Kategorie-Archiv: Holocaust

Nazi Holocaust – A singular horror

spectator.co.uk

A singular horror

Philippe Sands

Seventy years after the Nazi Holocaust, against the background of a rich and varied literature, Laurence Rees has achieved the unexpected: a magisterial book that consolidates what has come before and manages to offer fresh perspectives. With Brexit, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen now centre stage, it also offers a timely reminder of the dangers that are unleashed when the path of demonisation and discrimination is embraced in the name of national well-being. As Primo Levi wrote in 1947, from his own experience, when the ‘unspoken dogma’ of group targeting becomes ‘the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager’.

Like Levi, Rees understands the Holocaust as representing ‘a singular horror in the history of the human race’, and he is particularly well placed to guide us through the multitude of difficulties it presents. One of the world’s foremost historical documentary film-makers, he has spent a lifetime thinking about the Nazi era, crafting balanced, rigorous and reflective films that have won plaudits and prizes. In the course of that work, he has mined a rich seam of human experiences. He has met and interviewed a vast number of people who occupied the front rows of the times of which he now writes, as perpetrators, victims and observers. He is more familiar than most with the theories that seek to explain what happened, and the lessons that might — or might not — have been learned.

He is also a seriously good storyteller — and this is his masterwork. It reaches that pinnacle precisely because he has anchored vast and grotesque stories in individual experience, an approach that gives a book passing across well-trodden ground the immediacy and power of personal testimony.The work is also imbued with its author’s mature reflection; and the warning he implicitly offers to our current crop of politicians, who seem to have had a collective loss of historical memory, is plain: your words and your actions truly matter.

There is a simple reason that so many people watch the documentaries, read the books and devour the personal accounts: the events of this period go to the heart of who we are as human beings, and they remain, even with the passage of so many years, without simple or satisfactory explanations. The two central questions are: how could it have happened? And could it happen again? As to the first, we sense that the events that occurred between 1933 and 1945 have their roots in diverse factors, from elevated matters of state policy and history to the most personal of psychological elements. As to the second question, our television and computer screens tell us on that such horrors do continue — albeit in different shape and form — as one group is pitted against another.

Rees poses his own questions. ‘What were the reasons the Nazis decided to exterminate an entire group of people? Why did they take millions, and gas them, shoot them, starve them, beat them to death — and kill them by whatever means possible? What was the place of this genocide amid the catalogue of other horrors that the Nazis were responsible for?’

In seeking answers he paints a vast canvas across time and place. His approach is essentially chronological, identifying particular milestones that led from a letter written by Hitler in 1919 — the point at which Rees’s book opens — to the appalling death marches out of the concentration camps for tens of thousands of prisoners in January and February 1945. What came between — the rise of the Nazis, the logic of the Nuremberg laws, the killing of the disabled, the shifting of populations to the east, the mixing of war and deportation, the mass extermination of human beings on an industrial scale — is minutely detailed.

The particular personality of Hitler plays a central role in Rees’s assessment, along with the total capture of the machinery of government, and the removal of domestic legal protections for minority groups. At that time — and it may seem remarkable —international law had nothing to say about the treatment by a state of its own population, and there was no body of rules known as the international law of human rights to offer protection for every human being.

But nor does Rees ignore the vital involvement of a mass of individuals, in Germany and in many other countries across Europe. For these participants and observers — the foot soldiers, the oil and the cogs — he suggests motivational factors that included revenge, expiation, anti-Semitism, opportunism and self-enrichment. These factors are reflected in other works that focus on the minutiae — the young lawyers who populate Sebastian Haffner’s remarkable Defying Hitler (2000), for example, or the musicians in Fritz Trumpl’s fascinating and more recent The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich (2016). Erna Krantz, a Nazi supporter in Germany, offers a chillingly honest explanation of her own passivity, faced with a neighbour and friend newly forced to wear a Jewish star on her coat: ‘I was so sorry about that… such a nice woman… but really, just like today, you can’t help everywhere.’ Seeking to understand the rare instances where a local population withheld cooperation from the Nazis — Rees cites the singular example of Denmark — he concludes that there can be ‘no simple explanation… a combination of factors all came together at this moment’.

That conclusion applies equally to the bigger questions posed. On the old debate between the intentionalists (focused on the key role played by Hitler, and his supposed intention to kill the Jews for years before the Holocaust) and the functionalists (more persuaded by the complex interactions between Hitler and a multitude of outside factors), Rees is persuasive in his disdain for the former: ‘The journey to the Holocaust was a gradual one, full of twists and turns, until it found final expression in the Nazi killing factories.’

What of the lessons? Reading the book in the days following the election of a new US president, one hesitates to draw parallels. Yet Donald Trump does not help us with the language of swamps, which also permeated Nazi discourse; and his tweets about flag-burners (who should face consequences, ‘perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!’), mirror the views of Hermann Goering (‘he who offends this [Nazi] flag insults the nation’), distinguishable only by the exclamation mark. When Rees describes the Führer as being ‘not a “normal” statesman, and one for whom it did not matter … that his “facts” were wrong’, who comes most immediately to mind?

Time will tell whether Brexit and a Trump presidency will herald the unravelling of the post-second world war settlement, arrangements originally intended to prevent the Nazi horrors from being repeated. Warts and all, bodies like the EU, the European Convention on Human Rights and Nato were intended to bind like-minded countries together, establishing a club whose membership was based on liberal free trade and investment, an end of war as foreign policy, and minimum rights for every human being.

Laurence Rees has written a remarkable book, one that reminds us where unconstrained sovereignty can lead; what can happen when a state is unbound, when it has taken back control, when it follows a path it believes will make it great again, when civil courage is lost, when we forget from whence we came. ‘At the end of the chain, there is the Lager.’

Poland’s Crime Against History / Polens Verbrechen gegen die Geschichte

JERUSALEM – My parents and I arrived in Tel Aviv a few months before World War II began. The rest of our extended family – three of my grandparents, my mother’s seven siblings, and my five cousins – remained in Poland. They were all murdered in the Holocaust.

I have visited Poland many times, always accompanied by the presence of the Jewish absence. Books and articles of mine have been translated into Polish. I have lectured at the University of Warsaw and Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. I was recently elected an external member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Though my knowledge of the Polish language is scant, the country’s history and culture are not foreign to me.

For these reasons, I recognize why Poland’s government recently introduced legislation on historical matters. But I am also furious.

The Poles understandably view themselves primarily as victims of the Nazis. No country in occupied Europe suffered similarly. It was the only country that, under German occupation, had its government institutions liquidated, its army disbanded, its schools and universities closed. Even its name was wiped off the map. In a replay of the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland by Russia and Prussia, the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in the wake of the German invasion. No trace of Polish authority remained.

The total destruction of the Polish state and its institutions made Poland an ideal location for the German extermination camps, in which six million Polish citizens – three million Jews and three million ethnic Poles – were murdered. Everywhere else in German-controlled Europe, the Nazis had to deal, sometimes in an extremely complicated way, with local governments, if only for tactical reasons.

This is why Poland is right to insist that the camps not be called “Polish extermination camps” (as even US President Barack Obama once mistakenly referred to them). They were German camps in occupied Poland.

But the current Polish government is making a serious mistake by trying to criminalize any reference to “Polish extermination camps.” Only non-democratic regimes use such means, rather than relying on public discourse, historical clarification, diplomatic contacts, and education.

The government’s proposed legislation goes even further: it makes any reference to ethnic Poles’ role in the Holocaust a criminal offense. It also refers to what it calls “historical truth” regarding the wartime massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors.

When the historian Jan Gross published his study establishing that Poles, not Germans, burned alive hundreds of Jedwabne’s Jews, Poland naturally suffered a major crisis of conscience. Two Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Bronisław Komorowski, accepted the findings and publicly asked for the victims’ forgiveness. As Komorowski put it, “even in a nation of victims, there appear to be murderers.” Now, however, the authorities claim that the issue must be re-examined, even calling for the mass graves to be exhumed.

The government’s views and ideology are an internal Polish matter. But if it seeks to gloss over or deny problematic aspects of Polish history, even those who identify with Poland’s pain may raise questions that, in recognition of Poles’ terrible suffering, have until now been largely overlooked. These questions are neither trivial nor directed at the behavior of individuals. They implicate national decisions.

The first question concerns the timing of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. The Poles justly point out that the Red Army, which had reached the Vistula, did not help the Polish fighters and actually let the Germans suppress the insurgency unimpeded – one of Stalin’s most cynical moves.

But why did the Polish underground (Armia Krajowa, or Home Army), controlled by the Polish government-in-exile in London, strike at this moment, when the Germans were already retreating, eastern Poland was already liberated, and the Red Army was about to liberate Warsaw itself? The official Polish explanation is that the uprising against the Germans was also a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union, intended to ensure that Polish, not Soviet, forces liberated Warsaw.

That may explain (though obviously not justify) the Soviets’ refusal to help the Poles. Yet questions linger: Why did the Home Army wait more than four years to rise against German occupation? Why did it not disrupt the systematic extermination of three million Jews, all Polish citizens, or strike during the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943?

One sometimes hears arguments about how many guns the Home Army sent – or did not send – to the fighters in the ghetto. But that is not the question. The German suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took weeks; on the “Aryan side,” Poles saw and heard what was happening – and did nothing.

We cannot know the outcome had the Home Army joined the Jews – not only in Warsaw but throughout occupied Poland, where it had prepared thousands of its members for a possible uprising. What is certain is that the Nazi SS would have found it more difficult to liquidate the ghetto; moreover, joining what was considered a “Jewish uprising” would have been powerful proof of solidarity with Polish Jews. The key point is that highlighting the moral dimension of the decision to start an uprising to prevent the Soviets from liberating Warsaw, while ignoring the failure to act to prevent the murder of three million Polish Jews and join the ghetto uprising, can be legitimately questioned.

This raises another long-suppressed question. By March 1939, the British and French governments knew that appeasing Hitler had failed: after destroying Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany was turning against Poland. That spring, Britain and France issued a guarantee to defend Poland against a German invasion.

At the same time, the Soviet Union proposed to the British and the French a united front against German aggression toward Poland – the first attempt to develop a Soviet-Western anti-Nazi alliance. In August 1939, an Anglo-French military delegation traveled to Moscow, where the head of the Soviet delegation, Defense Minister Kliment Voroshilov, asked the Western officers a simple question: would the Polish government agree to the entry of Soviet troops, which would be necessary to repel a German invasion?

After weeks of dithering, the Polish government refused. As a Polish government minister reportedly asked: “If the Soviet Army enters Poland, who knows when they would leave?” The Anglo-French-Soviet talks collapsed, and a few days later the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.

One can understand the Polish position: on regaining independence in 1918, Poland found itself in a brutal war with the Red Army, which was poised to occupy Warsaw. Only French military support helped repel the Russians and save Poland’s independence. In 1939, it appeared that Poland feared the Soviet Union more than it feared Nazi Germany

No one can know whether Poland would have avoided German occupation had it agreed to the Red Army’s entry in the event of an invasion, much less whether WWII or the Holocaust might have been prevented. But it is reasonable to maintain that the government made one of the most fateful and catastrophic choices in Poland’s history. In one way or another, its stance made the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact possible, and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising brought about the city’s near-total destruction.

In no way should this be viewed as an attempt to blame the victim. The moral and historical guilt belongs to Nazi Germany and, in parallel, to the Soviet Union. But if the current Polish government wishes to revise history, these broader issues must also be addressed. A nation and its leaders are responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

Recently, I visited POLIN, the Jewish museum in Warsaw, initiated by then-President Kwaśniewski. I was deeply impressed not only by the richness and presentation of the materials, but also by the sophistication and historical integrity underlying the entire project: without the Jews, the exhibition made clear, Poland would not be Poland.

Yet the museum also shows the darker side of this intertwined history, especially the emergence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of Roman Dmowski’s radical nationalist and anti-Semitic Endecja party. A non-Jewish friend who accompanied me said: “Now is the time to build a Polish museum with a comparable standard.”

Shlomo Avineri will be attending this year’s Forum 2000 conference, The Courage to Take Responsibility, which will be held in Prague, Czech Republic, October 16-19.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/poland-crime-against-history-by-shlomo-avineri-2016-09

JERUSALEM – Ein paar Monate vor Beginn des Zweiten Weltkriegs kamen meine Eltern und ich in Tel Aviv an. Der Rest der Familie und Verwandte – drei meiner Großeltern, die sieben Geschwister meiner Mutter und fünf meiner Cousins – blieben in Polen. Sie alle wurden im Holocaust ermordet.

Ich habe Polen viele Male besucht, immer begleitet von allgegenwärtiger jüdischer Abwesenheit. Von mir verfasste Bücher und Artikel wurden ins Polnische übersetzt. Ich unterrichtete an der Universität von Warschau und an der Jagiellonen-Universität in Krakau. Kürzlich wurde ich zu einem externen Mitglied der Polnischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und Künste gewählt. Trotz meiner spärlichen Kenntnisse der polnischen Sprache sind mir Geschichte und Kultur des Landes nicht fremd.

Aus diesen Gründen verstehe ich, warum die polnische Regierung jüngst Gesetze für historische Angelegenheiten verabschiedete. Aber ich bin auch wütend.

Die Polen betrachten sich verständlicherweise in erster Linie als Opfer der Nazis. Kein Land im besetzten Europa litt in ähnlicher Weise. Polen war das einzige Land, in dem unter deutscher Besatzung Regierungsinstitutionen sowie Armee aufgelöst und Schulen und Universitäten geschlossen wurden. Sogar der Landesname wurde von der Landkarte gelöscht. Wie eine Neuauflage der Teilungen Polens durch Russland und Preußen im 18. Jahrhundert führte der deutsch-sowjetische Nichtangriffspakt aus dem Jahr 1939 im Gefolge der deutschen Invasion zur sowjetischen Besetzung Ostpolens. Von polnischer Staatsmacht blieb keine Spur.

Die totale Zerstörung des polnischen Staates und seiner Institutionen ließen das Land zu einem idealen Ort für die deutschen Vernichtungslager werden, in denen sechs Millionen polnische Bürger – drei Millionen Juden und drei Millionen ethnische Polen – ermordet wurden. Überall sonst in dem von Deutschland kontrollierten Europa mussten sich die Nazis, wenn auch nur aus taktischen Gründen, in manchmal überaus komplizierter Art und Weise mit lokalen Regierungen auseinandersetzen.

Aus diesem Grund beharrt Polen zurecht darauf, dass diese Lager nicht als „polnische Vernichtungslager“ bezeichnet werden sollen (wie es sogar US-Präsident Barack Obama einst fälschlicherweise tat). Es handelte sich um deutsche Lager im besetzten Polen.

Mit ihrem Versuch, jeden Verweis auf „polnische Vernichtungslager“ zu kriminalisieren, begeht die derzeitige polnische Regierung jedoch einen schweren Fehler. Lediglich undemokratische Regime bedienen sich derartiger Methoden anstatt sich auf den öffentlichen Diskurs, historische Klarstellung, diplomatische Kontakte und Bildung zu verlassen.

Der Gesetzesentwurf der Regierung geht sogar noch weiter: darin wird nämlich jeder Verweis auf die Rolle ethnischer Polen im Holocaust zu einer Straftat gemacht. Hinsichtlich des während des Krieges in der Stadt Jedwabne an Juden von deren Nachbarn verübten Massakers bezieht sich die Regierung außerdem auf die von ihr so bezeichnete „historische Wahrheit“.

Als der Historiker Jan Gross seine Studie veröffentlichte, in der er darlegte, dass nicht Deutsche, sondern Polen hunderte Juden aus Jedwabne bei lebendigem Leib verbrannten, löste dies in Polen natürlich eine veritable Gewissenkrise aus. Zwei polnische Präsidenten – Aleksander Kwaśniewski und Bronisław Komorowski – akzeptierten die Erkenntnisse aus dieser Arbeit und baten die Opfer öffentlich um Vergebung. Komorowski formulierte, dass es „sogar in einer Nation der Opfer offenbar Mörder gibt.” Mittlerweile allerdings behaupten die Behörden, die Angelegenheit müsse erneut untersucht werden und sie fordern sogar die Exhumierung der Leichen aus den Massengräbern.

Ansichten und Ideologie der Regierung sind eine innere Angelegenheit Polens. Wenn man allerdings versucht, problematische Aspekte der polnischen Geschichte unter den Teppich zu kehren oder zu leugnen, werden auch diejenigen, die sich mit dem Schmerz Polens identifizieren, möglicherweise Fragen aufwerfen, die in Anerkennung der schrecklichen Leiden der Polen bislang weitgehend übersehen wurden. Diese Fragen sind weder trivial noch an das Verhalten von Einzelpersonen geknüpft. Es geht dabei vielmehr um nationale Entscheidungen.

Die erste Frage betrifft den zeitlichen Ablauf des Warschauer Aufstandes im August 1944. Die Polen verweisen mit Recht darauf, dass die Rote Armee, die bereits an der Weichsel stand, den polnischen Kämpfern nicht zu Hilfe kam und die Deutschen den Aufstand praktisch ungehindert niederschlagen ließ – einer der zynischsten Schritte Stalins.

Aber warum schlug der von der polnischen Exilregierung in London kontrollierte polnische Untergrund (die Armia Krajowa oder Heimatarmee) ausgerechnet in dem Moment zu, als sich die Deutschen bereits auf dem Rückzug befanden, Ostpolen bereits befreit war und die Rote Armee kurz vor der Befreiung Warschaus stand? Die offizielle polnische Erklärung lautet, dass der Aufstand gegen die Deutschen auch ein Präventivschlag gegen die Sowjetunion war, womit gewährleistet werden sollte, dass nicht sowjetische, sondern polnische Truppen Warschau befreiten.

Das mag vielleicht erklären (wenn auch offensichtlich nicht rechtfertigen), warum sich die Sowjets weigerten, den Polen zu Hilfe zu kommen. Dennoch bleiben Fragen: Warum wartete die Heimatarmee über vier Jahre, um sich gegen die deutsche Besatzung zu erheben? Warum wurde nichts gegen die systematische Vernichtung von drei Millionen Juden unternommen, bei denen es sich allesamt um polnische Staatsbürger handelte oder warum schlug man nicht während des jüdischen Aufstandes im Warschauer Ghetto im April 1943 zu?

Manchmal hört man Argumente darüber, wie viele Waffen die Heimatarmee an die Kämpfer im Ghetto schickte – oder nicht schickte. Das ist allerdings nicht die Frage. Die Niederschlagung des Aufstandes im Warschauer Ghetto durch die Deutschen dauerte Wochen; auf der „arischen Seite“ hörten und sahen die Polen was geschah – und sie taten nichts.

