Inspired by the recent talk given by Carole Angier as part of the Lucrezia Zaina Lecture Series, School of the Arts student, Heather Christian, attempts to gain a greater understanding of the enigma that is Primo Levi:
“Primo Levi has been heralded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. A survivor of the Holocaust, his writing provides a revealing insight into the most infamous genocide in history.
But what is it about his writing that stands the test of time and what is it about Primo Levi that makes him an ageless icon?
Primo Levi was born in Italy in 1919 into a liberal Jewish family when, aged just 24, he was transported to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp; a place where Levi was to spend eleven long months of his life.
Barely surviving the horrors of the camp, Levi later looked back on this unimaginable experience and was inspired to write his most well-known book, If This Is A Man, which details one of the most harrowing and disturbing events in history.
Levi wrote in his book “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man” before going on to tell individual stories about everyday life in the Nazi concentration camp. In one such story he describes how, on the brink of dehydration, he broke off an icicle to quench his thirst; it was immediately snatched out of his hand by an SS guard. When Levi simply asked the guard “why?” he was coldly answered with “there is no why here”.
Simple snapshots like this summarise the indifferent cruelty of the Holocaust just as much as photographs of corpses or mountains of shoes. By focusing on these everyday anecdotes rather than the scale of the Holocaust, Levi constantly reminds us that the atrocity was not the result of some inexorable force of hatred, but was perpetrated by humans.
Dr David Hill, a lecturer in Digital Communication and Culture and a fan of Levi’s writing, expands on this point: “It’s all too easy to think of the Holocaust as an inhuman act but Levi shows us that the perpetrators were all too human, and, more importantly, that the process of dehumanisation was one that they wrought on themselves and not on their victims.
“Levi forces us to confront the unimaginable by providing us with the language to understand it”.
What marks Levi out from others then, is the way his writing doesn’t simply delve into describing the horrors of the Holocaust, but instead he reminds us of our humanity and the capability of human nature; both the good and the bad. But also of the complexity of the human experience; ecstasy, joy, love, despair, sorrow, loss – all these emotions are expressed so articulately in his account.
Levi is also unique in that he does not seek to blame or demonise those responsible for putting him and his fellow prisoners into such a hellish situation and perpetrating such monstrous crimes. His tone is almost matter-of-fact and his focus is on how the human spirit can adapt and survive pathological cruelty. In seeking to understand rather than condemn the Holocaust, Levi becomes not only an iconic writer of the 20th century but also for future generations.
Carole Angier, who recently gave a talk on Primo Levi elaborates: “What makes Primo Levi a 20th century icon? I suppose especially in the current world circumstances I’d say: His determination, even in the face of extreme suffering, to take the long, impartial view, and to insist on understanding over anger, and justice over revenge.”
Levi’s deepest fear also makes him extremely relevant to the modern age. Throughout his time at Auschwitz he was worried that even if he survived, nobody would believe what he had been through or acknowledge the countless victims.
With Holocaust denial seemingly on the rise in recent years, Levi’s fears seem to be coming true. This makes his writings and his story more important than ever. The further we move from the Holocaust, the more precarious its memory becomes and the more important it is to remember.
Dr Hill concludes: “Remembering the work of Levi is inseparable from the important task of remembering the Holocaust – its victims and the mechanisms by which it was enacted – because he provides such provocative eyewitness accounts to a crime that was intended to be forgotten”.
Essentially, Levi reminds us it is crucial not just to remember but to understand, lest the darkest chapter of history repeat itself.”
By Heather Christian