still convulsing body.
“I am the last,” the man cries out, and Levi realizes that in some sense he is right, that the Germans and their Polish henchmen have stripped from the prisoners the will to resist or even cast a glance askance at what has happened.
The difference between the worlds of normal life and the world of the camp is a theme that courses throughout the book from its beginning pages.
The page before the first chapter contains the following poem Shema:
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
The images and experience Levi had never left him, propelling him to write about his return to Italy, about Jews who fought back, and, tragically, in 1987 to his suicide.
Fortunately, the work he has left behind is a grim reminder of people’s capacity for evil, the combination of endurance, will, resourcefulness and luck that led to a small number of people surviving, and the horrible wounds such atrocities inflict on the victims and humanity as a whole.