Wir können nicht wissen, was geschehen wäre, hätte sich die Heimatarmee den Juden angeschlossen – nicht nur in Warschau, sondern im gesamten besetzten Polen, wo man tausende Armeeangehörige auf einen möglichen Aufstand vorbereitete. Sicher ist allerdings, dass es für die SS schwieriger geworden wäre, das Ghetto zu liquidieren. Außerdem wäre es ein starkes Zeichen der Solidarität mit den polnischen Juden gewesen, hätte man sich den als „jüdisch“ bezeichneten Aufstand angeschlossen. Der entscheidende Punkt ist: die Hervorhebung der moralischen Dimension der Entscheidung, einen Aufstand zu beginnen, um die Sowjets an der Befreiung Warschaus zu hindern und gleichzeitig außer Acht zu lassen, dass man untätig blieb, als es darum ging, den Mord an drei Millionen polnischer Juden zu verhindern, darf berechtigterweise in Frage gestellt werden.

Das wirft eine weitere lange Zeit unterdrückte Frage auf. Im März 1939 wussten die britische und die französische Regierung, dass die Appeasement-Politik gegenüber Hitler gescheitert war: nach der Zerstörung der Tschechoslowakei, wandte sich Nazi-Deutschland gegen Polen. In diesem Frühling gaben Großbritannien und Frankreich eine Garantie ab, Polen gegen eine deutsche Invasion zu verteidigen.

Gleichzeitig schlug die Sowjetunion den Briten und Franzosen eine geeinte Front gegen die deutsche Aggression gegenüber Polen vor – der erste Versuch, eine Allianz der Sowjets und des Westens gegen die Nazis zu bilden. Im August 1939 reiste eine englisch-französische Delegation nach Moskau, wo der Vorsitzende der sowjetischen Delegation, Verteidigungsminister Kliment Woroschilow, den westlichen Vertretern eine simple Frage stellte: würde die polnische Regierung dem für die Zurückschlagung einer deutschen Invasion notwendigen Einsatz sowjetischer Truppen auf ihrem Territorium zustimmen?

Nach wochenlangem Hin und Her, verweigerte die polnische Regierung ihre Zustimmung. Ein polnischer Regierungsminister meinte angeblich: „Wer weiß, wann die Sowjetarmee im Falle eines Einsatzes in Polen wieder abzieht.“ Die Gespräche zwischen Briten, Franzosen und Sowjets scheiterten und ein paar Tage später wurde der deutsch-sowjetische Nichtangriffspakt unterzeichnet.

Man kann die polnische Position verstehen: nach Wiedererlangung der Unabhängigkeit im Jahr 1918 fand sich Polen in einem brutalen Kampf mit der Roten Armee wieder, die darauf aus war, Warschau zu besetzen. Nur mit militärischer Unterstützung Frankreichs gelang es, die Russen zu zurückzuschlagen und Polens Unabhängigkeit zu sichern. Im Jahr 1939 schien es, als ob Polen die Sowjetunion mehr fürchtete als Nazi-Deutschland.

Niemand weiß, ob die deutsche Besetzung Polens zu verhindern gewesen wäre, wenn Polen dem Einsatz der Roten Armee im Falle einer Invasion zugestimmt hätte und noch viel weniger kann gesagt werden, ob der Zweite Weltkrieg oder der Holocaust hätten verhindert werden können.  Dennoch kann man vernünftigerweise behaupten, dass die Regierung eine der verhängnisvollsten und katastrophalsten Entscheidungen in der polnischen Geschichte traf. Auf die eine oder andere Weise ermöglichte ihre Haltung den deutsch-sowjetischen Nichtangriffspakt und der Warschauer Aufstand 1944 führte zur fast vollständigen Zerstörung der Stadt.

Keinesfalls soll dies als Versuch betrachtet werden, dem Opfer die Schuld zuzuweisen. Die moralische und historische Schuld gilt Nazi-Deutschland und parallel dazu der Sowjetunion. Wenn die derzeitige polnische Regierung allerdings die Geschichte einer Überprüfung unterziehen möchte, müssen auch diese allgemeineren Fragen beantwortet werden. Eine Nation und ihre Führung sind verantwortlich für die Folgen ihrer Entscheidungen.

Kürzlich besuchte ich POLIN, das auf Initiative des damaligen Präsidenten Kwaśniewski errichtete jüdische Museum in Warschau. Ich war tief beeindruckt, nicht nur von der Vielfalt und der Präsentation der Ausstellungsstücke, sondern auch von der Differenziertheit und historischen Integrität, die dem gesamten Projekt zugrunde liegen: ohne Juden, so stellt die Ausstellung klar, wäre Polen nicht Polen.

Doch das Museum zeigt auch die dunklere Seite dieser verflochtenen Geschichte, insbesondere die Entstehung der radikal nationalistischen und antisemitischen Endecja-Partei Roman Dmowskis im späten 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert. Ein nicht-jüdischer Freund, der mich begleitete, sagte: „Jetzt ist es Zeit, ein polnisches Museum vergleichbaren Standards zu errichten.“

Aus dem Englischen von Helga Klinger-Groier

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/poland-crime-against-history-by-shlomo-avineri-2016-09/german

 

Żydowskie tajemnice Stanisława Lema. Co o przeszłości genialnego pisarza mówią jego książki?

 Wojciech Orliński
11.07.2016

Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem (fot. Adam Golec / Agencja Gazeta)

O swoich okupacyjnych losach uparcie milczał, ale w „Edenie“, „Powrocie z gwiazd“, „Głosie Pana“ czy nawet w „Solaris“ i „Niezwyciężonym“ zaszyfrował straszne wspomnienia.

Wydawało się, że jego biografia nie skrywa zagadek. Udzielił dwóch wywiadów rzek, napisał książkę autobiograficzną, wyszło kilka tomów jego korespondencji oraz wspomnienia Tomasza Lema, jego syna; do tego dochodzą inne wywiady i teksty wspomnieniowe.

Tymczasem sam wielokrotnie się przekonywałem o tym, że opisane w tych wspomnieniach fakty nie zgadzają się nawet na najprostszym, chronologicznym poziomie. Banalny przykład to data powojennej repatriacji Lemów do Krakowa. W wielu miejscach jest to rok 1946, Lem rzeczywiście to sugerował, choć po bliższym zbadaniu tej kwestii widać, że jego wypowiedzi były wieloznaczne.

Agnieszka Gajewska dotarła do wielu nieznanych dotąd dokumentów pozwalających na rozstrzygnięcie takich kwestii. Ustaliła dokładną datę repatriacji: 17 lipca 1945 r. Odtworzyła też drzewo genealogiczne rodziców pisarza, tym samym wujkowie i ciotki, wspominani przez Lema, nagle zyskali imiona i dokładne daty narodzin i zgonu. Datę zgonu dopełnia zwykle 1941 albo 1942 rok. I tutaj dochodzimy do prawdziwej przyczyny, dla której Lem o swojej młodości opowiadał tak nieprecyzyjnie: nie chciał mówić publicznie o swoim żydowskim pochodzeniu, a więc w konsekwencji także o męczeńskiej śmierci jego rodziny w czasie Holocaustu. Z autobiograficznych tekstów można wywnioskować, że wychowywany był po katolicku i dopiero podczas wojny uświadomiono mu, że jest Żydem. I znowu – trochę to prawda, a trochę nieprawda.

Samuel Lem i Sabina z domu Wolner, rodzice pisarza, uważali się za Polaków pochodzenia żydowskiego. Wzięli ślub w synagodze i uczestniczyli w życiu żydowskiej społeczności Lwowa. Samuel należał także wraz ze swoim bratem Fryderykiem do towarzystwa wspierania młodzieży żydowskiej w zdobywaniu wyższego wykształcenia (tzw. Towarzystwa Rygoryzantów).

Stanisław Lem w polskim gimnazjum uczestniczył w zajęciach z religii mojżeszowej. Na maturze dostał z niej taką samą ocenę jak ze wszystkich innych przedmiotów: bardzo dobrą. Wszystkie te fakty Gajewska ustaliła na podstawie dokumentów wyszperanych w lwowskich i krakowskich archiwach – odpisu świadectwa dojrzałości Lema, życiorysu jego ojca dołączonego do podania o pracę, archiwów lwowskiej gminy żydowskiej itd.

Lem wiedział więc, że coś go łączy z tymi krewnymi i przyjaciółmi ojca, którzy opowiadali się za syjonizmem i przeciwko asymilacji. Ale nie musi to być sprzeczne z tym, że uważał się za Polaka.

Sformułowania typu „Polak wyznania buddyjskiego“ czy „Polak wyznania protestanckiego“ nie budzą w nas sprzeciwu. Dlaczego mamy taki problem z „Polakiem wyznania mojżeszowego“? Gajewska swoją książką dotyka kapitalnego, szerszego problemu: braku dobrej narracji na temat dwudziestowiecznych losów polskich zasymilowanych Żydów. Na hasło „Żydzi na kresach II Rzeczypospolitej“ przywołujemy zwykle te same klisze skojarzeń – trochę „Skrzypka na dachu“, trochę Lejzorka Rojtszwańca. Jacyś dziwnie ubrani ludzie posługujący się niezrozumiałym językiem, których egzotyczny, niepojęty świat przepadł podczas wojny.

Za mało polscy dla jednych, dla drugich za bardzo

A przecież nawet wśród ofiar Holocaustu tacy Żydzi stanowili mniejszość. Większość to byli ludzie dokładnie tacy sami jak Polacy wyznania rzymskokatolickiego. I dopiero terror obu okupantów, przede wszystkim Hitlera, ale i Stalin nie był tu bez winy, sztucznie wyodrębnił, zdehumanizował i wyciął ze wspólnej pamięci tę grupę.

Szczególnie jest to przykre w przypadku Lwowa. Polska pamięć o tym mieście rozpięta jest między dwiema skrajnościami. Jedną jest wizja przedwojennego Lwowa jako miasta przede wszystkim polskiego, w którym ewentualne mniejszości pojawiały się gdzieś na drugim planie. Drugą i równie fałszywą skrajnością jest mit Austria felix – o wielokulturowym raju, w którym przedstawiciele najrozmaitszych narodów żyli szczęśliwie pod sprawiedliwym panowaniem Habsburgów, a potem w II Rzeczpospolitej. Nie było to oczywiście takie piekło, jakie zgotowali we Lwowie Stalin i Hitler, ale nie był to także raj, raczej czyściec pełen nieustających konfliktów. W obu tych fałszywych wizjach nie ma miejsca dla Lema i jego rodziców. Do tej pierwszej byli za mało polscy, do tej drugiej za bardzo, ani to Orlęta Lwowskie, ani Tewje Mleczarz.

Historia zasymilowanych Żydów na Kresach pozostała właściwie do dzisiaj nieopowiedziana. Jak celnie zauważył prof. Bartoszewski, gdyby Lem zapełnił tę lukę i opowiedział historię swojej rodziny konwencjonalną prozą, miałby Nobla w kieszeni.

Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem w swojej pracowni. Kraków, 1993 r. (Fot. Wojciech Druszcz / AG)

Powody, dla których tego nie zrobił, są niestety oczywiste. Lem w swoim życiu (1921-2006) miał wiele okazji do zaobserwowania, że w Polsce pytanie o czyjeś żydowskie pochodzenie rzadko zadawane jest bona fide. W jego długim życiu to pytanie zadawali przedwojenni narodowcy, okupacyjni szmalcownicy, peerelowscy moczarowcy, a w wolnej Polsce znów narodowcy (w 2002 r. LPR zaatakowała go za „promowanie cywilizacji śmierci“).

Nie znaczy to jednak, że tego w ogóle nie opowiedział. Jeśli odtworzymy okupacyjne dzieje Lema tak drobiazgowo jak Agnieszka Gajewska, możemy zauważyć, jak wiele w jego powieściach jest zaszyfrowanych wątków autobiograficznych. I nie chodzi tu tylko o realistyczny opis wojny w „Szpitalu Przemienienia“ i jego kontynuacji „Wśród umarłych“, którą Lem zabronił potem wznawiać, ale także o powieści pozornie czysto fantastyczne, jak „Eden“, „Powrót z gwiazd“, „Głos Pana“ czy nawet „Solaris“. W „Głosie Pana“ pojawia się np. przedziwna retrospekcja profesora Rappaporta, który cudem uchodzi życiem z jakiejś masakry w ruinach płonącego więzienia w nienazwanym mieście Europy Wschodniej. Dziś wiadomo, że to był tzw. pogrom więzienny urządzony we Lwowie 1 lipca 1941 r. tuż po wkroczeniu wojsk niemieckich. Wycofujący się Rosjanie wymordowali więźniów politycznych w lwowskich więzieniach, takich jak Brygidki położone tuż przy kamienicy Lemów. Ukraińscy nacjonaliści liczyli na przychylność nowego okupanta i chcieli się mu przypodobać, zorganizowali więc „spontaniczny“ pogrom Żydów. Prosto z ulicy zgarniano ludzi, których bojówkarze z jakiegoś powodu uznali za Żydów. Wśród nich – Stanisława Lema.

Ofiary pogromu poddawano pośpiesznej selekcji. Część zabijano od razu drągami, rozbryzgi krwi sięgały drugiego piętra. Młodych zapędzono do wynoszenia zwłok z lochów. Wieczorem Niemcy nagle przerwali egzekucję. Nielicznych ocalonych puszczono wolno. Wśród nich – Lema. Nigdy o tym doświadczeniu nie napisał wprost, ale w „Edenie“ i w „Niezwyciężonym“ mamy makabryczne opisy wynoszenia częściowo rozłożonych zwłok ze statku kosmicznego. W „Edenie“ – opis obozu zagłady na innej planecie przypominający tzw. obóz janowski we Lwowie, a w „Niezwyciężonym“ ofiary ataku nanorobotów, które – jeśli pominąć fantastycznonaukowe didaskalia – zachowują się jak więźniowie obozu zagłady w ostatnich chwilach życia.

Głównym bohaterem „Powrotu z gwiazd“ jest Hal Bregg, astronauta, który ma biologicznie 39 lat, a Ziemię opuścił, gdy miał ich 18. Jest to odpowiednio wiek Lema piszącego tę powieść i Lema obserwującego upadek polskiego Lwowa. Za sprawą einsteinowskiej dylatacji czasu, gdy Bregg badał odległe gwiazdy, na Ziemi minęło półtora stulecia. Nie rozumie więc społeczeństwa, które zastał – a społeczeństwo nie rozumie jego i traumatycznych wspomnień z kosmosu, które są alegorią wspomnień samego Lema z okupacji. Lekarz, do którego Bregg się zgłasza ze swoimi problemami psychologicznymi – będący, jak zauważa Gajewska, sobowtórem Samuela Lema – mówi mu, żeby zachował te wspomnienia dla siebie. Opowiadając o nich współczesnym ludziom, tylko pogłębi swoją izolację.

To głównie wspomnienia o śmierci innych astronautów. Dzielą się na trzy rodzaje. Z jednymi po prostu urwała się łączność. Inni ginęli na jego oczach. Najgorsze są wspomnienia tych, którzy, zanim zginęli, błagali o pomoc, a Bregg nie mógł nic dla nich zrobić.

Podobnie było z krewnymi i przyjaciółmi Lema. Od jednych po prostu przestawały przychodzić wiadomości, tak jak od brata jego matki Marka Wolnera. Zginął on prawdopodobnie w kolejnym pogromie, tzw. petlurowskim, 26 lipca 1941 r., ale to są ustalenia współczesnych historyków. Matka Lema do końca życia miała nadzieję, że brat się gdzieś odnajdzie. Lem wspominał, że jej uporczywe wracanie do tego tematu sprawiało mu przykrość. On sam błędnie przypuszczał, że wuj zginął 2 lipca tego roku w tzw. rzezi profesorów.

Niektórzy ginęli na jego oczach. Jeszcze inni prosili go o pomoc, ale Lem – tak jak Hal Bregg – nie mógł narażać siebie i swoich rodziców, dla których był jedyną szansą na ocalenie. Jako blondyn z „aryjskim wyglądem“ mógł w miarę bezpiecznie chodzić po ulicach z fałszywymi papierami.

Kiedy Tomasz Fiałkowski poruszył okupacyjną tematykę, rozmawiając z pisarzem przy okazji wywiadu rzeki „Świat na krawędzi“, został poproszony, by więcej o to nie pytać. Lem powiedział, że poruszanie tych kwestii przypłaca bezsennymi nocami. Stanisław Bereś z kolei wspomina, że pracując z nim nad wywiadem rzeką „Tako rzecze Lem“, zbywany był wymijającymi anegdotkami, a gdy próbował rozmówcę docisnąć – ten demonstracyjnie zdejmował aparat słuchowy (pisarz miał problemy ze słuchem, od kiedy w 1944 r. eksplodował blisko niego pocisk artyleryjski).

Na szczęście Lem zaszyfrował swoje wspomnienia w książkach, a Agnieszka Gajewska odnalazła klucz do tego szyfru. Dla miłośników „Solaris“ jej książka to lektura obowiązkowa. Powinni ją poznać także ci wszyscy, którzy dostrzegają lukę w narracji o losie zasymilowanych Żydów na Kresach. To jest część polskiej historii.


Agnieszka Gajewska
„Zagłada i gwiazdy. Przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema“

Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM
Poznań

Spätestens im August 1942 wusste eine Schweizer Ärztemission über den ­Massenmord an den Juden Bescheid, und zwar in den grässlichsten Details.

Ein Tagebuch aus Privatbesitz belegt: Spätestens im August 1942 wusste eine Schweizer Ärztemission über den ­Massenmord an den Juden Bescheid, und zwar in den grässlichsten Details.

Von Christoph Mörgeli

Lebenslanges Schweigen: Schweizer Kardiologe Robert Hegglin (2.v.r.) auf Rotkreuz-Mission in Deutschland, 1945.Bild: zVg

Der ansonsten so beherrschte Arzt gab sein Missfallen durch lautes Pfeifen kund. Robert Hegglin, renommierter Internist und Kardiologe aus Zürich, sass im Publikum, als sich sein Luzerner Kollege Rudolf Bucher Anfang 1944 in einem öffentlichen Vortrag über die deutschen Gräuel in Osteuropa entsetzte. Der Referent bezeichnete jene, die davon wussten und trotzdem schwiegen, gar als «Landesverräter».

