If This Is a Mans vivid, precisely told story keeps us aware of all the individual tragedies occurring amid the mass barbarity of the camps
While in Auschwitz, the exhausted and starving Primo Levi was not even granted the reprieve of a nights sleep. The hours of darkness were, he writes in If This Is a Man, long, laid on his narrow wooden bunk with his nose pressed up against the feet of a man whose own face he had never seen, forced to exchange sweats, smells and warmth under the same blanket. Those smells might well include slops. The watery soup the prisoners were fed tormented them at night, sending them in procession to a bucket. When this stinking vessel was filled, it had to be emptied about 20 times a night. Inevitably, with the shaking, writes Levi, some of the content overflows on our feet, so that however repugnant this duty may be, it is always preferable that we, and not our neighbour, be ordered to do it.
Many further pains feature in this chapter on our nights: the groans, the snores, the cries of terrified dreamers and the terrifying dreams themselves. It ends in the morning. There comes the command to get up, a hurricane of shouting and blows rained down on the prisoners, and a frantic scramble to make the beds and to get dressed without losing sight of the pitiful objects (such as rudimentary spoons and spare threads for sewing) that the prisoners need for survival. Finally, Levi tells us, he climbs down on to the floor, puts on his shoes, the sores on my feet reopen at once, and a new day begins.
Those days were even worse than the nights. Levi catalogues more horrors, humiliations, physical and moral agonies than I feel able to comprehend, even after a full nights sleep in a comfortable bed. I am one of the people Levi invokes in the poem that prefaces If This Is a Man:
Thanks to Levis precise and vivid writing, I have an idea of what it means to be deprived of that privilege. I have been shown how it feels like to live in constant fear for my life. I have been made to understand what it means to be exposed, naked, to the biting cold of Polish winter and the fierce wind of the Carpathians. I have also come to understand the need to take a spoon or any other precious object if a fellow prisoner has left it exposed to theft, because it may be vital to survival. I have seen the crude glare of the searchlight and the well-known profile of the gallows and bodies wriggling horribly on the end of the rope. I have if only for the time it took me to read about it joined the queue for soup, for shoes, for medical attention, to have my hair shaved off, to get the chance to take of all things a chemistry exam, to receive a ticket that could condemn me to immediate execution or give me a chance to postpone my death for another day.
Even in my safe warm house, I have come to some kind of understanding of what it may have been like to walk in Levis unmatched, broken wooden shoes. He may address readers as people removed from his experience at the start of the book, but he also brings us the gift of empathy. He does a remarkable job of helping us see what he went through, while asking us to consider if we might have endured against the odds. It would be all too easy to become one of the drowned, picked out for the chimney on the whim of a kapo, or to succumb to hunger, disease, overwork, to despair. It would have been just as easy to become a kapo, collaborating with the Nazis and betraying your fellow prisoners because it offered a way to survive? Perhaps also, if we had the kind of good fortune that the author ironically ascribes to himself in the first sentence of his preface, we might have been in a similar position to Levi himself?
But this sense of affinity can only go so far. I may feel brotherhood for Levi as I read, but the poisonous logic that put him in Auschwitz would also have kept me on the other side of the fence. And while he gives us a powerful sense of the universality of suffering, Levi always reminds us of the strange particularity of his situation. The story of If This Is a Man is a long chain of coincidences and strange events that sealed his fate. Also, many near random moments of for want of a better phrase good fortune that kept him alive to bear witness.
Lucky for us, too, that he was able to set so much down so eloquently. According to the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the idea that one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic appeared in the unpublished autobiography of Adolf Eichmann, one of key leaders of the Holocaust. Little needs to be said about the monstrous stupidity of that notion but it does serve as an indication of the importance If This Is a Man. Levi makes every one of those six million murders an individual tragedy, and so helps us to understand what each must have meant in terms of human suffering.
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