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Soul Survivor of Auschwitz | The Nation

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Soul Survivor of Auschwitz

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Anissimov gives Steinberg more trust and attention than he deserves by placing his assumptions and recollections, despite having made them decades after the events, on the same level as those of Levi, which were recorded within a year or so after they took place. She recalls the fact that a German scientist who was Levi's superior in the chemical laboratory wrote to Levi after the war and asked him for news of those companions mentioned in Survival in Auschwitz. He did not, however, ask about Steinberg, who claimed to have worked in the same lab. When Anissimov brought up this discrepancy with Steinberg, he inexplicably claimed not to have remembered Levi being in the lab at all. Instead of simply rejecting Steinberg's assertion (made all the less credible by Levi's detailed description of how he managed to be one of three inmates selected to work in the science lab, which he credited with saving his life) she concludes: "It is a riddle that is bound to remain unsolved." Most readers of Levi would differ, resolving that no such riddle exists and fully understanding Levi's desire never to see "Henri" again.

About the Author

Gabriel Motola
Gabriel Motola teaches literature and film of the Holocaust at The New School.

More troubling, however, than Anissimov's willingness to accept at face value assertions made by such a witness is her failure to show how the artist developed from the constitutive elements that made the man: his cherished Italian heritage--social, cultural and linguistic; his Auschwitz experience; his agnosticism in conflict with--and his accommodation to--his Jewishness; his philosophical and ethical moorings; his abiding love of and profound indebtedness to science.

Although Levi's love of his Italian heritage and culture is everywhere evident in his writing, nowhere is it more dramatically and intensely revealed than in Survival in Auschwitz. Levi depicts himself in the crucial scene trying to recall some lines from Dante's Inferno. His ultimate success in doing so constitutes the essential reminder that despite the brutalization and humiliation he witnessed and suffered, he is--within the tradition of his culture--still a man.

If Anissimov fails to give proper due to Levi's Italian heritage in his development as a man of letters, she evidences another serious critical lapse by suggesting that Levi's agnosticism, a clear result of his scientific rationalism, "was subverted by his fondness for quoting from the Bible." In fact, Levi states that he wrote The Periodic Table, the rich complexity of which does not get the full attention it deserves from Anissimov, at the end of his career to express his gratitude to the profession to which he owed so much. The masterful book reveals Levi to be a writer who, in presenting the interrelated complexities of heritage, society and profession, bridges the worlds of art and science while probing the political and ethical currents of our age.

There are times, however, when Anissimov's interviews and correspondences with Levi's friends and associates pay off. For instance, she reproduces an important speech, "The Camp and Memory," that Levi gave at a conference; one of the attendees gave it to her. And her discussion of the German translation of Survival in Auschwitz is both insightful and informative, detailing Levi's active engagement with the translator, a German who fought against the Nazis in Italy. The German translation was particularly significant to Levi, inasmuch as he had written the work not only to get the poisons out of himself but also to reveal to the Germans the truth of this grotesque chapter in their history. A particularly glaring and troubling omission, however, in the list of those interviewed is Levi's immediate family. Anissimov mentions in a cryptic footnote at the end of her book that Levi's widow has, in effect, denied access to a series of important interviews with Levi that are in the possession of his official biographer. Anissimov doesn't cite reasons for the refusal, or state why his widow and children apparently refused to be interviewed by her.

In the concluding essay of Other People's Trades, a collection of short pieces he wrote for La Stampa over a thirty-year period, Levi, in a mix of humor and seriousness, offers advice to a would-be writer: "After ninety years of psychoanalysis, and successful or failed attempts to pour the unconscious directly onto the page, I have an acute need for clarity and rationality.... Writing means laying oneself bare.... Oh, I forgot to tell you that, in order to write, one must have something to write."

However playfully Primo Levi presents his injunction, it has to be taken seriously. Clarity and rationality must be maintained by the biographer as well, not only in laying bare Levi's self but also in peeling away the textured layers of meaning his works encompass. However well-intentioned, Anissimov's biography does not adequately reveal the extraordinary complexity and depth of the life and work of the man.

During my conversation with Levi in Turin, I asked why he chose to become a chemist. "What I was looking for was a comprehension of the universal meaning--of the stars, of the moon, of the microbes, of the animals, plants, chemistry and so on. Yes, to have something under my fingers which could be checked if true or false. Verified, verified," he said. Unfortunately, even the profound awareness he developed of the affinity of all elements was not enough to save him from the Auschwitz demons that, many decades later, drove him to his death.

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