Am nächsten Tag verwahrte sich Sanitätshauptmann Hegglin gegen solche Vorwürfe und erinnerte Oberleutnant Bucher an das schriftlich gegebene Offiziersehrenwort, über das Gesehene an der Ostfront zu schweigen. Die Schweizer Ärztemissionen seien Teil der unparteiischen Rotkreuz-Idee; da sei kein Platz für «Nebengedanken, insbesondere politischer Art». Der Nutzen der Vorträge bei einigen, welche die Zeichen der Zeit noch nicht verstanden hätten, stehe in keinem Verhältnis zur «schweren Einbusse, die wir vor allem im Ausland erleiden». Tatsächlich enthielten die Vorträge von Rudolf Bucher Übertreibungen und Ungenauigkeiten. Hegglin wies im Briefwechsel, in den sich sogar ein Rechtsanwalt einschaltete, speziell den Vorwurf zurück, die Schweizer Ärztemission habe an der Ostfront nur deutsche Patienten betreuen dürfen; er selber habe auch russische Kriegsgefangene und lettische Zivilisten behandelt.

Befürchtungen nach Aktenfund

Damals wie später gehörte die viermalige Entsendung einer Ärzte- und Schwesternmission im Rahmen des deutschen Überfalls auf die Sowjetunion zu den umstrittensten Themen der Geschichte der Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Nicht die humanitären Aktionen zwischen 1941 und 1943 unter dem Patronat des Roten Kreuzes an sich waren problematisch, wohl aber das politische Motiv, die gemischte Finanzierung durch Exportwirtschaft und Bund sowie die Unterstellung unter deutsche Militärgerichtsbarkeit.

Die Idee zu den Schweizer Ärztemissionen dürfte im Frühjahr 1941 am Jahreskongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Chirurgie in Berlin entstanden sein. Sowohl Ferdinand Sauerbruch, der sich als Freund der Schweiz verstand und acht Jahre lang in Zürich gelehrt hatte, wie auch der deutschfreundliche Chirurg und Divisionär Eugen Bircher nahmen später für sich in Anspruch, die Initialzündung gegeben zu haben. Zur Frage der Finanzierung zog man Peter Vieli bei, früher ­Diplomat und jetzt Generaldirektor der Schweizerischen Kreditanstalt. Nach und nach wurden immer höhere Stellen eingeweiht, auf Seiten der Schweiz General Henri Guisan und Aussenminister Marcel Pilet-Golaz, auf ­deutscher Seite Staatssekretär Ernst von Weizsäcker und Generaloberstabsarzt Siegfried Handloser, Chef der Wehrmachtssanität.

Die Schweizer Ärztemission verfolgte nicht nur humanitäre Ziele, sondern sollte auch das bedrohliche Hitlerdeutschland auf dem ­Höhepunkt seiner Macht besänftigen. Im Bundeshaus und im Armeehauptquartier herrschten schwere Bedenken hinsichtlich ­eines deutschen Einmarschs wegen der alliiertenfreundlichen Parteinahme der Schweizer Presse und wegen des Aktenfunds von La ­Charité-sur-Loire durch die Deutschen, der weitgehende Absprachen von General Guisan mit Frankreich belegte.

Die Schweizer Wirtschaft befürchtete angesichts der gespannten Lage Exportprobleme und bezahlte für alle vier Ärztemissionen 650 000 Franken gegenüber 550 000 Franken, die der Bund beisteuerte. Eine problematische Motivierung bildete auch der ausgeprägte ­Anti-Bolschewismus des Schweizer Bürgertums, welches teilweise einen Sieg des nationalsozialistischen Deutschland gegen die Sowjetunion mehr erhoffte als einen Sieg Russlands, der doch im Interesse der Westalliierten lag.

Auch schadete der Akzeptanz der Ärztemissionen, dass mit dem germanophilen Eugen Bircher eine ausgesprochen umstrittene Persönlichkeit die Leitung der ersten Delegation erhielt, die von Oktober 1941 bis Januar 1942 dauerte. Die erste Ärztemission fiel also genau in jene Monate, in denen die militärische Niederlage Deutschlands an der Ostfront besiegelt wurde. Eine zweite Mission führte von ­Januar bis April 1942 nach Warschau, eine ­dritte – hier beschriebene – in die lettischen Städte Riga und Daugavpils (Dünaburg) sowie ins russische ­Pskow (Pleskau). Die vierte Schweizer Ärztemission weilte vom November 1942 bis März 1943 in Krakau.

Gerechterweise muss erwähnt werden, dass die neutrale Schweiz Grossbritannien und Frankreich ebenfalls Ärzte- und Schwesterndelegationen anbot, dort aber auf kein Inter­esse stiess. Wenn die Schweizer an der Ostfront der Gerichtsbarkeit der deutschen Wehrmacht unterstellt wurden, so entsprach dies zwar durchaus dem damaligen Völkerrecht, insbesondere der Genfer Konvention von 1929. Die Unterordnung verdient aber insofern Kritik, als sich die Schweiz an der Ostfront vertraglich mit einem verbrecherischen Regime eingelassen hat, das im «Unternehmen Barbarossa» ­einen Vernichtungskrieg führte und dabei ­jede Menschlichkeit preisgab.

«Äusserst penible Judenfrage»

Der aus dem zugerischen Menzingen stammende Robert Hegglin war 1942 Oberarzt an der Medizinischen Klinik des Universitäts­spitals Zürich und hatte Dienst im Regimentsstab von Oberst Gustav Däniker geleistet, der 1941 wegen einer defätistisch-anpasserischen Denkschrift entlassen wurde («Wir bilden uns merkwürdigerweise sehr viel darauf ein, als ‹Querschläger› durch ein neues Europa zu ­fliegen»).

Auch Robert Hegglin, später international bekannter Ordinarius und Poliklinikdirektor in Zürich, fühlte sich dem deutschen Kulturraum eng verbunden, wurde aber durch seine Eindrücke an der Ostfront mehr als nur irritiert. Zeitlebens sprach er niemals über das dort Gesehene und Gehörte, nicht einmal im engsten Familienkreis. Hegglin hat aber ­während seiner Mission ein Tagebuch geführt und dabei das Erlebte bemerkenswert nüchtern und sachbezogen geschildert. Der Autor hielt verschiedene Prognosen über den Kriegsverlauf fest, schätzte die Personen ein und ­erfasste das Atmosphärische. Ein nahes Kriegsende, geschweige denn ein deutscher Sieg schien Hegglin überhaupt nicht wahrscheinlich. Im Klima von politischer Diktatur und von ­Repressionen gegen die offene Meinungs­äusserung vermochte er die Vorteile der ­Freiheit in Denken, Glauben und Forschen erst richtig zu ermessen.

Am 12. August 1942 vertraute Robert Hegglin seinem Tagebuch an: «Es muss noch eine Frage gestreift und besprochen werden, welche zwar äusserst penibel ist, aber in einem objektiven Bericht nicht fehlen darf: die Judenfrage. Es kann – nach den mir vorliegenden Berichten von deutschen Soldaten, Offizieren und Letten – keinem Zweifel unterliegen, dass in der Umgebung von Riga seit der deutschen Besetzung nahezu 100 000 Juden erschossen worden sind. Die Angaben schwanken zwischen 40 000 und 90 000. Judenerschiessungen sind auch in allen andern grösseren Orten in Lettland vorgenommen worden, und zwar werden diese Erschiessungen nicht nur an ­einheimischen ­Juden hier vorgenommen, sondern es werden offenbar hierher vor allem ­Juden aus dem Reich gebracht und hier erschossen.»

Die Zahl von 100 000 Ermordeten in Lettland entspricht erstaunlich exakt den Befunden der Geschichtswissenschaft. Robert Hegglin fährt in seinem Tagebuch mit der Präzision des medizinischen Diagnostikers weiter: «Nach dem Bericht eines lettischen Arztes, dessen Freund bei der lettischen Polizei ist und der selbst bei den Erschiessungen aktiv beteiligt ist, werden Letten in die lettische Polizeimannschaft gezwungen. Nachdem sie die üblichen Gehorsamkeitserklärungen abgegeben haben, werden sie aufgefordert, an den Erschiessungen teilzunehmen. Weigern sie sich, so werden sie selber wegen Unzuverlässigkeit umgebracht. Es sollen an einem Tag bis 1000 Erschiessungen vorgenommen worden sein. Die Juden schaufeln ihr Massengrab offenbar selbst, werden dann aufgefordert, sich nackt auszuziehen, wobei gut organisiert Ringe und Kleider an verschiedenen Orten abgegeben werden müssen – so erzählt dieser Lette. Dann erfolgt die Erschiessung durch Maschinenpistolen oder auch Nackenschuss. Die Erschiessung wird an Männern, Frauen und Kindern in gleicher Weise durchgeführt.»

Der Tagebuchautor vernahm von Augenzeugen weitere grausliche Details des Holo­caust: «Es soll auch vorgekommen sein, dass die Erschiessungen nicht korrekt durchgeführt wurden. So erzählt der Lette von zwei Mädchen, die abends aus dem Grab gestiegen seien, da sie nur leicht verletzt waren, und die in einem benachbarten Bauernhof Zuflucht suchten. Noch schaurigere Berichte habe ich von Dünaburg gehört. Man erzählt dort, dass es im Massengrab noch gebrüllt habe, als man begann, das Grab zuzudecken. Wie es sich mit der Ausschmückung dieser Erschiessungen verhält, weiss ich nicht. Absolute Tatsache aber dürfte sein, dass hier in Lettland Tausende von Juden von Letten (unter deutschem Befehl) ­erschossen worden sind.»

Robert Hegglin zog aus den glaubhaft geschilderten Gräueltaten im Tagebuch die entschiedensten Konsequenzen: «Dass es gegenüber diesen Massnahmen unsererseits nur schärfste Ablehnung geben kann, dürfte zweifellos sein. Die Deutschen machen es einem moralisch denkenden Menschen schwer, sich für sie einzusetzen. Haben sie diese blutigen Schandtaten tatsächlich notwendig? Dann sind sie auch nicht berufen, die Herren Europas zu werden.»

«Schwanensee», SS-Einladung

Von einem geradezu irrealen Kontrast zu den Massenmorden zeugt der nächste Tagebucheintrag Hegglins, der eine Aufführung von Tschaikowskis «Schwanensee» in Riga betrifft: «Ausgezeichnetes Ballett. Die Musik hat mir ebenfalls sehr gut gefallen.» Es seien vom General bis zum einfachsten Landser alle Wehrmachtsgrade im Publikum gesessen. «Zweimal erhaschte ich eine Welle von bestem Parfüm. Diese Duftwelle erweckte lebhafteste Erinnerungen an Paris und schöne Zeiten.»

Kurz darauf besuchte Robert Hegglin ein ­Lazarett mit 800 Gefangenen. Äusserlich sah ­«alles hervorragend nett» aus, denn die deutschen Bewacher zogen vor den Schweizer Besuchern eine nicht leicht zu durchschauende Show ab. Doch Hegglin entging nicht, dass er klinisch vor allem Wasseransammlungen sah: «Nach dem Bild muss es sich zweifellos um Hungerödeme handeln.» Er entsann sich nicht, jemals Menschen von einer solchen Magerkeit gesehen zu haben: «Sie waren buchstäblich nur Haut und Knochen.» Die Oberschwester aber log, es würden täglich 350 Gramm Brot und Eintopfgerichte abgegeben. Gleichzeitig kursierten im Lazarett glaubwürdige Gerüchte über Kannibalismus: Es werde ein Handel mit Menschenfleisch getrieben, wobei die Hungernden speziell für Lebern und Nieren viel bezahlten.

Am 26. August 1942 weilte Robert Hegglin an einer Abendgesellschaft des obersten Polizeichefs von Lettland, des SS-Oberbrigadeführers Walther Schröder. Verständnis für die besondere Lage der Schweiz war bei den versammelten Norddeutschen nicht auszumachen. Man politisierte in erstaunlicher Offenheit und nahm Hegglin gar nicht als Ausländer wahr. Einig waren sich die Anwesenden, dass der Krieg gegen Grossbritannien «ein ­Unglück und Wahnsinn» sei. Die Deutschen hofften auf ­einen Separatfrieden, denn es müsse darum gehen, den «russischen Koloss» zu erledigen. Alle beteuerten, sie seien «im Grunde auch ­Demokraten» und ihr Land sei keineswegs eine Diktatur. Dies ermunterte Hegglin, einen Toast auf die Demokratie anzubringen. Über den SS-Gastgeber notierte der Schweizer: «Die Züge des Mannes sind zweifellos brutal, auch wenn er recht gemütlich sein kann. Ich musste immer wieder daran denken, dass dieser Mann die Juden hier, mittelbar jedenfalls, auf dem Gewissen hat.»

Kriegführung von äusserster Brutalität

Gestartet waren die «Ostfrontfahrer» in Bern, wo sich 29 Ärzte, 30 Krankenschwestern und 19 Krankenwärter nebst Chauffeuren besammelt hatten. Nach einem Empfang in der militärärztlichen Akademie in Berlin im Beisein von Ferdinand Sauerbruch und dem Schweizer Botschafter Hans Frölicher («nicht besonders imponierend») ging’s im langsamen Lazarettzug nach Riga. Dort übernahm Robert Hegglin eine Station für innere Krankheiten mit 200 Betten, wo er zu seiner Befriedigung «Infektionskrankheiten en masse» zu sehen bekam: Malaria, Flecktyphus, Bauchtyphus, Ruhr, Scharlach und Diphtherie. Die dort beschäftigten russischen Kriegsgefangenen assen «die Abfälle der Diätküche». Der Krieg – so viel wurde Hegglin sofort klar – wurde «ohne Pardon geführt». Es gab kaum noch Gefangene, dafür unmenschliche Verstümmelungen.

Die russischen Soldaten verharrten tagelang bewegungslos im Sumpf, um plötzlich mitten in den Stellungen der vorrückenden Deutschen loszuschlagen. Anderseits verrieten sie ihren Standort oft durch das Geschrei politischer ­Einpeitscher oder gegenseitige Anfeuerungsrufe. Propagandareden aus scheppernden Lautsprechern riefen die Deutschen zur Kapitulation auf. Befreiendes Lachen vernahm Hegglin nicht, die Stimmung im Lazarett war gedrückt, Grossmäuler, die mit Heldentaten prahlten, sah er nie. Die Verwundeten mussten zuerst entlaust werden und warteten nackt ­inmitten von Bergen schmutziger Kleider, ­assen etwas und liessen sich von lauten Radioklängen mit süss-sentimentalen Schlagern ­betäuben.

Die Tragik der Deutschen schien Robert Hegglin ungeheuerlich. Eine Niederlage bedeute wohl das Ende ihrer nationalen Existenz, ein Sieg aber dauernde Unterdrückung «der persönlichen Sphäre und des Persönlichkeitswerts» bis «ins Unerträgliche». Der Schweizer Arzt befürchtete den Untergang des bürgerlichen Menschen und die Herrschaft der unkultivierten Masse. Als besonders «unklar» beurteilte Hegglin die Äusserungen der deutschen Militärpfarrer, die doch wissen mussten, dass der Sieg des Nationalsozialismus religiösen Nihilismus und damit das Ende ihrer christlichen Botschaft bedeuten würde. Politisch erhofften sich die einheimischen Letten einen Sieg Deutschlands über die Sowjets, danach aber einen Sieg der Angloamerikaner über die Achsenmächte: «Also eine Einstellung, die man auch bei uns in der Schweiz finden kann.» Bei Gesprächen mit Deutschen, Russen und Letten erschreckte Hegglin der völlige Materialismus, das Abstumpfen der Gefühle, eine tiefe Freudlosigkeit und der ­Verlust wirklicher Liebesbindungen.

Ausflug ins besetzte Russland

Zu den Höhepunkten von Hegglins Ärztemission gehörte eine viertägige Reise zu den vorgeschobenen Schweizer Sanitätseinrichtungen im lettischen Dünaburg und im russischen Pleskau. Bei der Fahrt im verdunkelten Abteil des Nachtzuges gewann er ein genaueres Bild der deutschen Frontsoldaten. ­Ihre Haltung war «in jeder Hinsicht militärisch». Sie unterhielten sich offen über Dienstliches und schimpften über Vorgesetzte, vermieden aber jedes Wort über Politik. Das Gelände wurde topfeben, und Hegglin sah von weitem als Wahrzeichen der stark zerstörten russischen Stadt Pleskau die grünen Kuppeln des orthodoxen Domes an der Welikaja: «Ich empfand es als ein höchst merkwürdiges Gefühl, den Fuss auf den Boden jenes Russland zu setzen, von dem wir während zwanzig Jahren nichts Genaueres erfahren konnten.»

Die Schweizer Mission war auf drei deutsche Kriegslazarette verteilt, doch herrschte ­erhebliche Missstimmung, da es zu wenig ­Arbeit gab und «die Kompetenzen gegenüber schlechter ausgebildeten, aber arroganten deutschen Kollegen nicht überall scharf abgegrenzt waren». Tatsächlich fanden im Sommer 1942 im nördlichen Frontabschnitt relativ wenige Kampfhandlungen statt.

Die Wehrmacht belagerte Leningrad, war aber durch heftige sowjetische Gegenangriffe seit längerem in die Defensive geraten. «Wunderbar» erschienen Hegglin die etwa dreissig Ju-88-Flugzeuge, die zweimal täglich majestätisch zur Landung ansetzten; man könne sich in deren Gewissenhaftigkeit und Genauigkeit «richtig verlieben».

An einem warmen Sommernachmittag nahm die ganze «Schweizerkolonie» ein Bad in der Welikaja – «alles überstrahlt von der gleichen lieben Sonne, wie sie auch in unseren ­Bergen leuchtet». Im Fluss planschte auch der frühere Divisionskommandant und nunmehrige Nationalrat Eugen Bircher. Als Bircher später in einem Flugzeug sass, meinte Hegglin über den Aargauer Chirurgen: «Dieser biedere, gutgläubige Schweizerkopf passt irgendwie schlecht zu den Köpfen der Luftwaffen-Offiziere, die scharf gemeisselt und hart sind.»

Im zu siebzig Prozent zerstörten Dünaburg besuchte Robert Hegglin die Schweizer Missionsmitglieder, traf allerdings auf eine ausgesprochen schlechte Stimmung. Auch dort gab es nicht genügend Kranke und Verletzte, so dass «die Deutschen, welche selbst nicht ­genügend beschäftigt waren, die Schweizer als Eindringlinge betrachteten».

