Wednesday 27th January 2021, was Holocaust memorial day; it has been 76 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. And every person, whether you’re a Holocaust scholar or have never even heard of Primo Levi, should learn about this loquacious man. Here I use his own quotes to (hopefully) explain why Levi is so important to all of humanity.
Quotes are in chronological order.
On the Passing of Time
…This year has gone by so quickly.
This time last year I was a free man: an outlaw but free, I had a name and a family, I had an eager and restless mind, an agile and healthy body.
I used to think of many, far-away things: of my work, of the end of the war, of good and evil, of the nature of things and of the laws which govern human actions; and also of the mountains, of singing and loving, of music, of poetry
…I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself
…this year has gone by so quickly.– If This is a Man
In this moving passage from Levi’s famous memoir of his time in Auschwitz, If This is a Man, he describes his 11 months in Auschwitz. This quote comes from a section of Levi’s memoir in which he muses on what makes a man – he had become a chemist in the camp and partly survived the winter because of his job that was based inside. Here he looks back on his life and thinks about how being in the camp isn’t even being alive.
Towards the end of February, after a month in bed, I was not yet cured, and indeed began to feel but little improvement. I had a clear impression that I would not regain my health and my strength until I stood upright again (albeit with difficulty), and put my shoes on my feet. So, on one of the rare days when the doctor called, I asked him to let me out.– The Truce
After the liberation of Auschwitz, Levi chronicles his journey home to Italy in The Truce. Auschwitz was liberated at the end of January 1945 and it’s hard to imagine what happened directly after – it’s not like everyone just got up and went home. Many who were left (including Levi) were left because they were too sick to take on the infamous ‘death march’. Makeshift hospitals were set up and Levi remained for a month before he started the journey through Europe, going up through the Soviet Union before coming back down to Italy.
I dashed to the library at the first opportunity; I refer to the venerable library of the University of Turin’s Chemical Institute, at that time, like Mecca, impenetrable to infidels and even hard to penetrate for such faithful as I.
The library’s schedule was brief and irrational, the lighting dim, the file cards in disorder; in the winter, no heat; no chairs but uncomfortable and noisy metal stools; and finally, the librarian was an incompetent, insolent boor of exceeding ugliness.– The Periodic Table
Don’t be fooled by the name. Levi’s The Periodic Table is a series of short stories, autobiographies and essays – relating to Levi’s life and experience of the Holocaust. Each chapter is the name of an element. The above quote stood out to me because, even though he speaks of how disordered the library is, how ugly, how cold, he still rushed there as soon as he could (after his liberation and journey back to normal life.)
If it were up to me, if I were forced to judge, I would light-heartedly absolve all those whose concurrence in the guilt was minimal and for whom coercion was of the highest degree.– ‘The Grey Zone’ in The Drowned and the Saved
In his last work, and potentially his most honest, The Drowned and the Saved, Levi devotes a chapter to what he called ‘The Grey Zone’, the space between perpetrator, collaborator and innocent. Who was culpable? Who should be to blame? Who did Levi blame? Here he speaks openly about the ‘prisoners without rank’ who he calls ‘low ranking functionaries’ and performed tasks such as sweeping and night-watching. These people may have had an easier time than the Jews, but they do not deserve, Levi says, to feel guilty.