By Primo Levi

Abacus Books, London

398 pages

Reviewed by Dada Jyotirupananda

When I go to Poland, my friends will invite me for a tour of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

When I lived in Israel for several years I regularly had invitations to visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to Holocaust victims.

In both cases I always refused. Why would I want to dwell on that terrible episode in our history? And anyway, I thought I knew enough about it.

Awhile back I was sent these 2 books (in one volume), re-issued on the 50th anniversary of the publication of If This is a Man in 1958. And it sat on my bookshelf for some time. As with Auschwitz or Yad Vashem, I thought these volumes would simply be too depressing and demoralising. And I thought I knew about it.

However, one day I started reading these books. And I’m glad I did.

Primo Levi, a chemist by training, spent 1 year in Auschwitz and then, after liberation by the Russians, almost another year of wandering around eastern Europe, often in a legal or political limbo, before arriving back home to Turin, Italy.

If This is a Man describes his life starting from the time he’s arrested in the hills of northern Italy as a member of a fairly incapable resistance force. Soon after arrest he’s sent to Auschwitz.

The Truce describes his odyssey in eastern Europe, after release from Auschwitz until his return home.

If This is a Man is partly a sociological study, partly a psychological study and partly an autobiography of a year in Hell.

It is also a story of strength, of determination to survive, to retain one’s dignity, and as we find out in The Truce, the willingness and ability to put this year behind him, and at the same time, to help humanity remember what demons may lie inside the human mind.

How does he survive? The average life span for a Jewish prisoner entering Auschwitz is 3 months. By that time they may die from starvation, overwork or intolerable conditions.

As well as the physical conditions, Levi says, if the prisoner has no will to live, no will to keep his humanity, this can be a critical factor in his demise.

If he didn’t die from the physical conditions the prisoner may die simply because the authorities decide that this ‘piece’ (formerly known by a name, but now simply as a number) has no more use for the Third Reich and is sent to the gas chambers.

While the gas chambers are of course to be feared, after some days or weeks of the extreme conditions of the concentration camp, inmates may simply have no energy to think, nor any desire to contemplate their possible future.

Having arrived in Auschwitz with hundreds of other Italians (and being only one of three Italians in his convoy to survive the camps) he says that early on the Italians had decided to meet every Sunday in a corner of the prison, ‘but we stopped it at once, because it was too sad to… find fewer each time, and to see each other ever more deformed and more squalid. And it was so tiring to walk those few steps and… to remember and think. It was better not to think.”

One Jewish woman survivor of Auschwitz describes how from their tiny window they could see the flames coming from the chimney of the cremation furnace. When she asked the older women: “What is that fire?” the reply was: “It is we who are burning.”

Levi deals very little with the German rulers of the concentration camp. Oddly, while they have given numbers to the Jews, virtually making them nameless, and thus, in a way, unconscious, lifeless bodies, Levi’s narrative gives a rich life and identity to the prisoners, while the Germans seem to be little more than brutal bodies. He seems to be saying that while the Germans carried out their unspeakable duty of killing, they became morally lifeless.

Perhaps it is the ‘realness’ that he gives to the prisoners that attracts me to If This is a Man. It is not a normal sort of attraction though. It has more to do with viewing the humane viewing of almost hopeless living conditions. And this sober sort of interest  is, I believe, important for our maturity as human beings and as a human race.

Describing his early days of immersion into the camp he says that “one learns quickly enough to wipe out the past and the future when one is forced to.”

But when liberation nears, after the Germans have left, taking the healthy prisoners with them (and most of these prisoners died on their long march), Levi and some others rekindle the will to live.  It starts by merely seeking enough potatoes to survive, and by separating themselves from their fellow prisoners who are on deaths bed with possibly contagious diseases.

Finally they leave Auschwitz, but with little idea of how they will get home, nor even where they will spend the next night. This tentative freedom, in a land where they don’t know the language, where they feel instinctively unwelcome and where they are free from bondage but virtually penniless and with little guidance, marks the beginning of The Truce.

Read by itself The Truce could seem a most sad book. But as a sequel to a year in Auschwitz it is almost light, almost humorous.

Political freedom, as well as an inner sense of freedom, comes step by step. As with the first volume, the Jewish concentration camp survivors are alive in wonderful detail. Their humanity is steadily coming back to them, though at first they hardly dare to think that they may soon be home.

And it is a long journey indeed, as they wander through Poland, USSR, Romania and other countries, coming closer to their own cultural identity as they come closer to Italy.

Finally home. In one piece, and human again.

Phillip Roth has called If This is a Man “…one of the (twentieth) century’s truly necessary books.”

It is necessary for any century where humans are more concerned with their separateness than with their unity.