Robert Hegglin hat seine persönlichen Eindrücke während seiner Ärztemission in der knappen Freizeit auf 165 grosszügig beschriebenen Seiten festgehalten. Das Manuskript ­beginnt am 17. Juni 1942 und bricht am 10. September 1942 abrupt ab – sechzehn Tage vor Ende der Mission. Es scheint unwahrscheinlich, dass der Autor seine Aufzeichnungen vorzeitig eingestellt oder verloren hat. Weit eher denkbar ist, dass Hegglin den Schluss für die Überlieferung an die Nachwelt als ungeeignet beurteilte und die entsprechenden Seiten vernichtete. Hat er sich zu negativ über Nazideutschland ausgelassen? Oder hat er ein zu positives Bild der Deutschen gemalt, zu dem er nach dem Krieg nicht mehr stehen wollte? Denkbar wäre auch, dass er das Getto von Riga und die dort herrschenden entsetzlichen ­Zustände gesehen und beschrieben hat.

Nachweislich geärgert hat sich Robert ­Hegglin nach seiner Rückkehr über Details, die angesichts des fast unmittelbar erlebten Holocaust als beschämend banal erscheinen. Der Sanitätshauptmann erhob beim stellvertretenden Schweizer Rotkreuz-Chefarzt Beschwerde über die Uneinheitlichkeit der Spezialuniform der Ärztemission, besonders bei «Kopfbedeckung, Schuhen und Strümpfen der Krankenschwestern». Dringlich empfahl er seinen Vorgesetzten, «die Mütze der Ärzte mit dem Bändeli durch eine Lösung mit zwei Knöpfen zu ersetzen».

Die Bevölkerung erfuhr bis 1945 nichts von den ­vernichtenden Vorgängen in den Konzentrationslagern der Nazis. 
Gewisse Kreise waren aber schon früher informiert.

Von Christoph Mörgeli

Mit dem Ostfeldzug begann im Juni 1941 der Massenmord an der jüdischen Bevölkerung. Anfang 1942 beschlossen hohe Exponenten der NS-Regierung und der SS die Deportation von Europas Juden in den ­Osten, um sie dort systematisch umzubringen. Dies geschah anfänglich durch Massen­erschiessungen, dann auch durch Abgase und seit März 1942 in Gaskammern von Vernichtungslagern.

Die Schweizer Bevölkerung vernahm erst nach Kriegsende vom eigentlichen ­Holocaust. Sogar Jean Rudolf von Salis, der bei Radio Beromünster während des Zweiten Weltkriegs regelmässig über die aktuelle Lage referierte und zu den bestinformierten Zeitgenossen gehörte, erhielt erst im Mai 1945 Kenntnis von den Vorgängen in den Konzentrationslagern.

Die ­Behörden in Bundesbern wurden ­allerdings schon wesentlich früher gewarnt. Franz Rudolf von Weiss, Schweizer Generalkonsul in Köln, schrieb im November 1941 an die Fremdenpolizei und an das ­Politische Departement über bevorstehende Judendeportationen nach Minsk. Die Gestapo verhindere jede Auswanderung von Juden, damit nichts «von den letzten unmenschlichen, von vielen Deutschen scharf verurteilten Massnahmen durch­sickert». Mitte Mai 1942 schickte von Weiss «streng vertraulich» sogar Fotografien – etwa von der «Entladung deutscher ­Güterwagen von den Leichen erstickter ­Juden» – an Brigadier Roger Masson, Chef des Nachrichtendienstes.

Der in Zürich tätige Industrielle Eduard Schulte aus Breslau informierte im Juli 1942 jüdische Persönlichkeiten in der Schweiz über die systematische Vernichtung von Juden. Gerhart M. Riegner, ­Vertreter des Jüdischen Weltkongresses in Genf, erhielt so Kenntnis von den Vernichtungsplänen und leitete sie ab dem 8. August 1942 an die Westalliierten weiter. Auch einzelne Mitarbeiter der Schweizer ­Ärztemissionen machten ihre Erfahrungen öffentlich, was zu scharfen deutschen Interventionen führte. Was die der Zensur unterworfene Presse betrifft, so schrieb die SP-Tageszeitung La Sentinelle am 12. August 1942: «Man ist dabei, eine Rasse ­systematisch auszurotten.» Im Herbst 1942 erwähnten Schweizer Zeitungen «Todes­transporte» von Juden Richtung Osten.

«Ernsthafte Nachteile»

Robert Jezler von der Polizeiabteilung im Justizdepartement legte Bundesrat ­Eduard von Steiger Ende Juli 1942 einen Bericht vor, laut dem eine Rückweisung «kaum mehr zu verantworten» sei.

Doch der Bundesrat beschloss am 4. August 1942 das Gegenteil, im Wissen, dass den Betroffenen daraus «ernsthafte Nachteile (Gefahr für Leib und Leben) erwachsen könnten». Die Landesregierung wollte den Juden den Status von politischen Flüchtlingen nicht gewähren und änderte diesen Entscheid offiziell erst im Juli 1944.

 

IBM’s Role In The Holocaust Revealed

 

INTRODUCTION IBM and the Holocaust
The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation
By EDWIN BLACK
Crown


This book will be profoundly uncomfortable to read. It was profoundly uncomfortable to write. It tells the story of IBM’s conscious involvement—directly and through its subsidiaries—in the Holocaust, as well as its involvement in the Nazi war machine that murdered millions of others throughout Europe.

Mankind barely noticed when the concept of massively organized information quietly emerged to become a means of social control, a weapon of war, and a roadmap for group destruction. The unique igniting event was the most fateful day of the last century, January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler came to power. Hitler and his hatred of the Jews was the ironic driving force behind this intellectual turning point. But his quest was greatly enhanced and energized by the ingenuity and craving for profit of a single American company and its legendary, autocratic chairman. That company was International Business Machines, and its chairman was Thomas J. Watson.

Der Führer’s obsession with Jewish destruction was hardly original. There had been czars and tyrants before him. But for the first time in history, an anti-Semite had automation on his side. Hitler didn’t do it alone. He had help.

In the upside-down world of the Holocaust, dignified professionals were Hitler’s advance troops. Police officials disregarded their duty in favor of protecting villains and persecuting victims. Lawyers perverted concepts of justice to create anti-Jewish laws. Doctors defiled the art of medicine to perpetrate ghastly experiments and even choose who was healthy enough to be worked to death—and who could be cost-effectively sent to the gas chamber. Scientists and engineers debased their higher calling to devise the instruments and rationales of destruction. And statisticians used their little known but powerful discipline to identify the victims, project and rationalize the benefits of their destruction, organize their persecution, and even audit the efficiency of genocide. Enter IBM and its overseas subsidiaries.

Solipsistic and dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities, IBM was self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM’s technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world.

So how did it work?

When Hitler came to power, a central Nazi goal was to identify and destroy Germany’s 600,000 Jews. To Nazis, Jews were not just those who practiced Judaism, but those of Jewish blood, regardless of their assimilation, intermarriage, religious activity, or even conversion to Christianity. Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and governmental records all across Germany—and later throughout Europe—was a cross-indexing task so monumental, it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Reich needed to mount a systematic campaign of Jewish economic disenfranchisement and later began the massive movement of European Jews out of their homes and into ghettos, once again, the task was so prodigious it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system—a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler’s Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before—the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains cataloged with icy automation.

IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, did not simply sell the Reich machines and then walk away. IBM’s subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, enthusiastically custom-designed the complex devices and specialized applications as an official corporate undertaking. Dehomag’s top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliation. IBM NY always understood—from the outset in 1933—that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party. The company leveraged its Nazi Party connections to continuously enhance its business relationship with Hitler’s Reich, in Germany and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe.

Dehomag and other IBM subsidiaries custom-designed the applications. Its technicians sent mock-ups of punch cards back and forth to Reich offices until the data columns were acceptable, much as any software designer would today. Punch cards could only be designed, printed, and purchased from one source: IBM. The machines were not sold, they were leased, and regularly maintained and upgraded by only one source: IBM. IBM subsidiaries trained the Nazi officers and their surrogates throughout Europe, set up branch offices and local dealerships throughout Nazi Europe staffed by a revolving door of IBM employees, and scoured paper mills to produce as many as 1.5 billion punch cards a year in Germany alone. Moreover, the fragile machines were serviced on site about once per month, even when that site was in or near a concentration camp. IBM Germany’s headquarters in Berlin maintained duplicates of many code books, much as any IBM service bureau today would maintain data backups for computers.

I was haunted by a question whose answer has long eluded historians. The Germans always had the lists of Jewish names. Suddenly, a squadron of grim-faced SS would burst into a city square and post a notice demanding those listed assemble the next day at the train station for deportation to the East. But how did the Nazis get the lists? For decades, no one has known. Few have asked.

The answer: IBM Germany’s census operations and similar advanced people counting and registration technologies. IBM was founded in 1898 by German inventor Herman Hollerith as a census tabulating company. Census was its business. But when IBM Germany formed its philosophical and technologic alliance with Nazi Germany, census and registration took on a new mission. IBM Germany invented the racial census—listing not just religious affiliation, but bloodline going back generations. This was the Nazi data lust. Not just to count the Jews—but to identify them.

People and asset registration was only one of the many uses Nazi Germany found for high-speed data sorters. Food allocation was organized around databases, allowing Germany to starve the Jews. Slave labor was identified, tracked, and managed largely through punch cards. Punch cards even made the trains run on time and cataloged their human cargo. German Railway, the Reichsbahn, Dehomag’s biggest customer, dealt directly with senior management in Berlin. Dehomag maintained punch card installations at train depots across Germany, and eventually across all Europe.

How much did IBM know? Some of it IBM knew on a daily basis throughout the 12-year Reich. The worst of it IBM preferred not to know—“don’t ask, don’t tell“ was the order of the day. Yet IBM NY officials, and frequently Watson’s personal representatives, Harrison Chauncey and Werner Lier, were almost constantly in Berlin or Geneva, monitoring activities, ensuring that the parent company in New York was not cut out of any of the profits or business opportunities Nazism presented. When U.S. law made such direct contact illegal, IBM’s Swiss office became the nexus, providing the New York office continuous information and credible deniability.

Certainly, the dynamics and context of IBM’s alliance with Nazi Germany changed throughout the twelve-year Reich. I want the full story understood in context. Skipping around in the book will only lead to flawed and erroneous conclusions. So if you intend to skim, or rely on selected sections, please do not read the book at all. Make no mistake. The Holocaust would still have occurred without IBM. To think otherwise is more than wrong. The Holocaust would have proceeded—and often did proceed—with simple bullets, death marches, and massacres based on pen and paper persecution. But there is reason to examine the fantastical numbers Hitler achieved in murdering so many millions so swiftly, and identify the crucial role of automation and technology. Accountability is needed.

What made me demand answers to the unasked questions about IBM and the Holocaust? I confronted the reality of IBM’s involvement one day in 1993 in Washington at the United States Holocaust Museum. There, in the very first exhibit, an IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine—riddled with circuits, slots, and wires—was prominently displayed. Clearly affixed to the machine’s front panel glistened an IBM nameplate. It has since been replaced with a smaller IBM machine because so many people congregated around it, creating a bottleneck. The exhibit explained little more than that IBM was responsible for organizing the census of 1933 that first identified the Jews. IBM had been tight-lipped about its involvement with Nazi Germany. So although 15 million people, including most major Holocaust experts, have seen the display, and in spite of the best efforts of leading Museum historians, little more was understood about this provocative display other than the brief curator’s description at the exhibit and a few pages of supportive research.

I still remember the moment, staring at the machine for an hour. I turned to my mother and father who accompanied me to the museum that day and promised I would discover more.

My parents are Holocaust survivors, uprooted from their homes in Poland. My mother escaped from a boxcar en route to Treblinka, was shot, and then buried in a shallow mass grave. My father had already run away from a guarded line of Jews and discovered her leg protruding from the snow. By moonlight and by courage, these two escapees survived against the cold, the hunger, and the Reich. Standing next to me five decades later, their image within the reflection of the exhibit glass, shrapnel and bullet fragments permanently embedded in their bodies, my parents could only express confusion.

But I had other questions. The Nazis had my parents‘ names. How?

What was the connection of this gleaming black, beige and silver machine, squatting silently in this dimly lit museum, to the millions of Jews and other Europeans who were murdered—and murdered not just in a chaotic split-second as a casualty of war, but in a grotesque and protracted twelve-year campaign of highly organized humiliation, dehumanization, and then ultimately extermination.

For years after that chance discovery, I was shadowed by the realization that IBM was somehow involved in the Holocaust in technologic ways that had not yet been pieced together. Dots were everywhere. The dots needed to be connected.

Knowing that International Business Machines has always billed itself as a „solutions“ company, I understood that IBM does not merely wait for governmental customers to call. IBM has amassed its fortune and reputation precisely because it generally anticipates governmental and corporate needs even before they develop, and then offers, designs, and delivers customized solutions—even if it must execute those technologic solutions with its own staff and equipment. IBM has done so for countless government agencies, corporate giants, and industrial associations.

For years I promised myself I would one day answer the question: how many solutions did IBM provide to Nazi Germany? I knew about the initial solution: the census. Just how far did the solutions go?

In 1998, I began an obsessive quest for answers. Proceeding without any foundation funds, organizational grants, or publisher dollars behind me, I began recruiting a team of researchers, interns, translators and assistants, all on my own dime.

Soon a network developed throughout the United States, as well as in Germany, Israel, England, Holland, Poland, and France. This network continued to grow as time went on. Holocaust survivors, children of survivors, retirees, and students with no connection to the Holocaust—as well as professional researchers, distinguished archivists and historians, and even former Nuremberg Trial investigators—all began a search for documentation. Ultimately, more than 100 people participated, some for months at a time, some for just a few hours searching obscure Polish documents for key phrases. Not knowing the story, they searched for key words: census, statistics, lists, registrations, railroads, punch cards, and a roster of other topics. When they found them, the material was copied and sent. For many weeks, documents were flowing in at the rate of 100 per day.

Most of my team was volunteers. All of them were sworn to secrecy. Each was shocked and saddened by the implications of the project and intensely motivated. A few said they could not sleep well for days after learning of the connection. I was often sustained by their words of encouragement.

Ultimately, I assembled more than 20,000 pages of documentation from 50 archives, library manuscript collections, museum files, and other repositories. In the process, I accessed thousands of formerly classified State Department, OSS, or other previously restricted government papers. Other obscure documents from European holdings had never been translated or connected to such an inquiry. All these were organized in my own central archive mirroring the original archival source files. We also scanned and translated more than 50 general books and memoirs, as well as contemporary technical and scientific journals covering punch cards and statistics, Nazi publications, and newspapers of the era. All of this material—primary documents, journal articles, newsclips, and book extracts—were cross-indexed by month. We created one manila folder for every month from 1933 to 1950. If a document referred to numerous dates, it was cross-filed in the numerous monthly folders. Then all contents of monthly folders were further cross-indexed into narrow topic threads, such as Warsaw Ghetto, German Census, Bulgarian Railroads, Watson in Germany, Auschwitz, and so on.

Stacks of documents organized into topics were arrayed across my basement floor. As many as six people at a time busily shuttled copies of documents from one topic stack to another from morning until midnight. One document might be copied into five or six topic stacks. A high-speed copier with a 20-bin sorter was installed. Just moving from place to place in the basement involved hopscotching around document piles.

None of the 20,000 documents were flash cards. It was much more complex. Examined singly, none revealed their story. Indeed, most of them were profoundly misleading as standalone papers. They only assumed their true meaning when juxtaposed with numerous other related documents, often from totally unrelated sources. In other words, the documents were all puzzle pieces—the picture could not be constructed until all the fragments were put together. For example, one IBM report fleetingly referred to a „Mr. Hendricks“ as fetching an IBM machine from Dachau. Not until I juxtaposed that document with an obscure military statistics report discovered at the Public Record Office in London did I learn who Sgt. Hendricks really was.

Complicating the task, many of the IBM papers and notes were unsigned or undated carbons, employing deliberate vagueness, code words, catch phrases, or transient corporate short hand. I had to learn the contemporaneous lexicon of the company to decipher their content. I would study and stare at some individual documents for months until their meaning finally became clear through some other discovered document. For example, I encountered an IBM reference to accumulating „points.“ Eventually, I discovered that „points“ referred to making sales quotas for inclusion in IBM’s Hundred Percent Club. IBM maintained sales quotas for all its subsidiaries during the Hitler-era.

Sometimes a key revelation did not occur until we tracked a source back three and four stages. For example, I reviewed the English version of the well-known volume Destruction of the Dutch Jews by Jacob Presser. I found nothing on my subject. I then asked my researchers in Holland to check the Dutch edition. They found a single unfootnoted reference to a punch card system. Only by checking Presser’s original typescript did we discover a marginal notation that referenced a Dutch archival document that led to a cascade of information on the Netherlands. In reviewing the Romanian census, I commissioned the translation of a German statistician’s 20-page memoir to discover a single sentence confirming that punch cards were used in Romania. That information was juxtaposed against an IBM letter confirming the company was moving machinery from war-torn Poland into Romania to aid Romanian census operations.

In the truest sense, the story of IBM and the Holocaust has been shattered into thousands of shards. Only by piecing them all together did I erect a towering picture window permitting me to view what really occurred. That verified account is retold in this book.

In my pursuit, I received extraordinary cooperation from every private, public, and governmental source in every country. Sadly, the only refusal came from IBM itself, which rebuffed my requests for access to documents and interviews. I was not alone. Since WWII, the company has steadfastly refused to cooperate with outside authors. Virtually every recent book on IBM, whether written by esteemed business historians or ex-IBM employees, includes a reference to the company’s refusal to cooperate with the author in any way. Ultimately, I was able to arrange proper access. Hundreds of IBM documents were placed at my disposal. I read them all.

Behind every text footnote is a file folder with all the hardcopy documentation needed to document every sentence in this book at a moment’s notice. Moreover, I assembled a team of hair-splitting, nitpicking, adversarial researchers and archivists to review each and every sentence, collectively ensuring that each fact and fragment of a fact was backed up with the necessary black and white documents.

In reconstructing the facts, I was guided on every page by two principles: context and consequences. For instance, although I enjoyed access to volumes of diplomatic and intelligence information, I was careful to concentrate on what was known publicly in the media about atrocities and anti-Jewish conditions in Europe. For this reason, readers will notice an extraordinary reliance on articles in the New York Times. I quote the New York Times not because it was the newspaper of record in America, but because IBM executives, including Thomas Watson, were headquartered in New York. Had they lived in Chicago, I would have quoted the Chicago Tribune. Had they lived in Cleveland, I would have quoted the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Readers will also notice that I frequently relied upon reproducing the exact words the principals themselves used in telegrams, letters, or telephone transcripts. Readers can judge for themselves exactly what was said in what context.

