The British critic John Gross, in reviewing Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in 1988, wrote: “The guards and the prisoners in the camps had at least one thing in common. Both groups knew that by the standards of the outside world, what they were taking part in was incredible. Even if someone lived to tell the tale, who was going to believe him?”
In later years, Levi said that he counted himself lucky to have been caught in 1944, because by then, although the daily selections for death were still in operation, the Germans were more concentrated on slave labor than on liquidation. What they never reduced their interest in, however, was the application of what Levi called “useless violence”: administering blows and curses for no reason; withholding food and drink for no reason; ordering prisoners to stand naked in the yard for no reason (“in the blue and icy…dawn…all our clothing in our hands”). At first, Levi writes, “It was so new and senseless that we felt no pain…. Only a profound amazement: how can one hit a man without anger?”
Why? is the question that the 24-year-old Primo—a child of the Enlightenment, committed to the rule of reason—kept asking himself. Why, when the Germans had already determined on mass murder, was it necessary to torment the prisoners every hour that they lived? He knew that “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man,” but the Primo Levi who had trembled before women now stood remarkably alert before the Nazis, and was becoming a man who would spend the rest of his life absorbed by an experience for which there would never be enough of the right words.
Once in the camp, Levi quickly realized that what he was witnessing was the phenomenon of men having to reduce other men to the subhuman so that they could go on killing without themselves becoming deranged; and analogously, what it meant, as a prisoner, to fight (or seek) derangement while waiting to be killed. Then he realized there was more to it than that—much more. The situation was that of the boy pulling the wings off a fly in order to see how it was put together; the Nazis were the boy, the Jews the fly, and Auschwitz the “laboratory” of dissection. Why one set of human beings had brought themselves to treat another set of human beings thus was something he could not explain, but how it was being done he found he could—in incidents both dramatic and homely—describe brilliantly.
In a single famous incident in his memoir If This Is a Man (published in English as Survival in Auschwitz in 1959), Levi writes that he was brought before an SS officer who was to decide whether he could be put to work as a chemist in the Auschwitz rubber factory. The officer is sitting at his desk, writing, when Levi is admitted to his office:
When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.
From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. [W]hen I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.
Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.
After his meeting with Dr. Pannwitz, Levi is taken back to his barrack by Alex the Kapo. Alex reaches out for a cable running along the wintry road to steady himself as he walks. When he takes his hand away, it is blackened by grease. “Without hatred and without sneering,” Levi writes, “Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.”
The German plan to reduce the Jews to a state of animal cunning succeeded to a frightening degree. Levi shuddered both during and after the war at the often astonishing behavior of his fellow prisoners. Once, after what proved to be the final selection for the gas chamber, a man in his hut fell to his knees thanking God out loud that he had not been chosen, even though a man lying in the bunk above him had been. Of this incident, Levi wrote, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”
Nonetheless, Levi could understand the Kuhns all around him: “In the Lager…the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone…. If [one] vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one’s interest that there will be one more” of the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection, taking up space.
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