Auschwitz: The Counterlife

Auschwitz: The Counterlife


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.

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