DANIEL R. SCHWARTZ: Primo Levi's memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, published in 1958, was originally published in 1947 without the "Canto of Ulysses" chapter. It originally appeared in English under the more accurate translation of the Italian title, quote, "If This is a Man," unquote. Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, 1963, The Periodic Table, 1975, Moments of Reprieve, 1979, The Drowned and the Saved, 1986-- a book published a year before his 1987 suicide-- all are memoirs but not novels.
For Levi, his months in the camps were what Conrad model refers to in Heart of Darkness as, quote, "the culminating point of my experience," unquote. The way in which the mind remembers and organizes experiences and how memory deploys language to make sense are the foci of Levi's work. In The Periodic Table, Levi writes, quote, "It seemed to me that I would be purified by recounting. By writing I found peace for a while and I felt myself anew again," unquote.
Levi's recurring theme is the therapeutic purifying function of language. He believes in language. In the camps, language had been reductive, destructive, and persecuting. But his narrating and witnessing language has the capacity to be vital. Quote, "So I realized that the German of the lager--" his term for the Holocaust prisons, "--skeletal howls, studied with obscenities and imprecations, was only vaguely related to the precise austere language of my chemistry books, or to the melodious refined German of Heinz poetry, that Clara, a classmate of mine, used to recite to me," unquote.
When he hears that Survival in Auschwitz will be translated into German in 1959, he writes, quote, "I had written the book in Italian for Italians, for my children, for those who did not know, for those who did not want to know, those who were not yet born, those who, willing or not, had assented to the offense. But its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded. Before they had been oppressors or indifferent spectators. Now they would be readers. I would corner them, tie them before a mirror. The hour would come to settle accounts, to put the cards on the table. Above all, the hour of colloquy," unquote.
His German translator did not understand the language of the camp. Quote, "Perforce, he did not know the degraded, often satanically ironic jargon of the concentration camps. I wanted that in the book, particularly in its German guise. Nothing should be lost of its harshness and the violence inflicted on the language which, for that matter, I had made an effort to reproduce as best as I could in my Italian original," unquote.
Language is the protagonist of Levi's books, the means by which he seizes light from darkness. For him it is the means of creation and understanding, the one antidote to chaos. His imprisonment in Auschwitz was all the worst because he didn't understand Yiddish, and had only a primitive ability to communicate, notwithstanding a specialized version of scientific German.
He writes of the loss of language experienced by those in the camps who did not know German or Yiddish. "We who not knowing German, were reduced to the condition of deaf mutes. In a way, if I may put it like this, that was spiritual rather than material. It was a barbaric jargon that one did not understand because that scorched one's mouth when one tried to speak it," unquote.
"Silence was the means of German control of the camps' terrible secrets. The purpose of the pitiful resurrections was to speak the secrets." Quote, "In the intentions of the insurgents, they were supposed to achieve another more concrete result, to bring the terrifying secret of the massacre to the attention of the free world. Indeed those few whose enterprise were successful and who after many depleting vicissitudes has access to the organs of information did speak.
But as I mentioned in my introduction, they were almost never listened to or believed. Uncomfortable truth traveled with difficulty," unquote. The Drowned and the Saved. Silence was enforced by what Levi calls, quote, "Useless Violence," unquote, in the chapter of that name in The Drowned and the Saved.
Levi's memoirs focus on the moment when [INAUDIBLE] Ezra [INAUDIBLE] puts it, "Prisoner 174517 begins to rediscover his humanity, to combat by the powers of imagination in analogy the absurdity of his condition," unquote. Levi is a witness. His [INAUDIBLE] is telling.
Levi is conscious of memory as a protagonist giving shape, but also of the role of imagination in his writing. Quote, "It is possible that the distance and time has accentuated the tendency to round out the facts or heighten the colors. This tendency or temptation is an integral part of writing. Without it, one does not write stories, but rather accounts," unquote. That's from Moments of Reprieve.
Levi is conscious of how memory enables him to give shape to the past, and writing enables him to give words to that shape. Let us recall some basic historical background. While Italy had racial laws, it was only after the fall of Mussolini and the German occupation of Northern Italy, that Jews were deported from Italy.
In late 1943, after being arrested while fighting with Partisans, Levi is deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. He spends 10 months in Auschwitz. Because of his training as a chemist he is spared from the gas chambers.
Levi is assigned to a synthetic rubber plant at Buna, a plant that never produced any synthetic rubber, where he learns how to steal and connive. Quote, "I was reliving-- me, a respectable little university graduate-- the involution, evolution of a famous respectable dog, a Victorian Darwinian dog who is deported and becomes a [INAUDIBLE] in order to live in his Klondike lager, the great buck of the call of the wild.
I stole like him and like the foxes at every favorable opportunity, but with sly cunning and without exposing myself," unquote. The Periodic Table. To his retrospective horror, Levi recalls from a civilized university student to a savage whose only concern was self-survival. Levi obsessively focuses on the search for food.
And he describes the tricks and ruses necessary to procure food in detail. As if to remind his comfortable readers of the difference between the lager-- his term for the concentration camp-- life, and our comfortable life in which food is taken for granted, he writes of his daily struggles with the pervasive condition of hunger and how the prisoners think and talk about food constantly. Auschwitz deprived Levi not only of clothes and food, but of the sense of belonging. To use a later metaphor in The Periodic Table, "to the affinity of human elements. That is the human periodic table."
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In this room we shall examine the relationship among memory, imagination, and telling of the Holocaust in specific examples of memoirs, diaries, novels, fables, and cartoons. Not only will we discuss the powerful narratives of witnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, but also important novels, fables and cartoons about the Holocaust. Our goal is to understand the diverse ways the Holocaust has been rendered and how those ways of telling have shaped our understanding of the events of the 1933-45 period in Europe.
This video is part 5 of 11 in the Imagining the Holocaust series.