4.28. Primo Levi, memoirs ‘If This Is a Man’ (1947)

In 1943, the young chemist Primo Levi (1919-1987) joined an armed resistance group in the north of Italy. As an inexperienced partisan, he was soon arrested by the fascist militia; to avoid summary execution, he stated that he was a Jew, and was therefore deported to Auschwitz. There he got the opportunity to work as a chemist in the chemical factory of the camp, which increased his chances to survive. In 1947, he published Se questo è un uomo (“If This Is a Man”) about his concentration camp experiences. *The book was translated by Stuart Woolf and published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz, a translation which misses the point. The original title was taken from Levi’s own poem Shema, which serves as a motto. In this poem, Levi addresses the reader: “You who live safe . . . Consider if this is a man / Who works in the mud, . . . Who dies because of a yes or a no. . . . I command these words to you. / Carve them in your hearts / At home, in the street, / Going to bed, rising; / Repeat them to your children.” In these last lines, Levi quotes both Deut. 6:7 and the prayer “Shema Israel” in the prayer books. Cf. The Koren Siddur 98 and The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 370. As the literary historian Judith Woolf argues, Primo Levi had at least three different reasons to write this book: first, “[a] compulsion to unburden himself of his own painful memories[;]” second, “the obligation to provide the bare but essential justice of remembrance for those whose deaths . . . he had seen evidence of with his own eyes[;]” and third, the need “to find ways of conveying the barely imaginable scale of the crime and the individual humanity of each of the victims.” *Woolf, “From If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved” 40.

If This Is a Man contains a short shofar episode, in which Levi’s mind escapes the inhuman reality of the concentration camp for a moment. Chapter 12, “The Canto of Ulysses,” is about a conversation with his fellow prisoner Jean Samuel, a student from Alsace, who is a messenger boy in the Chemical Command and is called “Pikolo” (“little one” or “youngest”). One day, when Levi and Pikolo have to fetch the soup in a large kettle on two supporting rods, they take a long detour to be able to talk one hour. The French and German speaking Pikolo says that he would like to learn Italian, and then Levi decides to tell him about Dante’s Divine Comedy, the greatest monument of Italian literature, from which Levi, as all Italian schoolchildren, had learned fragments by heart. *“As a teenager he had taken part in ‘Dante tournaments’ where Crocetta [a district of Turin] boys showed off their knowledge of The Inferno, one contestant reciting a canto and his opponent scoring a point if he knew its continuation.” Thomson, Primo Levi 218. The difficult digging up from memory of Dante’s verses becomes a kind of rescue operation for Levi: he saves the verses from oblivion, establishes a connection with the past and assures himself that his intellectual faculties are still intact; above all, Dante’s verses lift him up in his own eyes and those of Pikolo: “They granted me a respite, ephemeral but not hebetudinous, in fact liberating and differentiating: in short, a way to find myself.” *Levi, The Drowned and the Saved 139-40. Cf. the following experience, described by Elie Wiesel: “I was lucky enough . . . to have a former rosh yeshiva (director of a rabbinical academy) of Galician origin as a teammate. I can see us now, carrying bags of cement or large stones, pushing wheelbarrows filled with sand or mud, all the while studying a Law of the Mishna or a page of the Talmud. My teammate knew it all by heart, and thanks to him, we were able to escape.” Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea 82.

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who was imprisoned in concentration camp Buchenwald, confirmed this in a discussion about another book by Primo Levi: “The important thing was that you demonstrated to yourself that your mind was still working. It meant a great deal, it provided some self-reassurance, and it allowed one to hold onto certain ideas and to certain hopes.” *Fisher, Bettelheim: Living and Dying 133. Bettelheim mentioned an experience which resembles Levi’s experience in Chapter 12 of If This Is a Man; he said: “It was a Sunday afternoon when one of the officers, a camp commander, piped in some area music. Suddenly, there was a Fidelio, which was an overture. A blast of trumpets which marks the liberation; I felt strongly that it was the voice of freedom from Buchenwald.” *Ibid. 134. The trumpet in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio announces the arrival of Don Fernando, who will liberate the prisoners. Cf. Chapter 4.24, Note.

In his chapter “The Canto of Ulysses,” Levi explains to Pikolo what the Divine Comedy is and tells him how Dante and Virgil visit Hell, where both mythological figures, historical figures and contemporaries of Dante are to suffer eternally for their crimes, about which they testify to Dante and Virgil. Levi focuses on Canto XXVI of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante carries on the myth of Ulysses in an adventurous way. Drifting further and further from his home Ithaca, Ulysses arrives at the Pillars of Hercules or the Strait of Gibraltar, heading for the forbidden area of the Purgatory. The penalty imposed on this violation of a divine commandment is to burn forever in Hell. At the beginning of this journey, Ulysses seriously addresses his men, and from this speech in Canto XXVI, Levi takes a quote.

