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Lawrence N. Powell | The Nation

Lawrence N. Powell

Author Bios

Lawrence N. Powell

Lawrence N. Powell
is a professor of history at Tulane University. His latest book is
Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke's
Louisiana
(North Carolina).

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There is a brief but arresting passage in Primo
Levi's 1947 classic memoir Survival in Auschwitz (originally
titled If This Is a Man) about a French Jewish inmate he
identifies simply as "Henri." Levi, a chemist and an Italian Jew who
had been shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, dissected with Darwinian
precision

and Dantean lyricism the human types who
inhabited Hitler's most lethal death camp. If the cast is all too
familiar--SS men and their prisoner-lackeys; Jewish inmates speaking
the Babel of a dozen tongues; the "drowned" and the "saved," Levi's
terms for victims and survivors--the individual portraitures rise to
the level of characters in literature.

One of the more
memorable personages was this Henri, said to be 22 at the time, with
a soul encased in armor. Fluent in four languages, Henri had the
"delicate and subtly perverse body and face" of one of those
sado-erotic, arrow-pierced figures you see in Italian Renaissance
paintings. Few were his equal at "organizing," camp slang for
stealing and trading. None had more patrons and protectors throughout
the camp. Henri resembles nothing so much as a postmodern trickster
in his facility at conjuring power out of powerlessness. But Levi,
always the moralist and stern judge, preferred similes of seduction
when characterizing Henri, likening him in one place to a wasp that
paralyzes its prey by eliciting their pity, comparing him in another
to the biblical serpent.

It is not that Levi disliked
talking to his fellow Häftling; they worked together in a
chemistry lab operated by the German industrial giant I.G. Farben in
Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III. Henri was engaging. He was
intelligent and civilized. Yet Levi never came away from their
encounters without tasting defeat. The only time Henri paid him
notice was when Levi and his bunkmate showed they could "organize"
like veteran prisoners, whose ability to engross the scarce supply of
black-market rations spelled fewer calories and shorter life spans
for the next shipment of fresh prisoners.

"I know that
Henri is living today," Levi concluded. "I would give much to know
his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again." It's a
telling admission. Of all the Auschwitz prisoners memorialized by
Levi, none drew greater disapproval from him than Henri. It was as
though the young Frenchman was his doppelgänger, symbolizing by
his very urbanity the ethical compromises Levi himself had been
forced to make, with their bitter aftertaste of guilt and remorse.
You can't help suspecting Levi had Henri in mind when he wrote in
The Drowned and the Saved: "The worst survived--that is, the
fittest; the best all died."

It just so happens that Henri,
whose real name was Paul Steinberg, did survive, as Levi surmised,
returning to Paris after the war, where he raised a family and
pursued a business career. And his memoir, Speak You Also,
written five decades after the fact and almost ten years following
Levi's still mysterious death in 1987 (and beautifully translated
from the French last year) is a barely concealed attempt to win
clemency in the jury's eyes. Levi's indictment casts a long shadow
across the pages of this book. Was I cold and calculating prior to
deportation? Steinberg wonders. Or did the sheer awfulness of
Auschwitz make me this way?

Steinberg doesn't tackle these
questions in the world-must-know tone you find in a lot of recent
survivor accounts. He writes with self-deprecatory irony and mordant
wit, occasionally revealing the cynicism that bothered Levi.
Auschwitz was a "boarding school," and Steinberg inventories the
"invisible resources" that allowed him eventually to graduate. There
was his aforementioned fluency in several languages, especially
German (he was born in Berlin), and the physical and psychological
resilience of youth (he was actually only 18 years old when Levi met
him). There was his history of displacement and a drab home life.
Before being rounded up in Paris and deported to Auschwitz in 1943,
Steinberg lived the sporting life, stealing money from his Bolshevik
father's pockets to bet at Paris tracks. He barely got by in school.
An uncircumcised Jew, he lacked anchorage in religious tradition. But
these were advantages in retrospect, he says. A stable and loving
family would have ill equipped him for his wartime travails. Looking
back from the vantage point of fifty years, he now sees that he
possessed "an intuitive and acute understanding of that parallel
universe in which we had been stranded. I figured out its antilogic,
its laws."

Before he could put that knowledge to use, he
had to withstand multiple assaults on his physical well-being: the
melting away of his flesh and the loosening of his teeth, the
liquefying of his guts due to chronic dysentery. In quick order came
hepatitis, scabies and ulcerating leg sores. Roll call in the bitter
cold and backbreaking work, sustained only by starvation rations,
nearly reduced him to a "muselmann," one of those walking ghosts
everyone knew was destined for the smokestacks. Marching back from
work to the tune of the camp band, Steinberg would jam his hand
between his buttocks, "eyes right and sphincter tight," to hold back
the diarrhea. There is a gallows humor in Steinberg that you seldom
find in Levi.

