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.”