With few exceptions (see Bibliographical Note), the Holocaust literature is virtually devoid of mention of the Hollerith machines—in spite of its high profile display at the United States Holocaust Museum. Historians should not be defensive about the absence of even a mention. The public documents were all there, but there are literally millions of frames and pages of Holocaust documents in the leading archives of the world. Many of these materials had simply never been accessed, many have not been available, and some are based on false chronologies or appear to be corporate minutia. Others were well known, such as Heydrich’s 1939 instruction on concentrating Jewish communities near railroad tracks, but the repeated references to census operations were simply overlooked.

More than the obscurity of the documents, such an investigation would require expertise in the history of the Holocaust before and after the war began, the history of post-Industrial Revolution mechanization, the history of technology, and more specifically the archaic punch card system, as well as an understanding of Reich economics, multi-national corporations, and a grasp of financial collusion. In addition, one would need to juxtapose the information for numerous countries before assembling the complete picture. Just as important is the fact that until I examined the IBM documents, that half of the screen was totally obscured. Again, the documents do not speak by themselves, only in ensemble. I was fortunate to have an understanding of Reich economics and multinational commerce from my earlier book, The Transfer Agreement, as well as a background in the computer industry, and years of experience as an investigative journalist specializing in corporate misconduct. I approached this project as a typical if not grandiose investigation of corporate conduct with one dramatic difference: the conduct impacted on the lives and deaths of millions.

Gathering my pre-publication expert reviewers was a process in itself. I sought not only the leading historians of the Holocaust, but niche experts on such topics as Vichy France, Romania, and census and persecution. But I also consulted business historians, technical specialists, accountants, legal sources on reparations and corporate war crimes, an investigator from the original Nuremberg prosecution team, a wartime military intelligence technology expert, and even an ex-FBI special agent with expertise in financial crimes. I wanted the prismatic view of all.

Changing perspective was perhaps the dominant reason why the relationship between IBM and the Holocaust has never been explored. When I first wrote The Transfer Agreement in 1984, no one wanted to focus on assets. Now everyone talks about the assets. The formative years for most Holocaust scholarship was before the computer age, and well before the Age of Information. Everyone now possesses an understanding of how technology can be utilized in the affairs of war and peace. We can now go back and look at the same documentation in a new light.

Many of us have become enraptured by the Age of Computerization and the Age of Information. I know I have. But now I am consumed with a new awareness that, for me, as the son of Holocaust survivors, brings me to a whole new consciousness. I call it the Age of Realization, as we look back and examine technology’s wake. Unless we understand how the Nazis acquired the names, more lists will be compiled against more people.

The story of IBM and the Holocaust is just a beginning. I could have written 20 books with the documents I uncovered, one for every country in Europe. I estimate there are 100,000 more documents scattered in basements and corporate archives around the United States and Europe. Corporate archivists should take note: these documents are related to a crime and must not be moved, tampered with, or destroyed. They must be transferred to those appropriate archival institutions that can assure immediate and undelayed access to scholars and war crimes prosecutors so the accountability process can continue (see Note on Sources).

Only through exposing and examining what really occurred can the world of technology finally adopt the well-worn motto: Never Again.

Edwin Black
Washington DC
October 2000

(C) 2001 Edwin Black All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-609-60799-5

How Did Primo Levi Die?

In response to:

The Mystery of Primo Levi from the November 5, 2015 issue

Primo Levi, Turin, 1985; photograph by René Burri
Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi, Turin, 1985; photograph by René Burri

To the Editors:

Tim Parks’s engaging review of The Complete Works of Primo Levi [NYR, November 5] is satisfying on a number of levels, but I was disheartened to see the piece bookended by the “suicide.” Parks’s phrase that Levi “threw himself down the stairwell to his death” is not, in any case, an accurate way to describe a tumble over a railing. But the larger issue is that thoughtful and important people close to Levi, who first thought it was a suicide, have reconsidered the event. These people include his cardiologist and friend David Mendel, his lifelong friend Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, and Fernando Camon. Levi was in a whirl of activities—he’d scheduled an interview for the following Monday, he was considering the presidency of the publishing house Einaudi, he’d just submitted a novel, and that very morning he mailed a plan-filled letter. Add to that the tight dimensions of the stairwell, a railing lower than his waist, recovery from surgery (lowered blood pressure), the number of people who survived Auschwitz and did not kill themselves, and a number of other factors, and the suicide doesn’t make sense.

It has been a useful symbol for critics and other writers to hold on to as they imagine the why and how, but it is grossly unfair to the man and to his work. If this crutch is removed, his material can be examined in fresh light—an examination that he deserves.

I hope the editors of The New York Review will help discourage the story, which, in the cycling of Internet sites, already holds a terrifically strong grip. I would strongly urge you to see this 1999 essay, “Primo Levi’s Last Moments” by Diego Gambetta.

Carolyn Lieberg
Washington, D.C.

Tim Parks replies:

“1987—April 11: Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”

I quote not from a rogue website but from the author chronology provided in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, the book under review. These words, in turn, are a translation of the chronology prepared by Il Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi in Turin, the most authoritative source of information on Levi; they were actually written by Ernesto Ferrero, for many years Levi’s editor at Einaudi, a close friend who knew the author well and spoke to him regularly right through to the end.

The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Annissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a “tumble over a railing” in a Turin apartment block. The Turin law court that heard the evidence surrounding the death agreed and gave its verdict accordingly. In any event it is unthinkable that Levi, a cautious man, would have brought up children and maintained his infirm mother in a building where one could simply tumble over bannisters.

Diego Gambetta’s Boston Review article, to which Carolyn Lieberg refers me, is an extended exercise in wishful thinking, sometimes disingenuous (as when it claims, for example, that the biographies do not back up their claim that the death was suicide, or omits to mention the family’s immediate acceptance of the suicide verdict, or suggests that the height of the railing was abnormally low), sometimes plain wrong, as when it claims that Levi never wrote in favor of suicide. In the story “Heading West” (published in 1971, but interestingly republished shortly before the suicide in 1987), he sympathetically describes a remote tribe who refuse a drug that will put an end to an epidemic of suicides. The chief of the tribe writes, and they are the final words of the story, that the tribe’s members “prefer freedom to drugs, and death to illusion.” Freedom is always a positive word for Levi.

As early as 1959 Levi had written to his German translator, Heinz Reidt, that “suicide is an act of will, a free decision.” In 1981 when Levi’s German teacher, Hanns Engert, hanged himself, Levi was asked to sign a petition claiming it was murder. But the evidence was so overwhelming that he refused: “Hanns killed himself,” he said. “Suicide is a right we all have.”

This brings us to the moral issue at stake here. Levi was a sworn enemy of denial in all its forms. In If This Is a Man he is dismayed when at Auschwitz his friend Alberto convinces himself that his father, just “selected,” will not actually be sent to the gas chambers. It is a renunciation of reality, of sanity. Later, he would be equally dismayed that Alberto’s parents continued to deny the obvious truth that their son had died in the march away from Auschwitz, preferring to believe that he was somehow safe and well in Russia. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi attacks all attempts to find solace in pieties and “convenient truths,” in particular the notion that Auschwitz victims, himself included, were somehow sanctified by their experience, their courage and goodness becoming almost a consolation for the awfulness of what had happened: “It is disingenuous, absurd and historically false,” he writes, “to argue that a hellish system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims.”

Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity. He was not obliged to his readers to behave in a reassuring way or protect the illusions they had built around his person. “In my work I have portrayed myself…as…well-balanced,” he remarked. “However, I’m not well-balanced at all. I go through long periods of imbalance.”

Whatever his reasons for doing what he did, and clearly in the last months of his life he oscillated between deep depression and rare moments of enthusiasm for new projects, Levi was a free man, exercising “a right we all have.” “He’s done what he’d always said he’d do” were reportedly his wife’s words on returning home to discover what had happened.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/17/how-did-he-primo-levi-exchange/

line-wordpress-long

Primo Levi.jpg
Studio PericoliTullio Pericoli: Primo Levi, 2014

Can one ever know “too much” about a writer?

Take the delicate case of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who combined the careers of writer and professional chemist. Until recently I had only read Levi’s three most renowned works, his two great war memoirs, If This Is a Man and The Truce, and then The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical pieces exploring the author’s relationships in the light of his work as a chemist. My response—many years ago—was in line with that of most of the articles I had read on the author, which tend to hagiography. The story of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man is so overwhelming, Levi’s humanity and healthy bewilderment in the face of the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi camps so resolute and right that one cannot help but admire the book. The Truce, in contrast, is full of positive energy and optimism, describing Levi’s experiences in Russian refugee camps after Auschwitz and up to the moment of his repatriation and return to his home town of Turin, while The Periodic Table is clearly the work of an older, more determinedly sophisticated writer. Neal Ascherson’s 1985 review in The New York Review sets out the typical reader reaction: “a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation,” Ascherson calls it, coming out of Levi’s work not as “a supervisor … in some enormous multi-national concern, but a struggling freelance chemist….a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road.

How different things begin to look when one tackles the almost three thousand pages of The Collected Works and browses the long chronology of Levi’s life offered in the first of these three hefty volumes, as I have just done for a review essay.

The first surprise is the dates: If This Is a Man (1947), The Truce (1963), The Periodic Table (1975). What was Levi doing in the years in between? On the road with his chemistry? No, from 1948 to 1975 he worked for the same locally-based paint and chemical company, first as a chemist, then as technical director and later (when he was writing The Periodic Table) as general manager. So Ascherson had got an entirely skewed and romanticized view of Levi’s working life. But this was hardly his fault. It’s the view The Periodic Table suggests. So was Levi unhappy, one wonders, with his long managerial career?

The next curiosity is that while there are no publications in the eighteen years between the first two books, between The Truce and The Periodic Table there are two collections of short stories that no one ever mentions: Natural Histories (1966) and Flaw of Form (1975). Reading through them, I’m astonished at the fall-off in performance. It’s not that they are badly written, but there is a frivolity, a childishness almost, that strives for but never quite achieves comedy. Essentially, these are science fiction pieces in which the twin fears of sexual experience and invasive impersonal power structures play out in a wide variety of paranoid fantasies, but without the urgency or commitment that might really involve us. They are, as it were, at once frightened and complacent. “Little transgressions,” Levi called them. Why was he writing this stuff?

The question pushed me to look at a proper biography. Obscurely, I felt that if I could understand the inspiration behind the short stories, I might learn something new about the memoirs. Here again there were surprises. Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life (2003) offers a wealth of facts, some of the most important of which are not in the chronology offered by the new Collected Works. For example, a number of the details in the three auto¬biographical works are distorted or invented. Thomson lists these details and I pondered them. It seemed that Levi tended to make his close companions less cultured and educated, but more vital and enterprising, than they actually were, such that they become foils for the cautious and highly educated Levi; they are not as smart as he is, but admirably courageous, and above all free. However, doing this involved inventing details that the people in question found insulting, or just plain false.

What is most surprising in the biography, though, and barely hinted at in The Collected Works, is the intense monotony and eventually chronic unhappiness of Levi’s domestic life, his deep depressions and profound pessimism. Aside from the two-year parenthesis that was Auschwitz and the Russian refugee camps, he spent his whole life in the same Turin apartment in the company of his mother, to whom he was intensely attached. After the war, the still virgin Levi married in very short order the virgin Lucia Morpurgo, but rather than set her up in a new home, Levi brought her, against her wishes, into the apartment with his mother and sister, bringing up two children in an atmosphere fraught with frustration and resentment. Meantime, Levi, who desperately wished to leave his office job for a literary career but feared he wouldn’t make it, spent much of his free time corresponding with Auschwitz survivors and establishing intimate but non-sexual relations with other women, and in general, stayed out of his home absolutely as much as possible.

But is this information “important” or even useful when we read a great book like If This Is a Man? Though his mother was absolutely central to Levi’s life, she barely gets a mention in his autobiographical work, nor is there any projection of her that one can see in the fiction. Surely the book is the book is the book and that’s that. The rest, gossip.

None of us can read a story without relating it to the knowledge and experience we bring to it. When we read Levi’s memoir our reaction is conditioned by what we already know about the Holocaust, about fascism, about Judaism. The story stands in relation to the things we know. That, after all, is the main reason for including a life chronology at the beginning of The Collected Works; the facts of the life condition, or inform, our response. Returning to the celebrated works equipped with the rich context of the extended biography, I began to notice things I hadn’t really seen before. “If, from inside the Lager,” Levi writes at one point of If This Is a Man, “a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Be sure not to tolerate in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”

What can Levi mean? Surely not that there may be beatings and gas chambers and forced labor in our homes. The comment comes immediately after a reflection that the deprivations of Auschwitz have forced him to acknowledge how little he really lived when he was a free man. Is Levi suggesting that one’s manhood can be challenged as profoundly in the domestic environment as in the camps? Toward the end of The Truce, with Levi now in sight of home after his long travels, he offers a reflection that at once explains the book’s curious title and throws the whole narrative into a new perspective:

We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or for ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. … Soon, even tomorrow, we would have to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us. … Although the months just passed, of wandering at the edge of civilization, were harsh, they now seemed to us a truce, an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny, never to be repeated.

Never to be repeated! Writing almost twenty years after that truce, Levi appears to be telling us that this had been his one experience of real freedom. A page later the book ends with the author safely home, but dreaming that he is again back “in the Lager, and nothing outside the Lager was true.” Home and the camps are bizarrely superimposed.

Realizing only now how frequently notions of freedom and imprisonment occur throughout Levi’s work, I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison? The short stories are largely frivolous perhaps because Levi yearned for the freedom of frivolity; many of those who knew him report his occasionally infantile behavior (“My impression was of a child trapped in a man’s body,” said one close associate). But the short stories did not bring him the respect that the memoirs did and Levi wanted both the freedom and the respect.

In the later works it’s easy to see Levi searching in every way for a freedom of expression that will nevertheless carry the weight of the memoir; the books, that is, become part of his search for a modus vivendi, one that will allow him both to stay home with mother and feel courageous and free and be respected and admired. This is particularly the case with If Not Now, When? Levi’s only novel, where an alter ego in the guise of a Russian Jew becomes an anti-Nazi partisan, successfully fighting and killing and seducing women, being simultaneously, as it were, free and good, committed to the right cause but not trapped in it. This is wishful thinking and in fact the story is unconvincing from start to finish.

The picture of this man deeply conflicted between the imperatives of freedom and the fear of disappointing his nearest and dearest inevitably influences the way I come to his last book, written in the early Eighties. Levi’s mother was now an invalid. His wife’s mother was blind. Whenever he left home for a day or two he was extremely anxious about them. He was on anti-depressants. Philip Roth, the writer Fulvio Tomizza, and the great German publisher Michael Kruger all found Levi “pathetic,” even “excruciatingly pathetic.”

It was in this miserable atmosphere, in his sixties now, that Levi turned away from the freedoms he had been looking for in fiction and went back to Auschwitz, this time in a moral essay of ferocious reflection, without any suspect details. The book is called The Drowned and the Saved and is remarkable for its sense of exasperation, its masochism almost. As I note in my review, Levi sometimes seems more determined to insist that Auschwitz survivors were degraded and contaminated and that all “the best” inevitably died, than to explore the psyche of the Nazi torturers. He seeks, that is, in every way to break down the consoling image of the sanctified survivor, the image he himself had become trapped in.

It is hard not to feel how this stands in relation to Levi’s domestic situation and general feeling of entrapment. He goes back to Auschwitz as so many of his readers wanted, but claims the freedom to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Meanwhile he was frequently referring to his mother and mother in law as “the drowned” and “like Auschwitz victims,” a comparison that made any “betrayal” (putting his mother in a home, for example) unthinkable, while simultaneously confirming that Levi himself felt he was somehow still in prison.

Nothing of what I said here diminishes Levi or his writing. Great works come out of great psychological intensity, in his case great suffering, great frustration. Why insist, then, in offering a sanitized, optimistic version of an author’s life, as if his work might be the less if we acknowledged his difficulties? Isn’t this, in the end, precisely the kind of denial that Levi fought against? Even the way the chronology of The Collected Works acknowledges Levi’s suicide is anodyne and vague, as if hoping the fact might go away: “April 11 [1987] Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”

In fact, Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the building he had lived in all his life. “Suicide is an act of will, a free decision,” he had written years before to his German translator. “Either you die or your mother dies,” the editor Agnese Incisa, a Jewish female friend of Levi’s, put it to him a few days before his death. In any work of fiction the symbolism of Levi’s suicide would be clear enough and amply commented. The household becomes the instrument of death; using it to kill himself he simultaneously frees himself from its imprisoning grip. It was the drama he had never quite put in his books.

line-wordpress-long
parks_1-110515.jpg
Sergio del Grande/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty ImagesPrimo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

Primo Levi was born in 1919 on the fourth floor of an “undistinguished” apartment block in Turin and aside from “involuntary interruptions” continued to live there in the company of his mother until in 1987 he threw himself down the stairwell to his death. The longest interruption was from September 1943 to October 1945 and would provide Levi with the core material for his writing career: it involved three months on the fringe of the partisan resistance to the German occupation, two months in a Fascist internment camp, eleven months in Auschwitz, and a further nine in various Russian refugee camps.

In 1946, aged twenty-seven, despite working full-time as a chemist, Levi completed his account of his time in a concentration camp. Now widely considered a masterpiece, If This Is a Man was turned down by Turin’s main publishing house, Einaudi, in the person of Natalia Ginzburg, herself a Jew whose husband had died in a Fascist prison. It was also rejected by five other publishers. Why?

Even before his return, Levi had been overwhelmed by the need to tell what had happened. Prior to Auschwitz he had not felt that Jewishness was central to his identity. Like most Italian Jews, the Levis had long been assimilated with little to distinguish them from other Italians. The introduction of the Race Laws in 1938, which discriminated against Jews in public education and excluded them from regular employment, thus created a predicament for Levi that went far beyond the problem of completing his degree in chemistry and finding a job. It was a threat to his identity. Who was he if not an ordinary Italian like his fellow students? The question “what is a man?” that would echo throughout his work was never an abstract consideration but a matter of personal urgency.

Until September 1943 it had been possible for Levi to live in “willful blindness,” to get around the rules, graduate, and find work unofficially; but with the Italian capitulation to the Allies and the German occupation of Italy this was no longer an option. Jews were being rounded up. Many were fleeing to the Americas. Levi’s insecurity at this time was compounded by the death of his father in 1942, making Primo, at twenty-three, responsible for the well-being of his mother and younger sister. His father had been something of a womanizer whose betrayals of their mother were common knowledge.