It is the climb back from degradation,
however, what Steinberg calls his evolution into "extermination-camp
man," that gives Speak You Also its special quality. In chaste
language, Steinberg anatomizes how he practiced the arts of
psychological seduction, searching out the weaknesses of the powerful
brutes who ruled the camps as Kapos, inmates, mostly from the
criminal class, whom the SS empowered to carry out their orders. One
Kapo might be susceptible to flattery, another possessed "a repressed
paternal instinct." Steinberg became very close to the powerful
dwarf, a former acrobat and professional pimp, who had half-strangled
Levi. He won over a hulking camp boss with a box of delicacies
received in the mail. Stroking the tiger's whiskers, to use his own
metaphor, entailed grave risk. The veteran prisoners were
psychologically unstable, friendly one day, violent the
next.

And then there is the matter of seduction plain and
simple. Camp homosexuality pervades this book. Steinberg admits it
was rampant, and that old-timers (the very types he so assiduously
courted) were always on the lookout for young flesh. He himself
denies ever having been intimate with another man, but the demurral
is scarcely persuasive, what with allusions to his "whoring" and the
flusterings of "a two-hundred-pound virgin." Of course, what took
place in the camps says nothing about same-sex intimacy and
everything about sexual power, yet Steinberg skirts the issue. It's
the one false note in an otherwise unsparing
self-assessment.

All the while, Steinberg economized on
human feeling (save with a small coterie of friends). Why waste
sympathy on people who were just passing through? Even long after
liberation he was never able to show remorse in the face of death.
However, Auschwitz's greatest psychological blow was to his dignity.
"I lived and am still living in humiliation," he writes. While he
never yielded to hate, which would have been tantamount to
internalizing the norms of his oppressors, he did learn to repay
assaults on his dignity with icy contempt, and the disdainfulness
stayed with him after the war. Forever after Steinberg saw civilians
bifocally--as both the persons they were under normal circumstances
and the prisoners they might have become had fate ruled differently;
and he was often coolly dismissive.

This is an anguished
book, made all the more so by Steinberg's charting of his emotional
swings as he returns to that time and place. He becomes insomniacal,
his moods darken. He worries about what he remembers. Sensory
memories make the sores on his leg and the chill in his bones as
vivid as yesterday. So are the brutes and sadists, but not close
friends. The sole glorious deed that he performed--saving bread for a
dying inmate--is offset by a terrible memory of slapping another
dying Jew. "If only I could get rid of this memory, sweep it away
with my hand...," he writes. You can almost feel him relive the
original offense, which is how traumatic memory often manifests
itself.

And then there is the reckoning with Levi, whom
Steinberg doesn't remember at all because, as he sadly admits, he
didn't think Levi at the time possessed utilitarian value. Steinberg
wants nothing better than to persuade his former fellow
Häftling to set aside the verdict by showing him there
were extenuating circumstances: "Can one be so guilty for having
survived?"

There are unmistakable signs that something
approaching Holocaust fatigue is setting in among readers of serious
memoirs and histories. That a book like Norman Finkelstein's The
Holocaust Industry
, with its wild allegations verging on rant,
can command widespread attention is one sign of the times. So is
Peter Novick's deeply researched and more measured The Holocaust
in American Life
, which challenges the idea that the Nazi
genocide has meaningful lessons to teach and questions whether you
can learn much about human nature by looking at it in
extremis
. After all, the victim literature is replete with
contradictions--one survivor highlighting solidarity among inmates,
others (like Levi and Steinberg) pointing to a remorseless struggle
of all against all. How do you adjudicate the competing claims?
Novick rightly asks. The answer is, you can't. Nor should you try, if
for no other reason than both conditions obtained even in the
infernal regions described by Levi and Steinberg. Anyway, you don't
study the Holocaust to learn lessons in the didactic sense of that
term (lessons that the reader or viewer usually brings to the
subject). You delve into the Holocaust in order to grapple with
excruciating moral dilemmas, "choiceless choices," to use Lawrence
Langer's apt characterization. That's usually what ends up happening,
at least, when you are brought face to face with survivor literature
of the quality of Speak You Also. Like the best of the genre,
Steinberg's searching self-examination compels one to clarify values
and the social and political responsibility one bears toward those
values. Which is another way of saying that his is a work of
permanent significance. I find it hard to imagine reading Levi's
classic work except in tandem with Steinberg's brief for the
defense.

Would Levi have softened his judgment of Steinberg
had he lived to read Speak You Also? (The title seems to have
been drawn from a Paul Celan poem of the same title, with its first
stanza admonition, "speak as the last,/have your say.") It is not an
easy question to answer. Levi was not a forgiver, even of his own
transgressions, which is why those who argue that he committed
suicide will always have the stronger argument. But Levi's judgments
did soften with age, as he became more and more intrigued with the
"gray zone" of Holocaust ethics, even finding mitigating
circumstances in the conduct of Chaim Rumkowski, the notorious head
of the Lodz Judenrat. Although this is only a hunch, Levi probably
would have reopened Steinberg's case, even reconsidered his aversion
to seeing him again. (Steinberg himself died in 1999.) That would
have been an interesting reunion, two shrewd and anguished students
of the human condition sharing notes on how humans like themselves so
easily sloughed off the shell of civilization when faced with extreme
circumstances.