How many things there are to say, and the sun is already high, midday is near. I am in a hurry, a terrible hurry.

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:

Considerate la vostra semenza:

fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

ma per seguire virtute e canoscenza.

As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am. Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.” *Levi, If This Is a Man 119. Instead of Woolf’s translation, the original tercet is quoted here (La Divina Commedia, Canto XXVI 118-20). Canoscenza is an old spelling of conoscenza. Stuart Woolf translates as follows: “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence;” more accurate and smoother is the translation by Henry Longfellow (1867), also in blank verse: “Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang; / Ye were not made to live like unto brutes, / But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.”

In this passage of If This Is a Man, the chronotope of Auschwitz undergoes an even greater change than in Osvaldo Golijov’s composition Tekyah; *Chapter 4.64 whereas Golijov’s twelve shofarot turn the concentration camp into a sacred place for the duration of the composition’s last minute, the divine shofar in Levi’s account annuls the camp in his consciousness: “For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” For one moment, the atheist Levi experiences an epiphany: he has the illusion of hearing the voice of God, and in this moment, human dignity reigns. The Present is indirectly directed by the Past, because the divine shofar blast reaches Levi through Dante’s work.

Primo Levi recites Dante’s Italian verses by heart, which he had learned at school, and then tries to translate them into French and to explain them, hoping that Pikolo will understand their meaning. In “Discourse in the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin makes a difference between reciting and retelling: “When verbal disciplines are taught in school, two basic modes are recognized for the appropriation and transmission—simultaneously—of another’s words . . . ‘reciting by heart’ and ‘retelling in one’s own words.'” Bakhtin labels the latter procedure “double-voiced narration,” stating that “retelling a text in one’s own words is to a certain extent a double-voiced narration of another’s words, for indeed ‘one’s own words’ must not completely dilute the quality that makes another’s words unique[.]” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 341. Dante’s tercet from Canto XXVI is a fundamental message about human dignity, and as a result, this word by Dante is an almost sacrosanct authoritative discourse; while its message is at the same time completely internalized by Levi, a new kind of discourse comes into being:

The tendency to assimilate other’s discourse takes on an even deeper and more basic significance in an individual’s ideological becoming, in the most fundamental sense. Another’s discourse performs here no longer as information, directions, rules, models and so forth—but strives rather to determine the very bases of our behavior; it performs here as authoritative discourse, and an internally persuasive discourse. *Ibid. 342.

This unity of authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourse produces a word that seems to be of divine origin: the blast of a trumpet, the voice of God. As Bakhtin puts it: “Both the authority of discourse and its internal persuasiveness may be united in a single word—one that is simultaneously authoritative and internally persuasive—despite the profound differences between these two categories of alien discourse. But such unity is rarely a given[.]” *Ibid. 342.

Two trumpet blasts from the New Testament might also have inspired Primo Levi, who had become familiar with Christianity as an Italian schoolboy. *trumpet: Salpinx in the original Greek. In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, this is the translation of both shofar and ḥaẓoẓrah. Cf. Montagu, “Index of Biblical Citations” in Musical Instruments of the Bible 157-70. The quotations from the New Testament are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. In both passages, the trumpet sounds at a decisive moment, as an authoritative discourse, proclaiming deliverance from death. The first is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregants, Chapter 15:51-52: “51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” According to the biblical scholars Steve Mason and Tom Robinson, Paul wrote this passage to explain what would happen to the living at Jesus’ return, since their bodies would not have had the opportunity to be transformed through death. His answer was that they would be “instantly transformed to become like resurrected bodies.” *Mason and Robinson, Early Christian Reader 71, Note. This would make the passage even more appropriate with regard to Primo Levi’s situation between life and death in the camp.

The second passage is found in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, written by John, who was exiled for his faith to the island of Patmos, from where he addressed his fellow persecuted Christians. In Rev. 1, John describes a vision in which he hears a voice like a trumpet and sees the resurrected Christ: “10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet[.]” Then, “one like the Son of Man” says to him: “17 Do not be afraid . . . 18 I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.” Actually, writing a book about what he had seen is what Primo Levi did. In contrast to these scriptural passages, that were originally addressed to a group of Christian communities, Levi states, “it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular[,]” thus emphasizing the universality of Dante’s tercet.

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