Here too there was a question of manhood: Levi himself had yet to have anything more than “bloodless female friendships,” was believed by his companions to be terrified of women, and feared that he was “condemned to a perpetual male solitude.” He nursed his self-esteem with adventurous chemistry experiments and arduous mountain climbing in the Alps above Turin, and it was to the mountains that he fled in September 1943, taking his mother and sister with him and renting rooms in a small resort hotel near the Swiss border.

Was he a Jew on the run or a partisan? The Swiss border was closed. German forces were approaching. The would-be rebels with whom Levi eventually associated were poorly organized and quickly infiltrated by a Fascist spy; the only shots fired in anger were those that served to execute two younger members of the band who had gone on a drinking and looting spree that put the safety of the others at risk. How far Levi was involved in this killing is largely the subject of Sergio Luzzatto’s mistitled new book, Primo Levi’s Resistance.1 There was no resistance. To Levi’s dismay his sister had taken his mother from the hotel on December 1 to find refuge back in Piedmont. On December 9 the two undisciplined band members were dispatched with shots to the back. By the time Levi was arrested on December 13 he was utterly demoralized and disoriented. Warned that to confess to being a partisan would mean certain death, he opted for the lesser evil of admitting his Jewishness.

The reader coming to If This Is a Man today brings with him a great deal of knowledge about the Holocaust and in most cases is free of any direct personal involvement in the war. Readers in Turin in 1947 were not so well informed and their own intense war experiences were very much on their minds. The book opens, in first person, with a curious mixture of coolness and portentousness. “I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion,” Levi remarks, and declares that given his half-heartedness as a partisan the “sequence of events” leading to his arrest were “justified.” The tone changes abruptly when he talks about the collective experience, in the internment camp, of being told that all Jews were to be dispatched to Germany the following day:

Night came, and it was such a night one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive…. Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that no memory remain.

Today it is easy to imagine the young Levi searching for a voice, a manner, that would allow him to tell his tale without being overwhelmed by it and at the same time compel the reader’s attention. Prior to studying chemistry he had been educated at a prestigious liceo classico in Turin; he knew his Dante and Manzoni and brought frequent references from them to his text, to enrich it, to get across a sense of extremity and profundity. But having lived through twenty years of fascism the literary establishment in postwar Turin were sworn enemies of all grandiloquence, which they tended to associate with inauthenticity; in their defense it has to be said that If This Is a Man is most powerful when it is most straightforward.

The difficulty in finding a voice for what had happened was intimately linked to the experience itself and the question of what it means to be human. Many inmates of Auschwitz, Levi tells us, experienced the same dream: they would be back home trying to tell their story—the hunger, the cold, the beatings, the selections—but all too soon they would realize that their loved ones were not listening. “They are completely indifferent…as if I were not there.”

Why this refusal to listen? The worst aspect of the camp, Levi tells us, was that it “was a great machine to reduce us to beasts.” The victim was systematically brought down morally to the level of his torturers. Prisoners were encouraged to fight one another, for the possession of a spoon, for sufficient space to sleep, to get the easier jobs, to avoid emptying the slop cans:

One had to…strangle all dignity and kill all conscience, to enter the arena as a beast against other beasts…. Many were the ways devised and put into practice by us in order not to die…. All implied a grueling struggle of one against all….

To give up this struggle was to become an obvious candidate for the gas chamber, one of

an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to truly suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death….

In her introduction to this three-volume collection of Levi’s works, Toni Morrison remarks how “the triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.” These are heartening words but they are not true. Rather Levi tells us about human identity crushed and corrupted by unspeakable evil; his work is powerful because it squares up to that reality. “The personages in these pages are not men,” he tells us; everybody in the camp, torturers and tortured alike, was “paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.”

To tell this harrowing story was to confess to one’s own degradation. It wasn’t attractive. This anguish explains the strange shifts of tone throughout If This Is a Man, in particular the moments when Levi addresses us defensively with the didactic “we”:

We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust”; let each judge,…how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.

The rejections of his book must have come to Levi as confirmation of his recurrent nightmares. Fortunately in the meantime there was love. Levi had started dating Lucia Morpurgo in early 1946. She was a year younger than he; both were virgins. Crucially, Lucia was happy to listen to Levi’s story in all its terrible detail. “I felt myself become a man again,” he later wrote. Eventually his memoir was published by a tiny publishing house in October 1947, a month after Levi and Lucia had married.

parks_2-110515.jpg
René Burri/Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi, Turin, 1985

Levi had been cautious, diligent, and prone to depression before his deportation and continued to be so after his return. Anxious about money, he quickly found a job as a chemist, briefly allowed himself to be seduced away from it into a freelance enterprise with a fearless friend, then in 1948, with his wife pregnant, he knuckled down to serious long-term employment with SIVA, a paint and chemical factory. Whether out of genuine financial difficulties or because he was in thrall to his mother, he did not move out of the family home but brought his wife to live there, against her will. Arguments, incomprehension, and resentments ensued.

On the other hand, Levi was quite changed. Auschwitz had humiliated and degraded him, but it had taught him a great deal; he was “more mature and stronger.” After the Germans had abandoned the camp he and other inmates had behaved with great resourcefulness to stay alive until the Russians arrived. During the long return through various refugee camps he had practiced all his newly learned survival skills. So if the experience had initially stripped him of his manhood, it eventually led to a new confidence.

Writing about Auschwitz he had published a book; talking about Auschwitz he had found a wife. His identity was now inextricably bound up with Auschwitz and for the remainder of his life Levi would spend a great deal of time tracking down people he had known there and corresponding at length with survivors. His children Lisa Lorenza and Renzo were both named after the Italian worker Lorenzo Perrone, who had regularly brought Levi food at Auschwitz and thus helped to save his life. It was “our finest hour,” he would say of the last days at the camp. He referred to Auschwitz as his “university,” an “adventure,” a “rite of passage.”

It was in this more positive mood in 1961, with recognition now growing for his first book, that Levi at last began to write a sequel. The Truce thus opens with the last days in Auschwitz, then tells of the confusion and vitality of refugee camps in Poland and the Ukraine, followed by an interminably roundabout return to Italy by train. The tone is immediately more literary than If This Is a Man:

In those days and in those places…a high wind blew over the face of the Earth: the world around us seemed to have returned to a primal Chaos, and was swarming with deformed, defective, abnormal human examples; and each of them was tossing about, in blind or deliberate motion, anxiously searching for his own place, his own sphere, as the cosmogonies of the ancients say, poetically, of the particles of the four elements.

The pleasure of The Truce lies in Levi’s account of his returning health and the dramatis personae of idiosyncratic companions and extravagant Russian soldiers involved in every kind of ruse, scam, and jam. In particular there is Cesare,

a child of the sun, a friend of the whole world. He didn’t know hatred or scorn, he was as varying as the sky, joyful, sly, and ingenuous, reckless and cautious, very ignorant, very innocent, and very civilized.

Supremely shrewd, Cesare will buy, “fix,” and resell absolutely anything—broken pens, ragged shirts, fish bloated with injections of water—always at a profit, and make love to any woman who crosses his path. However, the tone of The Truce is so charmingly literary and some of the stories so far-fetched that the reader begins to wonder how much is documentary and how much fiction. In fact, though recognizably based on a certain Lello Perugia, Cesare’s antics are very much inflated, sometimes invented, and Perugia was furious with the way he had been presented. It would have been a “much more important” book, Perugia protested, if Levi had “got [his] facts right.”

Why did Levi do this? There had already been some curious fact-twisting in If This Is a Man. Here a close friend, Alberto Dalla Volta, is described as having no German, a crucial factor in the struggle for survival at Auschwitz, when in fact his German was excellent, far better than Levi’s. In his meticulously researched biography Ian Thomson glosses this with the remark that “Levi, like most writers, made life seem more interesting than it is.”2 Leaving aside whether we agree with this, it’s hard to see how describing Alberto as less well educated than he was or, in a later book, speaking of another dead friend as coming from a “peasant” family when he didn’t could enhance our interest in works that command our attention above all for their documentary status.

Two impulses seem to be at work. Thomson notes Levi’s tendency to form friendships with men less intellectual than himself, but also less fearful, more energetic, and extrovert. There was a tradeoff: the timid Levi could enjoy mountaineering adventures and female company beside his lively companions while they benefited from his superior knowledge. Many of the “changes” in these books shift the relationships described toward this preferred model, Levi’s close associates becoming at once more animated and less cultured than perhaps they were. Throughout The Truce, Levi seems to be the only sober figure hanging back from a wild postwar promiscuity, at one point declining an invitation to indulge himself with “twenty large girls…blond, rosy creatures, with…placid, bovine faces.”

Related to these descriptions of joyously uninhibited companions was Levi’s lifelong thirst for freedom and difficulty achieving it. Work at SIVA soon became a prison. With the constant tension between wife and mother, home was also a prison. The Truce takes its title from the reflection, in the closing pages, that the interlude between Auschwitz and the return to responsible life in Turin had been, for all its harshness, a period of respite and freedom, of “unlimited openness,” before the need once again “to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us.” The memoir closes with Levi at home but dreaming that he is back in Auschwitz and that nothing is real outside the oppression of imprisonment.

Levi was committed to bearing witness, but lifelong adhesion to the same appalling story is constricting. In a later work he speaks of a man who pesters him with a manifestly fabricated version of his war heroics; but Levi admits to envying the “boundless freedom of invention, of one who has broken down the barriers and is now master of constructing the past that most pleases him.”

After completing The Truce Levi allowed himself the liberty of writing Natural Histories, a series of lighthearted sci-fi stories published to general critical disappointment in 1966. Each piece offers a smart idea, ironic and potentially alarmist—a society duped into believing that people need to wear heavy armor to avoid a deadly virus, a telephone network that develops its own intelligence and makes and interrupts calls as it pleases, a country where the duties of literary censorship are assigned to barnyard hens.

What is striking about all Levi’s fiction is that despite the frequent references to sexual problems—a female spider discussing her consumption of males, a wise centaur torn apart by sexual desire who experiences “in the form of anxiety and tremulous tension” any sexual encounter that occurs in his vicinity—there is no attempt to dramatize however obliquely or discreetly what might have been the reality of Levi’s domestic life, or to explore the many intimate but sexless friendships he was now in the habit of forming with women. To one of these friends, the German Hety Schmitt-Maas, Levi would confess his frustration with marriage and sense of entrapment, but nothing of this emerges in the fiction. The better stories in the later and looser collections are always returns to the wartime period and Auschwitz.

Another story collection, Flaw of Form, followed Natural Histories, before Levi returned to memoir in 1975 with The Periodic Table. The breakthrough here was to use his experience and knowledge as a chemist to provide the frame or cover for intriguing explorations of earlier relationships. Each chapter recalls some episode that features a different chemical substance whose qualities are allowed to take on a quiet symbolism. In a Fascist jail Levi speaks to a man who worked panning for gold, not just in order to sell it, but for the love of engraving and hammering it, and above all “to live free”; a job that involves extracting phosphorous from plants brings Levi into contact with the charming Giulia, who despite her imminent marriage may or may not be a possible lover; a problem with a paint that won’t dry due to defective materials from a German supplier brings Levi into contact with the chemist who supervised his work in Auschwitz.

Crucial to The Periodic Table is that Levi knows everything about chemistry and we know very little. Many of the situations are presented as puzzles that Levi solves or sometimes fails to solve, but always with a wry panache. Again and again the material world appears as a canny guardian of secrets, requiring patience, caution, practicality, and knowledge, but not in the end intractable. By comparison human relationships are even more mysterious and definitely less susceptible to the qualities Levi displays. He is unable to challenge the flirtatious Giulia, afraid of meeting the Auschwitz chemist and disturbed that the man seems to be asking him for a forgiveness he is not ready to grant.

Levi had been concerned that his books might be admired more for their wartime witness than their literary achievement. The brilliance of The Periodic Table settled any doubts about his writerly credentials, though again there were complaints of distortion. In particular, it was not true that Levi had come into contact with the German chemist through his work; he had tracked his man down through Hety Schmitt-Maas, who was upset by how negatively Levi presented him in his book, since the German had been one of the few to give him some help at the camp.

With the success of The Periodic Table, Levi finally felt sufficiently confident to resign from SIVA. He was fifty-eight. Free from routine responsibilities, he produced in quick succession The Wrench (1978) and If Not Now, When? (1982). Both draw on the writer’s special knowledge for their authority and both present themselves as fiction, free from the constraints of bearing witness. In the short stories of The Wrench Tino Faussone, a hugely energetic, incorrigibly womanizing engineer, intensely familiar with pylons, rigs, boilers, and the like, tells the more intellectual narrator of his adventures around the globe with every kind of dramatic technical problem. Having complained of his own thirty years of “forced labor,” Levi now celebrated work, or at least work as experienced by one of his typical foils, a man of boundless energy and freedom who basks in the sure knowledge of his immense practical competence.

If Not Now, When?, Levi’s only novel, covers the same time period and territory as The Truce, telling the story of a Russian Jew who joins a band of Jewish partisans to fight the Germans; they make their way to Italy whence they hope to move on to Palestine and the nascent state of Israel. In Primo Levi’s Resistance Sergio Luzzatto observes how much this novel draws on Levi’s own unhappy partisan experience, transforming it into something effective and triumphant. The hero, Mendel, a watchmaker, a man who can mend a radio and is prone to philosophic reflection (“Mendel is me,” Levi said in an interview), boldly bears arms, engages in any number of skirmishes, finds himself a woman, then betrays her with another (though he now immediately feels trapped and threatened by her), and even executes a spy:

Ulybin handed the rifle to Mendel, without a word.

“You want me to…?” Mendel stammered.

“Go on, yeshiva bocher,” Ulybin said. “He can’t walk, and if they find him, he’ll talk….”

Mendel felt bitter saliva fill his mouth. He took a few steps back, aimed carefully, and fired.

Levi had spent much time researching Yiddish Eastern Europe and the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters whose war efforts he wished to celebrate. “It’s important that there be Jewish partisans,” Mendel observes: “only if I kill a German will I manage to persuade other Germans that I am a man.” However, the novel’s dialogue comes across as wooden, the action is hardly credible, and those who knew Levi’s previous work could not fail to see elements of fantasy and wishful thinking. Shortly after the book was published, Israel invaded Lebanon and Levi found himself alternately praised and criticized for promoting militant Zionism, something that could not have been further from his mind.

Constantly afraid that he would run out of subject matter or succumb to Alzheimer’s, Levi stepped up production in his later years. Some two thirds of the almost three thousand pages of The Complete Works were written after he left his managerial job. Most of the writing was made up of articles and stories published in the Turin newspaper La Stampa and then poems that plumb Levi’s darker moods: spared the duty of providing narrative content, the poems make for stronger reading than the stories. On the occasion of his wife’s sixtieth birthday he wrote her this gloomy message:

Be patient, my impatient lady,
Pulverized and macerated, flayed,
Who flay yourself a little every day…
Please, accept these fourteen lines;
They’re my rough way of telling you you’re loved,
And that I wouldn’t be in the world without you.

A year later he wrote “Arachne,” spoken by a female spider who weaves a web from “a thousand spinning teats”:

I’ll sit in the center
And wait for a male to come,
Suspicious but drunk with desire,
To fill my stomach and my womb…

Terrified of spiders since earliest childhood, Levi made a huge copper spider and hung it on his balcony. Warned by the Jewish community that people were gossiping about his relationship with a certain woman journalist, he immediately refrained from seeing her. He visited hundreds of schools to talk about Auschwitz yet protested that he didn’t want to be labeled as a Jewish writer. Yearning to travel, he complained that his women prevented him from “going anywhere.” His mother had never given him a “single kiss or caress,” he confided to a journalist in 1982. “I’ve known some Jewish sons,” remarked Philip Roth after meeting him, “but Levi’s filial duty and devotion was stronger than anything I’d ever seen. There was a pathetic edge to it.” Levi was on antidepressants.

It was in this unhappy state that Levi chose to return to his core material in The Drowned and the Saved (1986), a book that must rank as one of the most powerful and upsetting attempts at moral analysis ever undertaken. The story of Auschwitz, Levi begins, “has been written almost exclusively by people who, like me, did not plumb the depths. The ones who did never returned, or if they did their capacity for observation was paralyzed by pain and incomprehension.” “Those who were ‘saved’ in the camps were not the best of us”; rather they “were the worst: the egotists, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…. The best all died.”

In unsparing detail Levi draws on other concentration camp memoirs to consider the facts in all their complexity and awfulness. The Sonderkommandos, he remarks, were “an extreme case of collaboration,” Jews induced to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, “remove the corpses…extract gold teeth from their jaws; shear off the women’s hair.” Again and again the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi regime is examined in relation to its effect on its victims; the constant denuding of victims, the crazy obsession with bed-making and roll calls, the habit of forcing inmates to defecate in the open and very close to each other, and so on.

At every point, Levi’s enemy is denial in all its forms. “The intrinsic horror of this human condition…has imposed a kind of constraint on all testimony,” he warns. On both sides of the divide people don’t want to remember, they exploit slippages in memory to establish a comfort zone, and artists offer portrayals that aestheticize or indulge in consolatory pieties. The whole book conveys a sense of the enormity of the task of keeping alive the truth of just how evil Auschwitz was.

No sooner had Levi committed suicide in 1987 than attempts were being made to defend his work from his life, his death rather, as if admirers were afraid that by killing himself he might have undermined the positive side of his witness. This is largely the subject of Berel Lang’s Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life,3 which considers the interminable speculation about whether Levi’s motives for suicide had more to do with Auschwitz or his chronic domestic unhappiness.

Whatever the truth, the views Lang records tell us more about the speculators’ own anxieties than about Levi. Levi’s best writing was about his life, about questions of freedom and survival, so it is inevitable that once we are aware of his suicide, it will always be there when we read him. On the other hand it is hard to see why this should detract from his remarkable achievement, if only because there is no place in his writing, at least that I can find, where Levi suggests that life is likely to end well, nothing that his suicide, as it were, contradicts. If anything the contrary.

line-wordpress-long
In response to:

The Courage of the Elementary from the May 20, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to call attention to two mistakes made by Mr. Tony Judt in his long review of my biography of Primo Levi [NYR, May 29].

