This is not to be merely provocative, but rather to observe one of history’s milder ironic possibilities .
If This Is a Man, that most vital work published in the ashes of 1946 Europe, could easily have borne the title: Mein Kampf.
Not to be provocative. This is a statement of fact, because the tale of Primo Levi’s betrayal, imprisonment and thorough brutalisation is nothing else but the recounting of a seminal 20th struggle. Perhaps the struggle.
It is the agony felt in the decaying heart of a man reduced to number, animal, other. Hitler had no possibility for a such downward trajectory from humanity, and his struggle was what he unleashed, not what he experienced – his book titled almost as a prediction, rather than a memoir.
In this sense the struggle of Levi was the struggle of the Fuhrer, one and the same, the vision of the latter plaguing the reality of the former.
And this dual involvement, the oppressor and the oppressed, so defined the last century, particularly in the creation of the ‘other’ for the purposes of murder, that Levi’s account seems to contain so much within its limited pages.
It is of course the greater soul that triumphs. When confronted with the tortured chemist at the end of his account of Aushwitz, and asked by the work if what creature we read of is indeed a man, we must answer ‘yes’. Levi survived, his humanity returned. But it would cheapen the struggle to simply remark that the spirit of man triumphed over evil.
Ponder the poetic invocation which open the books:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
After the horror, is there any good, any man left to triumph? We are familiar with the industrialised murder of the Holocaust, the rapid transit from train to incinerator with a mechanised malice. Most died before they received the infamous tattoo.
Levi was one of those fortunate enough (a mockery of fortune) to be branded, and forced into the slave labour of the Lager.
What is so shocking to the reader, so used to the common account of the hideousness of the genocide, is the erosion, not the victory, of a greater humanity.
The putrid propaganda of the Reich, drawn from the centuries deep cultural well which facilitated pogroms and persecution, painted the Jew as vermin, as beneath man.
Levi, though making allowances for the hatred which flamed throughout his imprisonment, reveals with supreme honesty the degree to which the Jews themselves began to align with the vilest of propaganda.
That is, the systematic process of reducing of man to animal, over the course the months the writer was in the hellish camp, was not without effect.
Servility becomes instinctive, a prerequisite for survival. In the final days of the camp, a Hungarian Jew dying from diphtheria can only repeat over and over in his delirium: “ja wohl.”
Through Levi’s nobly truthful work illustrates, through instances as harrowing as this, that what is at the core of a ‘man’ is not an unalterable humanity, but a spirit as subject to decay as it it is to suffering.
But of course the liberation comes, and wire is no more an obstacle, and the Italian journeys home to regrow what the camp has savagely stripped from him.
The maintenance of some shred of the person he was before is a result all the more inspiring because such a self is by no means indestructible, as the book makes clear.
This emergence from horror, with still a glimmer of one’s human essence still shining despite the disappearance of good and evil, is a victory.
The kampf of this last century has been rooted in the division of the ‘us’ from the ‘them’, but Levi shows us that no matter the depths to which oppressor and oppressed may plunge on either side of the fatal struggle, there is still an indefatigable something which remains, and will not allow itself to be reduced.
If one side would commit murder, then it will be against people, not animals – for this status cannot, even in Auschwitz, be fully taken away. The minds, even of slaves, will not allow it.
So when we ‘Consider, if this is a man’ when confronted with even the most brutalised individual, we must say ‘yes’, and acknowledge what a struggle it has been to maintain that truth. This is the lesson, though not a simple one, of Levi.