By Primo Levi, with Leonardo De Benedetti
Edited by Robert S. C. Gordon
Verso, 128 pages, $17.95.
Although best known for his seminal work, “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi’s searing memoir was actually his second attempt to grapple with the enormity of Nazi extermination camps. After the Auschwitz system of camps was discovered by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945, Levi and another Turinese Jew, Leonardo De Benedetti, a 46-year-old medical doctor, were charged by Soviet authorities to draft a report on the sanitary and medical organization of Auschwitz. The Russians’ motives — notwithstanding their chaotic but essentially humane portrait in Levi’s second memoir, “The Truce” — were not entirely altruistic: They wished to document the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime not just for posterity but also for propaganda purposes.
Cambridge University’s Robert Gordon, a prolific writer on Levi’s significance, has edited what he rightly calls the “ur-document of that exceptional voice of reason,” the “Auschwitz Report.” For historians, the report is an invaluable primary source; for readers struggling to make sense of the Holocaust, it is much more. It is a disturbing look into the psychology and pathology of the concentration camp universe by two men who struggled not only to survive its conditions but to fathom its raison d’être, as well.
Levi was born July 31, 1919, into a highly assimilated and cultured bourgeois Jewish family in Turin, Italy. He spoke no Hebrew until late in life, did not observe the dietary laws and only occasionally visited the Moorish-style synagogue in his native city on the High Holy Days. Like most Italian Jews, he was shocked when the fascist regime published a “Manifesto of the Racial Scientists” in the summer of 1938. The following autumn, the regime promulgated a series of antisemitic laws patterned on the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. When, in September 1943, Italy switched sides during World War II and found itself occupied by the Allies in the South and the Nazis in the rest of the country, Levi threw in his lot with a left-wing anti-fascist movement, the Action Party. Before firing a shot, he was captured and interned in Italy. In February 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. (Of the 650 men, women and children on his transport, only 24 survived.) He survived through a fortuitous combination of his extensive knowledge of chemistry, the humanity of a precious few other prisoners and simple luck. His memoir of life in the extermination camp, “Survival in Auschwitz” (“If This Is a Man”), has claimed its rightful place among the masterpieces of Holocaust literature.
Although it can be argued that the Holocaust was the central event of our time, Levi did not want to be known as a “Holocaust writer”; he aspired to the simple title of “writer” without any adjective (“Holocaust,” “Italian” or “Jewish”). Besides his Holocaust masterpieces, Levi wrote poetry, essays, science fiction and a novel concerning Jewish partisans in World War II. In addition, although he was painfully shy and adamant about protecting his privacy, Levi graciously granted hundreds of interviews, including two eloquent conversations with Tullio Regge (the physicist) and Ferdinando Camon (a writer). For Levi was too modest, at least publicly. His testimony was not only, as he stated, “to bear witness,” but also to search for an ethical line of conduct and moral reasoning based on classical humanism but cognizant of humanity’s changed moral status after Auschwitz. He once revealed to an interviewer, “I am a centaur,” insisting that his role as a scientist, chemist and technician was complementary and not contradictory to his status as a writer and humanist. As he remarked in an interview with the American writer Philip Roth: “In my own way, I have remained an impurity, an anomaly, but now for reasons other than before: not especially as a Jew but as an Auschwitz survivor and an outsider-writer, coming not from the literary or university establishment but from the industrial world.”
In an earlier work, “Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics,” Gordon demonstrated how Levi’s writings constitute a complete ethical system based on “ordinary virtues.” These are in contrast to the “heroic” virtues of heroism, courage and strength as traditionally conceived, and can be collectively considered a complete ethical system for the post-Auschwitz moral universe that we now occupy. We can now perhaps get a glimpse of the origins of Levi’s “ordinary virtues” in “Auschwitz Report.” The text first appeared in Italian in a prominent medical journal, Minerva Medica, in November 1946. It is, Gordon writes, “a disturbing and compelling document, full of unexpected, often absurd detail and unfamiliar perspectives.”
Nor should we forget that at the same time that Levi and De Benedetti were reworking the report, Levi was secretly writing “Survival in Auschwitz” (similar in tone to the “Report”) and penning searing poetry that laid bare his pain and trauma. Gordon, who will be the keynote speaker at a two-day international conference at Hofstra University in April to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Levi’s death, perceptively notes that the report is no mere dry scientific description: Rather, it has captured the essence of the extermination camp universe, reduced to its core of “physiology and pathology.”
Judiciously translated by Judith Woolf, who notes that “the language of medicine breaks down when confronted with the deliberate squalor and carelessly mocking brutality of what passed for medical services,” the “Report” leaves us to contemplate how science and reason could be so perverted and yet can once again, after the fall, be called upon to guide us.
Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history and director of the forthcoming conference on Primo Levi at Hofstra University. He is the editor of “The Most Ancient of Minorities: The Jews of Italy” (Greenwood Press, 2002) as well as “The Legacy of Primo Levi” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).