The Italian translation of my book has not yet been published. It is planned for next fall, and so cannot have been the subject of mixed reviews, as Mr. Judt claimed in his article. Several articles have been written in Italy on the French version of my book (among others by Cesare Cases, René de Ceccatty, Hector Bianciotti, and Fabio Gambaro in L’Espresso) and they were favorable, except the one in La Rivista dei Libri, co-published by The New York Review. Contrary to what Mr. Judt wrote, the French critics have been unanimously favorable (in Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Télérama, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération).

Much of the information in the article that you published was taken from my book, as well the drawing of Primo Levi by his friend Mr. Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi, who kindly loaned it to me.

In fact, some Italian critics have reproached me for revealing that Natalia Ginzburg gave a negative opinion of Levi’s first manuscript when she was adviser to the publishing house of Einaudi and also for revealing that her successors turned the manuscript down for more than eleven years, during which time they published Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Unfortunately this is the truth. At the time, Levi’s text was not considered important in literary circles but only as testimony.

These Italian critics and Tony Judt have taken advantage of the small mistakes (in names and dates) appearing in the original French edition of my book in order to deny me (“a stranger to the Italian world”) the right to write about Levi. These mistakes were the publisher’s who, despite my many warnings, prepared the manuscript too hastily. It was reprinted within two weeks, and many of the mistakes were corrected, and Livre de Poche’s paperback version has almost no mistakes.

I should point out that the English and American versions are much shorter than the original, and that the forthcoming translations in German, Italian, and Japanese will present the full, original text of my book.

Myriam Anissimov
Paris, France

Tony Judt: replies:

The Italian edition of Myriam Anissimov’s book has yet to appear; I stand corrected. But Ms. Anissimov protests too much. Since she concedes in her letter that her book was full of mistakes, and even warns us that the new paperback edition is not entirely free of them (which I didn’t know), I don’t understand why she takes such offense at my allusion to the matter. And if, as she claims, Italian critics have exploited these mistakes to “deny” her the right to write about Levi, she can hardly be surprised to find me describing their response as “mixed.” As it happens I have not seen any critic so much as hint that Levi was privileged terrain, off-limits to outsiders; but I do recall at least one utterly devastating review (Domenico Scarpa, in La Rivista dei Libri, April 1997, pp. 41-43) that called attention to Anissimov’s many, many errors.
Ms. Anissimov did not “reveal” that it was Natalia Ginzburg who recommended rejection of Levi’s first book; this was quite widely known, not least to Levi himself. (See Opere, Vol. 1 [Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1997], p. lxxxiii, where Ginzburg is cited by Levi in this connection.) Einaudi’s long hesitation before finally publishing Levi in 1958 has also been discussed in print (I cited the accounts by Giulio Einaudi and Levi in my review). What Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist does reveal is the author’s uncertain grasp of its subject and his context—perhaps that is why some doubt has been expressed as to Ms. Anissimov’s suitability as a biographer of Levi. If Ms. Anissimov is so very sensitive to such criticism it may be that French reviewing practice has accustomed her to an easier ride—though she should know that the welcome accorded her book in Paris represented belated amends for previous French neglect of Primo Levi himself; she thus benefited from the reflected glow of her subject’s improved local standing. As to my part in all this, Ms. Anissimov may rest assured that I have no wish to deny her access to Levi or anything else—I’m an outsider here myself. But I can read Anissimov, I can read Levi, and I can see for myself that the one does not do the other justice. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I’m confirmed in it by Ms. Anissimov’s letter.

line-wordpress-long

1.

Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, in the apartment where he would live for most of his life and where he killed himself in April 1987. 1 Like many Jewish families in the region, the Levis had moved from the Piedmontese countryside to Turin in the previous generation, and were culturally assimilated. Primo grew up under Fascism, but it was only with the imposition of the Race Laws, in 1938, that this had any direct impact upon him. He studied chemistry at the university in Turin, with the help of a sympathetic professor who took him on notwithstanding the regulations excluding Jews, and afterward found work of a sort in various establishments willing to take on a Jewish chemist in spite of his “race.”

With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, everything changed. For a brief, confusing interlude Italy lay suspended between the Allies, who had occupied Sicily and the far south, and the Germans, who had not yet invaded from the north. But in September the Italian occupying army in France straggled back through Turin, “a defeated flock” in Levi’s words, followed shortly after by the inevitable Germans, “the gray-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin.” Many of Levi’s Jewish contemporaries from Turin were already involved in the resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (whose local leadership, until his arrest, had included “my illustrious namesake” Carlo Levi, the future author of Christ Stopped at Eboli), and after the German invasion Primo Levi joined them. He spent three months with the armed resistance in the foothills of the Alps before his group was betrayed to the Fascist militia and captured on December 13, 1943.2

Levi, who declared his Jewish identity, was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli di Carpi and thence, on February 22, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews, of whom twenty-three would survive. Upon arrival Levi was stamped number 174517 and selected for Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he worked at the synthetic rubber plant owned by I.G. Farben and operated for them by the SS. He stayed at Auschwitz until the camp was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945 and liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27. For the next nine months he was swept from Katowice, in Galicia, through Byelorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally home to Turin in a picaresque, involuntary odyssey described in La tregua (The Reawakening).

Once back in Turin he took up the reins of his “monochrome” life, following the twenty-month “Technicolor” interlude of Auschwitz and after. Driven by an “absolute, pathological narrative charge”3 he wrote Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a record of his experiences in Auschwitz. The book found hardly any readers when it appeared in 1947. Primo Levi then abandoned writing, married, and began work for SIVA, a local paint company where he became a specialist, and international authority, on synthetic wire enamels. In 1958 the prestigious Turin publishing house Einaudi republished his book, and—encouraged by its relative success—Levi wrote La tregua, its sequel, which appeared in 1963. Over the next decades Levi gained increasing success and visibility as a writer, publishing Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) and La chiave a stella (The Monkey’s Wrench), two collections of short pieces; Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), a novel about Jewish resistance in wartime Europe; Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve), further recollections and vignettes of his camp experience; a variety of essays and poems; and regular contributions to the culture pages of La Stampa, the Turin daily. In 1975 he left SIVA and devoted himself to writing full-time. His last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published in 1986, the year before his death. A small esplanade in front of the Turin synagogue on Via Pio V was named after him in April 1996.4

The fate of Levi’s books, in Italian and in translation, is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo to Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand by the publisher’s (anonymous) reader, Natalia Ginzburg, herself from a prominent Turinese Jewish family. Many years later Giulio Einaudi claimed to have no knowledge of the reasons for the book’s rejection; Levi himself laconically ascribed it to “an inattentive reader.”5 At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, that stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was published in just 2,500 copies by a small press, owned by a former local resistance leader (ironically, in a series dedicated to the Jewish resistance hero and martyr Leone Ginzburg, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband). Many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later.

La tregua did better. Published in April 1963, it came in third in the national Strega Prize competition that year (behind Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare…), brought renewed attention to his first book, and began Levi’s rise to national prominence and, eventually, critical acclaim. But his foreign audience was slow in coming. Stuart Woolf’s translation of Se questo è un uomo was published in Britain in 1959 as If This Is a Man, but sold only a few hundred copies. The US version, with the title Survival in Auschwitz (which captures the subject but misses the point), did not begin to sell well until the success of The Periodic Table twenty years later. La tregua was published here under the misleadingly optimistic title The Reawakening, whereas the original Italian suggests “Truce” or “Respite”; it is clear as the book ends that for Levi his months of wandering in the eastern marches of Europe were a kind of “time out” between Auschwitz-as-experience and Auschwitz-as-memory. The book closes with the dawn command of Auschwitz, “Get up!”—“Wstawach!

German translations followed in time, and Levi eventually gained an audience in the Federal Republic. French publishers, however, avoided Levi for many years. When Les Temps Modernes published extracts from Se questo è un uomo, in May 1961, it was under the title “J’étais un homme” (“I was a man”), which comes close to inverting the sense of the book. Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. There, as elsewhere, the importance of Levi’s first book only came clearly into focus with the (in some countries posthumous) appearance of his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Like his subject, Primo Levi remained at least partially inaudible for many years.

In one sense, Primo Levi has little to offer a biographer. He lived an unremarkable professional and private life, save for twenty months, and he used his many books and essays to narrate and depict the life that he did lead. If you want to know what he did, what he thought, and how he felt, you have only to read him. As a result, any retelling of his “life and works” risks ending in a self-defeating effort to reorder and paraphrase Levi’s own writings. And that is just what Myriam Anissimov has done in her new account of Levi, which has already appeared in French and Italian to mixed reviews. Some mistakes of fact in the Italian and French editions have been cleared up, and the English translation, while unexciting, is readable and contains much information. But Anissimov’s prose is uninspired and mechanical. Her lengthy narrative of his life is a choppy mix of long excerpts and rewordings from Levi himself interspersed with clunky and inadequate summaries of “context”: Italian Jewry, Fascist race laws, the postwar Italian boom, 1968 in Turin, and the publishing history of his books. Some of the background material seems to have been inserted at random, as though the author had come upon a misplaced file card and inserted its contents, then and there, into the text.

Worse, the author somehow fails to explain to the reader just why Primo Levi is so very interesting. She alludes to the distinctive quality of his prose style and is rightly critical of reviewers and specialists for their failure to appreciate him; but she has little feel for just those features of Levi’s writings that make him stand out, both in contemporary Italian literature and in Holocaust memoirs. An ironist and a humorist who travels playfully back and forward across an extended keyboard of themes, tones, and topics, Primo Levi is presented in this account as an optimistic, assimilated Italian Jew brought low by the tragedy of Auschwitz. This is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses, Levi’s favorite literary figure and alter ego, as an old soldier on his way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.6

2.

Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community—and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it:

It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.7

Like most Italians, though, Levi was first of all from somewhere more circumscribed—in his case, Piedmont. This is a curious place, a small corner of northwest Italy squeezed up against the Alps; the homeland of the Savoy royal family, Italian laicism, and, in Turin, its austere, serious capital city, the headquarters of Fiat. Parts of what used to be Piedmontese territory are now French, and the local dialect is permeated with French or almost-French words and phrases. Levi, like most Piedmontese, was immensely proud of his region of origin, and that sentiment suffuses his writings. The “dazzling beauty” of its mountains, lakes, and woods is referred to more than once—for Levi was an enthusiastic amateur climber and much of Piedmont is Alpine or pre-Alpine terrain. The distinctive dialect of the region plays a part in Levi’s writing—as it did in his life, for Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano who saved him in Auschwitz, was recognized there by Levi thanks to his Piedmontese speech. A number of the characters in Levi’s writings use local dialect, and in both The Monkey’s Wrench and The Periodic Table he apologizes for the difficulty of capturing the cadences of their conversation in the written word.8

The Piedmontese are famously reserved, restrained, private: in short, “un-Italian.” Italo Calvino wrote of the “Piedmontese eccentricity” in Levi’s “science fiction” tales; Levi, who thought that he was credited with altogether too much wisdom by his readers, was nonetheless willing to concede that he did possess the distinctive quality of “moderation…that is a Piedmontese virtue.” And his roots in Turin, “a mysterious city for the rest of Italy,” played a part in his fate, too. The Turinese, he writes, don’t leave: “It is well known that people from Turin transplanted to Milan do not strike root, or at least do it badly.” Should his family have got away while they could—to somewhere else in Italy, to Switzerland, to the Americas? Not only would it have been difficult and expensive, and required more initiative than he or his family possessed, but the very idea of leaving home did not cross their minds: “Piedmont was our true country, the one in which we recognized ourselves.”9

The constraint and correctness of Primo Levi’s Piedmont are duplicated and reinforced by his vocation, the “sober rigor” of chemistry. The decision to study science was shaped in part, under Fascism, by the fact that it “smelled” good—in contrast to history or literary criticism, warped and degraded by ideological or nationalist pressure. But Levi the student was also drawn to the chemist’s calling:

The nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter…. I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility.

Moreover, the chemist must perforce describe the world as it is, and the precision and simplicity of this requirement seems to have conformed closely to Levi’s own distaste for gloss, for commentary, for excess of any kind. “I still remember Professor Ponzio’s first chemistry lesson, from which I got clear, precise, verifiable information, without useless words, expressed in a language that I liked enormously, also from a literary point of view: a definite language, essential.”10

In chemistry, moreover (as in climbing), a mistake matters—a point made with casual emphasis in the story “Potassium,” where the young apprentice chemist Levi mistakes potassium for its near neighbor sodium and sets off an unexpected reaction:

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade” [emphasis added].11

Chemicals appear frequently in Levi’s writing, and not just in The Periodic Table. Sometimes they are subjects in their own right, sometimes they serve as metaphors for human behavior, occasionally as illuminating analogies. Dr. Gottlieb, in The Reawakening, is described as emanating intelligence and cunning “like energy from radium.” But the impact of his training upon his writing is most obvious in Levi’s distinctive style. It has a taut, tight, distilled quality; contrasted with the florid, experimental, syntactically involuted writing of some of his contemporaries and commentators, it has the appeal of medieval plainsong. This was no accident—“I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile.”12

In an essay “On Obscure Writing,” Levi castigates those who can’t write in a straightforward way: “It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure century.” And in an open letter, “To a Young Reader,” Levi reminds his audience that textual clarity should never be mistaken for unsophisticated thinking. Levi’s style did not endear him to professional critics; until the late Seventies “in the eyes of critics he remained an appealing, worthy, but uninfluential outsider in the world of literature.”13

Levi’s style is not just simple, it is unerringly precise; he modeled Survival in Auschwitz on the weekly production report used in factories. All of that book and some of his other writing is in an urgent, imperative present tense, telling the reader what must be known: “It has to be realized that cloth is lacking in the Lager.” The force of Levi’s testimony, like the appeal of his stories, comes from this earthy, concrete specificity. When men left Ka-Be (the “infirmary” of Auschwitz III) their pants fell down, they had no buttons, their shoes hurt: “Death begins with the shoes….” The very density of the detail, the point-by-point reconstruction of how men worked and how they died—this is what gives the narrative its power and its credibility.14

The same is true of Levi’s many accounts of individuals, which glide imperceptibly forward from description to analogy, from analogy to juxtaposition and thence to judgment. Of “the Moor,” one of the Italians at Auschwitz, he writes: “It was quite clear that he was possessed by a desperate senile madness; but there was a greatness in his madness, a force and a barbaric dignity, the trampled dignity of beasts in a cage, the dignity that redeemed Capaneus and Caliban.” Of ruined Munich, where Levi wandered the streets when his train stopped on its interminable journey back to Italy: “I felt I was moving among throngs of insolvent debtors, as if everybody owed me something, and refused to pay.” Of “Cesare” (Lello Perugia, his Italian companion on the journey home): “Very ignorant, very innocent and very civilized.” In The Periodic Table Levi writes that “today I know that it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page.” But he does.15

It is the detail in Levi’s writing that is doing the narrative work, and the moral work too. Like Albert Camus, he has a feel for the “thingness” of experience. He was well aware that this could cause discomfort to some modern readers. In The Monkey’s Wrench he is gently ironic as he heaps on the technical description: since there just are no synonyms, the reader “must be brave, use his imagination or consult a dictionary. It may be useful for him anyway, since we live in a world of molecules and ball-bearings.” The emphasis on work in many of his stories was no accident—a number of the writers and novels he most admired deal explicitly with the honor and autonomy that come from skilled labor; “Faussone,” the composite protagonist of The Monkey’s Wrench, is a Conradian character drawn in part on Renaud, the skipper in Roger Vercel’s novel Remorques, which Levi openly acknowledged as one of his influences. Levi himself identified with skilled work, saying “I’ve always been a rigger-chemist.” In “The Bridge” he goes further and explicitly states that being good at your job and taking pleasure from it constitutes if not the highest, then at least “the most accessible form of freedom.”16 The cynical inscription over the gates of Auschwitz held a special resonance for Primo Levi: he truly believed that work makes you free.

3.

Primo Levi was Piedmontese, a chemist, a writer—and a Jew. Were it not for Hitler, this last would have been a matter of near indifference to him. Jews in Italy had been present since before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 AD); and with the exception of the Roman Jews, whose ghetto had only been abolished upon the liberation of Rome in 1870, they were virtually assimilated into the general population. Even the Sephardic Jews of Piedmont, relatively “recent” arrivals, could trace their origins to the fifteenth-century expulsions from Spain (as their names, often drawn from the towns in France where they had lived en route to Italy, suggest), while the earliest recorded permission for Jews to settle in Turin dates from 1424. There had indeed been a ghetto system in Piedmont, established in the early eighteenth century (rather late by European standards), and the Savoyard monarchy was not always benevolent toward the Jews. But following the emancipation decrees of March 1848 their situation rapidly improved, and with the coming of liberal Italy Jews entered without difficulty into the mainstream of Turinese and Italian life. The country had a Jewish prime minister, and Rome a Jewish mayor, before 1914. There were Jewish generals in the army, fifty of them during World War I. Even the Fascist Party had a significant share of the Jewish population among its members (and a Jewish finance minister as late as 1932).

To be sure, there was anti-Semitism—especially in Trieste, where it was inherited from Austrian rule. And however cynical or even ambivalent Mussolini himself felt about the Race Laws, these cut deep into the self-confidence of the Italian Jews. But the significant Jewish presence in the Italian anti-Fascist resistance owed more to deep traditions of free-thinking liberalism than to any sense of Jewish victimhood. In any case, there were not many Jews. Even by West European standards the Jewish population of Italy was small: just 33,000 in a population of nearly 35 million in 1911, increased to 57,000 by 1938, thanks to the annexation of Trieste, new “racial” definitions, and the presence of some 10,000 foreign Jewish refugees from Nazism. The largest concentration of Jews was to be found in Rome (about 12,000 in the 1931 census); there were fewer than 4,000 in Turin, where they made up about 0.5 percent of the local population. 17

The Jews of Italy suffered badly during the eighteen months of German occupation, though not as badly as Jews elsewhere. Nearly seven thousand Italian Jews died in deportation; but the rest survived the war, a better rate than in most of the rest of Europe. In part this is because the Holocaust came late to Italy (not that this helped the Jews of Hungary); in part because the Jews of Italy were so scattered and well integrated; and in some measure because they found support and sustenance among their fellow Italians, with the usual dishonorable exceptions. From Turin, just 245 Jews were deported, most to Auschwitz: twenty-one returned after the war, Primo Levi among them.18

Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, overintellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” It also explains his initial enthusiasm for the Zionist project in its innocent, agrarian incarnation. But the very difference of Jews was also their virtue. In “Zinc” he sang the praises of “impurity,” in metals and in life, the impurity which the Fascists so abhor with their longing for sameness, that impurity “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life…. I too am Jewish…. I am the impurity that makes the zinc react.”19

Levi found it embarrassing and constricting to be treated “just as a Jew,” as he was by many in the US; predictably he has been criticized by some in the American Jewish community for the insufficiencies and partial quality of his Jewish identity.20 But he was not inhibited about writing and speaking as a survivor, bearing witness and obeying the distinctively Jewish exhortation to remember. All of his writing is shadowed by his experience in Auschwitz—you cannot read anything by Levi without prior knowledge of that experience, for he assumes it in the reader and expects it. His first and last books are devoted to it. In The Periodic Table it is omnipresent, even in stories unrelated to that past, but which at unexpected moments suddenly twist back to it. In The Monkey’s Wrench the point is made explicitly, following his explanation to Faussone of the story of Tiresias: “In distant times I, too, had got involved with Gods quarreling among themselves; I, too, had encountered snakes in my path, and that encounter had changed my condition, giving me a strange power of speech.”21

As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.”22 Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience—

I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps…. They used to say, “For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,” and so I remained quiet for a long time.

In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe.23

Once people did start to listen, and believe, the other obsession of the survivor began to eat away at Levi—the shame, and guilt, of survival itself, made worse in his case by the embarrassment of fame. Why should he, Levi, have survived? Had he made compromises that others had refused? Had others died in his place? The questions are absurd, but they crowd in upon Levi’s later writings, obscurely at first, openly toward the end. In the poem “Il superstite” (“The Survivor,” February 1984), their implications are explicit:

Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.

The guilt of the survivor—for surviving, for failing to convey the depths of others’ suffering, for not devoting every waking hour to testimony and recall—is the triumphant legacy of the SS, the reason why, in Nedo Fiano’s words, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”24

The shame of not being dead, “thanks to a privilege you haven’t earned,” is tied to Levi’s central concern and the title of his first book: What does it mean to reduce a person to “an emaciated man, with head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen”? Levi, like other surviving witnesses, was ashamed of what he had seen, of what others had done; he felt “the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist….” That, too, is how he explained the death of Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer working outside Auschwitz who had saved him but had been unable to live, as the years passed, with the memory of what he had seen: “He, who was not a survivor, had died of the survivors’ disease.”25

As a survivor, then, Levi was tragically typical; as a witness to the Holocaust he was not. Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward by the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts). And like all survivors, his testimony is by definition partial: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses…. We are…an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications, or their attributes or their good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or they returned mute.”26 In Levi’s case he survived Auschwitz through good health (until the end, when his fortuitous sickness kept him in the infirmary and off the final death march), some knowledge of German, his qualifications as a chemist, which gave him indoor work during the final winter, and simple luck. Others have similar stories.

Levi knew little of the political organization among some of the prisoners. He did not benefit from protekcja, privileges and favor from other prisoners. His view of the camp as an accumulation of isolated “monads,” rather than a community of victims, is contested by others (though not by all). But it is not for these reasons that Levi is a distinctive and unique witness to the Holocaust, perhaps the most important. It is because he writes in a different key from the rest; his testimony has a fourth dimension lacking in anything else I have read on this subject. Tadeusz Borowski is cynical, despairing. Jean Améry is angry, vengeful. Elie Wiesel is spiritual and reflective. Jorge Semprun is alternately analytical and literary. Levi’s account is complex, sensitive, composed. It is usually “cooler” than the other memoirs—which is why, when it does suddenly grow warm and glow with the energy of suppressed anger, it is the most devastating of them all.27

Where some have tried to draw meaning from the Holocaust, and others have denied there is any, Levi is more subtle. On the one hand, he saw no special “meaning” in the camps, no lesson to be learned, no moral to be drawn. He was revolted at the notion, suggested to him by a friend, that he had survived for some transcendental purpose, been “chosen” to testify. The romantic idea that suffering ennobles, that the very extremeness of the camp experience casts light on quotidian existence by stripping away illusion and convention, struck him as an empty obscenity; he was too clearheaded to be seduced by the thought that the Final Solution represented the logical or necessary outcome of modernity, or rationality, or technology.

Indeed, he was increasingly drawn to pessimism. The revival of “revisionism,” the denial of the gas chambers, depressed him intensely and toward the end of his life he began to doubt the use of testimony, feeling the “weariness of a man who kept on having to repeat the same thing.” The near-pornographic exploitation of human suffering—in Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter, for example—brought him close to despair. His only resource to ward off the enemies of memory was words. But “the trade of clothing facts in words,” he wrote, “is bound by its very nature to fail.”28

And yet there was something to be gleaned from the camps: “No human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis….” The offense against humanity was ineradicable and could return—indeed, it is never absent. But in his first book and his last, Levi has something—not redemptive, but essential—to say about the human condition. In “The Gray Zone,” the most important chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi brings into focus a theme he has intimated in various earlier works: the infinite gradations of responsibility, human weakness, and moral ambivalence that have to be understood if we are to avoid the pitfall of dividing everything and everybody into tidy poles: resisters and collaborators, guilty and innocent, good and evil. Chaim Rumkowski, the “king” of the Lodz ghetto, was part of “a vast zone of gray consciences that stands between the great men of evil and the pure victims.” So was “Dr. Müller,” Levi’s overseer in the Auschwitz chemical laboratory and future correspondent: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.”29

Just as it is too reassuringly simple to treat the camps as a metaphor for life, thereby according to the SS a posthumous victory, so we should not compartmentalize Auschwitz as a black hole from which no human light can emerge. The importance of language—that we can communicate and we must communicate, that language is vital to humanity and the deprivation of language the first step to the destruction of a man—was enforced within the camp (words were replaced by blows—“that was how we knew we were no longer men”); but it can be applied outside. For life outside is beautiful, as Levi notes in Survival in Auschwitz, and human identity is multifold, and evil does exist and goodness too, and much in between. There is no meaning in all this, but it is true and has to be known and made known.30

Levi’s dispassionate capacity to contain and acknowledge apparently contradictory propositions frustrated some of his critics, who accused him of failing to condemn his tormentors, of remaining altogether too detached and composed. And the idea of a “gray zone” worried some who saw in it a failure to exercise judgment, to draw an absolute moral distinction between the murderers and their victims. Levi resisted this criticism. It is true that his early writings were deliberately cool and analytical, avoiding the worst horrors lest readers prove incredulous—“I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional.” And Levi certainly preferred the role of witness to that of judge, as he would write many years later. But the judgments, albeit implicit, are always there.31

To Jean Améry, who suggested that Levi was a “forgiver,” he replied that “forgiveness is not a word of mine.” But then, as he acknowledged, his experience had been different from that of Améry, an Austrian Jew in the Belgian resistance who was captured and tortured before being sent to Auschwitz (and who would take his own life in 1978). Levi was no less obsessed with the Germans, but sought, he insisted, to understand them, to ask how they could do what they had done. Yet Améry’s suggestion was pertinent, and it speaks to the astonishing exercise of self-control in Levi’s writings; for there can be no doubt that he had very, very strong feelings indeed about Germans, and these began to come out toward the end of his life. In Survival in Auschwitz there are already references to “the curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” Germans are addressed in the vocative—“You Germans you have succeeded.” And there are hints of collective condemnation: “What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen.”32

By the time he came to write The Drowned and the Saved, Levi was less inhibited. Survival achieved its goal, he claims, when it was finally translated into German. “Its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded.” Later he writes that the “true crime, the collective, general crime of almost all Germans of that time, was that of lacking the courage to speak.” And the book ends with an unambiguous accusation of collective responsibility against those Germans, “the great majority” who followed Hitler, were swept away in his defeat, and have “been rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.” And while he was careful to insist that blanket stereotyping of Germans both was unjust and explained nothing, Levi took pains to emphasize again and again the specificity of the Holocaust, even when compared to the crimes of other dictators or the Soviet camps.33

Primo Levi, then, could judge and he could hate. But he resisted both temptations; the very space that he preserved between the horrors he had witnessed and the tone he used to describe them substitutes for moral evaluation. And, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote of Albert Camus, “he had the courage to make the elementary points.” The clarity with which he stripped down his account of the essence of Evil, and the reasons why that account will endure and why, in spite of Levi’s fears, the SS will not be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers, are exemplified in this excerpt from The Reawakening, where Levi is describing the last days of a child who had somehow survived in Auschwitz until the Russians arrived:

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgement, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish….

During the night we listened carefully: …from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.34

Letters

Justice to Primo Levi August 12, 1999

 


Brambarisierung des Holocaust

Magnus Klaue

Auschwitz ist überall

Giorgio Agamben warnt vor der Bio-Macht und bagatellisiert den Holocaust

 

Die Unterscheidung zwischen »bloßem Leben« und »gutem Leben« ist ein bekannter Topos der Kulturkritik. Dem »tierischen« Dasein jener, deren Existenz sich im Zyklus von Arbeit und Konsum erschöpft, wird ein »höheres« Leben entgegengehalten, das sich im öffentlichen Raum entfaltet. Folie dieser Unterscheidung ist die antike Dichotomie von »Oikos« und »Polis«, die dem Haus als Ort reproduktiver Tätigkeit den Markt als Sphäre politischen Handelns gegenüberstellt.
1958 leitete Hannah Arendt daraus in Vita activa eine Verteidigung der Öffentlichkeit ab, die gegen »Privatinteressen« aller Art zu schützen sei. Erst als Bürger sei der Mensch wirklich »Mensch«, in der Haushaltssphäre dagegen bloßes Gattungswesen. Die moderne Massengesellschaft jedoch sei gerade durch ein Übergreifen des »Oikos« auf die »Polis« geprägt. Das herrschende Nützlichkeitsdenken erlaube keine Initiative jenseits von Arbeit und Konsum und ersetze Politik durch Ökonomie und Verwaltung. Alles Handeln werde wie in einem behavioristischen Experiment zum »Sich-Verhalten«. Subjekt dieses Prozesses sei nicht der Bürger, sondern, wie Arendt kryptisch schreibt, »das Leben selbst«.
Zwanzig Jahre später legte Michel Foucault in Sexualität und Wahrheit sein Konzept der »Bio-Macht« vor, das es erlaubt, Arendts These von der Verschränkung von »Politik« und »bloßem Leben« jenseits biologistischer Klischees zu reformulieren. »Leben« ist für Foucault, anders als für Arendt, kein vorpolitisches Phänomen, sondern selbst Knotenpunkt politischer Strategien. Kennzeichnend für die Bio-Macht ist nicht, daß sie den Bürger zum »Animal laborans« macht, sondern daß sie durch Sexualhygiene, Geburtenkontrolle und statistische Erfassung »Leben« als politische Kategorie erst erzeugt. Während die Institutionen der »Disziplinarmacht« (Schule, Militär, Gefängnis) auf einzelne Körper zugreifen, um sie zu »dressieren«, richtet sich die Bio-Macht auf »das Leben« insgesamt; ihr Objekt ist weniger der Körper des Individuums als der »Volkskörper«. Deshalb hat Foucault in seinen späten Vorlesungen den Rassismus als Basis jeder Form von »Bio-Politik« ausgemacht. Auf Arendt hat er sich dabei nie bezogen. Das Zentrum ihres Werks, die Frage nach der Struktur der Konzentrationslager, bleibt bei Foucault ausgespart.
Dieses Defizit zu beheben, hat sich der Debord-Schüler und Benjamin-Herausgeber Giorgio Agamben in seinen Büchern Homo sacer und Mittel ohne Zweck vorgenommen, die nun auf Deutsch vorliegen. Die Euphorie, mit der Homo sacer hierzulande rezipiert wird (eine Ausnahme ist der Beitrag von Niels Werber in der Juli-Ausgabe des »Merkur«), dürfte indes weniger auf die Brillanz des Autors als auf die Beliebtheit seiner an Heidegger geschulten, raunend-prophetischen Diktion zurückzuführen sein. Anders als Foucault verhandelt Agamben nämlich das »historisch-politische Schicksal des Abendlandes«. Das KZ mutiert dabei zum »Nomos der Moderne«: »Wir alle leben«, wie Andreas Platthaus begeistert in der »FAZ« paraphrasiert, »in der Welt des Lagers«, dessen »grausame Logik in alle Gesellschaften nach Auschwitz eingesickert ist«.
Derlei Formulierungen, in denen Auschwitz zur Metapher für alle möglichen Formen von Repression und Kontrolle wird, sind keine Ausrutscher. Vielmehr ist der Nachweis, daß »das Lager« die geheime Matrix der westlichen Demokratien bilde, Fluchtpunkt von Agambens Überlegungen. Zunächst rekonstruiert er »die Logik der souveränen Macht«, die durch Abspaltung des »Lebens« von seinen »Lebensformen« so etwas wie »nacktes«, auf seine Faktizität reduziertes Leben erst produziert. Das dabei entstehende Machtverhältnis bezeichnet Agamben heideggerianisch als »Bann«. In den modernen Gesellschaften würden nicht nur einzelne Gruppen oder Klassen, sondern tendenziell alle Bürger zu virtuell »Verbannten«, über die beliebig verfügt werden könne.
In Absetzung gegen Batailles Begriff des Heiligen zeigt Agamben, daß das »nackte Leben« identisch ist mit dem »heiligen Leben« des »Homo sacer«. Scharf wendet er sich gegen den aus Religionsgeschichte und Psychoanalyse bekannten Topos von der »Ambiguität des Heiligen«, das »schmutzig« und »rein« zugleich sei. In Wahrheit sei »sacer« keine religiöse, sondern eine rechtliche Kategorie. Sie bezeichne ein Leben, das »straflos getötet werden kann, aber nicht geopfert werden darf«, ein »vogelfreies« Leben also: »Souverän ist die Sphäre, in der man töten kann, ohne einen Mord zu begehen und ohne ein Opfer zu zelebrieren, und heilig, das heißt tötbar, aber nicht opferbar, ist das Leben, das in diese Sphäre eingeschlossen ist.«
In der Moderne sei der »Ausnahmezustand«, den die Macht herstellt, um bestimmte Gruppen in den Bereich des »nackten Lebens« einzuschließen, zur Regel geworden. Damit wird ein Gedanke, der bei Benjamin zur Kennzeichnung faschistischer Herrschaft dient, so verwässert, daß er zur Beschreibung der gesamten Conditio humana im 20. Jahrhundert taugt. Nicht nur befürwortet Agamben die totalitarismustheoretische These einer Strukturidentität nazistischer und sowjetischer Lager, er entdeckt auch »Berührungspunkte von Massendemokratie und totalitären Staaten«. Letztlich seien »Massendemokratie« und »Totalitarismus« sogar nur zwei »Organisationsformen« derselben, global agierenden »Bio-Macht«.
Hat man einmal diese Perspektive eingenommen, findet man überall potentielle Konzentrationslager: »Ein Lager ist dann sowohl das Stadion von Bari, in dem 1991 die italienische Polizei illegale albanische Einwanderer zusammenpferchte, als auch das Wintervelodrom, das den Behörden von Vichy als Sammelstelle für Juden diente, und die zones d’attente auf den Flughäfen Frankreichs, in denen Ausländer zurückgehalten werden, die die Anerkennung des Flüchtlingsstatus beanspruchen.« All diese Orte definieren, auch in formalen Demokratien, einen Raum des »Ausnahmezustandes«, worin »alles möglich ist«: »Jedes Mal, wenn eine solche Struktur geschaffen wird, befinden wir uns virtuell in der Gegenwart eines Lagers, unabhängig von der Art der Verbrechen, die da verübt werden.« Von da aus ist es nicht allzu weit zu der Behauptung, Massentierhaltung sei ein »Holocaust« an Hühnern und Gänsen.
Wohlgemerkt: Agamben gilt als Vordenker der italienischen Linken, seine Bücher werden bei Tute Bianchi und mittlerweile auch in Deutschland rege rezipiert. Tatsächlich ist seiner These, wonach die Grenzziehung zwischen »lebenswertem« und »nacktem Leben« ein brisanter politischer Akt sei, angesichts aktueller Genetik- und Euthanasiedebatten einiges abzugewinnen. Auch seine Analyse der »Sozialhygiene«-Konzepte der Nazis, in denen »Politik«, »Polizei« und »Medizin« verschmelzen, ist stichhaltig. Aber all das ist bekannt und in den Studien von Ernst Klee sehr viel materialreicher belegt worden. Auch Agambens Deutung des Konzentrationslagers als extremste Variante »souveräner Macht«, die die Grenze zwischen Leben und Tod aufhebe, fügt der funktionalistischen Analyse, die Wolfgang Sofsky in Die Ordnung des Terrors entwickelt hat, nichts Wesentliches hinzu.
Weshalb der Holocaust sich in einer bestimmten historischen Konstellation in Deutschland ereignen konnte; was den eliminatorischen Antisemitismus der Nazis vom »üblichen« Antisemitismus und von Rassismus und Xenophobie unterscheidet – das kann Agamben nicht erklären. Statt dessen verziert er seine Untersuchung, die er in Absetzung zu historisch-materialistischen Studien »ontologisch« nennt, mit einem metaphysischen Bombast, der »das Lager« als »Daseinsweise« der Moderne erscheinen läßt.
Damit ist er Heidegger, auf den er sich beruft und der in ähnlich pauschaler Weise »die Technik« zum daseinsmäßigen Weltübel aufblähte, näher als Foucault, dessen mikroanalytischer Blick ihm abgeht. Nirgends fragt Agamben, ob es Unterschiede zwischen »Asylantenheimen«, »Arbeitslagern« und »Vernichtungslagern« gibt. Statt dessen wird unter dem Blick seines »philosophischen Suchscheinwerfers« (»FAZ«) jedes Polizeirevier zum potentiellen KZ und jeder Flüchtling zum potentiellen »Juden«. Entgegen Agambens Intention haben seine Texte daher objektiv eine Entlastungsfunktion. Wenn das Lager ein »biopolitisches Paradigma der Moderne« ist, war Auschwitz nur die extremste Erscheinungsform eines ominösen abendländischen »Nomos«. Kein Wunder, daß diese These von »FAZ« bis »Taz« konsensfähig ist.
Giorgio Agamben: Homo sacer. Die souveräne Macht und das nackte Leben. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 2002, 212 Seiten, 10 Euro
Ders.: Mittel ohne Zweck. Noten zur Politik. Diaphanes Verlag, Freiburg/Berlin 2001, 152 Seiten, 16,80 Euro
Magnus Klaue rezensierte in KONKRET 8/02 den Briefwechsel zwischen Adorno und Elisabeth Lenk
Konkret 09/02, S. 52
« Ältere Einträge