Schlagwort-Archiv: Shoa

The Mystery of Primo Levi

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Sergio del Grande/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images Primo 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.

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:

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René Burri/Magnum Photos Primo Levi, Turin, 1985

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 novel 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.

1 Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy (Metropolitan, to be published in January 2016). 

2 Primo Levi: A Life (Metropolitan, 2003). 

3 Yale University Press, 2013. 

 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/nov/05/mystery-primo-levi/

Yale Professor Says Poles Killed More Jews Than Nazis During WWII

Annual Copernicus Lecture: „Making History“: An Intellectual Journey into the Hidden Polish Past

 

TIME Poland
Yale Professor Faces Libel Probe for Saying Poles Killed More Jews Than Nazis in WWII

 

Jan T. Gross
Aliki Keplicz—AP Princeton University professor Jan T. Gross looks on during a meeting with readers in Warsaw on Jan. 22, 2008

The Warsaw Prosecutor’s Office received 125 complaints about the article

Polish prosecutors in Warsaw commenced a libel probe against Polish-born Yale professor Jan T. Gross on Thursday after he alleged that Poles killed more Jews than Germans during World War II.

Gross made the comments in an opinion piece published Sept. 13 that was then picked up by German newspaper Die Welt. His statements were based on research carried out by the Polish Institute of National Memory and the Polish Academy of Science.

In the piece, Gross lamented the reluctance of Eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to accept refugees, saying that much of their hesitation could stem from residual intolerance carried over from World War II. Recent reports say that Poland plans to receive around 5,000 refugees on top of the 2,000 that it has already accepted.

According to onet.pl, the Warsaw Prosecutor’s Office received 125 complaints about the article. A spokesman for Poland’s Foreign Ministry, Marcin Wojciechowski, has also condemned Gross’s comments as “historically untrue, harmful and insulting to Poland.”

Jan Gross first came to prominence in Poland with his 2001 book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, which details a 1941 massacre of Jews in a Polish town carried out by locals, rather than Nazi forces. The book eventually inspired the 2012 Polish film, Aftermath, which was banned in some Polish theaters over its controversial content.

The Warsaw native faced earlier defamation claims over two of his other books, Fear and Golden Harvest, the Guardian reports.

Recent polls indicate that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in Poland, a predominantly Roman Catholic and culturally homogenous nation of some 50 million.

Primo Levi’s Indestructible Humanity

newyorker.com
Primo Levi’s Indestructible Humanity
A Critic at Large September 28, 2015 Issue
The Art of Witness
How Primo Levi survived.

By James Wood

Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.

Levi was heroic; he was also modest, practical, elusive, coolly passionate, experimental and sometimes limited, refined and sometimes provincial. (He married a woman, Lucia Morpurgo, from his own class and background, and died in the same Turin apartment building in which he had been born.) For most of his life, he worked as an industrial chemist; he wrote some of his first book, “If This Is a Man,” while commuting to work on the train. Though his experiences in Auschwitz compelled him to write, and became his central subject, his writing is varied and worldly and often comic in spirit, even when he is dealing with terrible hardship. In addition to his two wartime memoirs, “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” (first published in 1963, and renamed “The Reawakening” in the United States), and a final, searing inquiry into the life and afterlife of the concentration camp, “The Drowned and the Saved” (1986), he wrote realist fiction—a novel about a band of Jewish Second World War partisans, titled “If Not Now, When?” (1982)—and speculative fiction; also, poems, essays, newspaper articles, and a beautifully unclassifiable book, “The Periodic Table” (1975).

The publication of “The Complete Works of Primo Levi” (Liveright), in three volumes, represents a monumental and noble endeavor on the part of its publisher, its general editor, Ann Goldstein, and the many translators who have produced new versions of Levi’s work. Although his best-known work has already benefitted from fine English translation, it’s a gift to have nearly all his writing gathered together, along with work that has not before been published in English (notably, a cache of uncollected essays, written between 1949 and 1987).

Primo Levi was born in Turin, in 1919, into a liberal family, and into an assimilated, educated Jewish-Italian world. He would write, in “If This Is a Man,” that when he first learned the name of his fateful destination, “Auschwitz” meant nothing to him. He only vaguely knew about the existence of Yiddish, “on the basis of a few quotes or jokes that my father, who worked for a few years in Hungary, had picked up.” There were around a hundred and thirty thousand Italian Jews, and most of them were supporters of the Fascist government (at least until the race legislation of 1938, which announced a newly aggressive anti-Semitism); a cousin of Levi’s, Eucardio Momigliano, had been one of the founders of the Fascist Party, in 1919. Levi’s father was a member, though more out of convenience than commitment.

Levi gives ebullient life to this comfortable, sometimes eccentric world in “The Periodic Table”—a memoir, a history, an essay in elegy, and the best example of his various literary talents. What sets his writing apart from much Holocaust testimony is his relish for portraiture, the pleasure he takes in the palpability of other people, the human amplitude of his noticing. “The Periodic Table” abounds with funny sketches of Levi’s relatives, who are celebrated and gently mocked in the chapter named “Argon,” because, like the gas, they were generally inert: lazy, immobile characters given to witty conversation and idle speculation. Inert they may have been, but colorless they are not. Uncle Bramín falls in love with the goyish housemaid, declares that he will marry her, is thwarted by his parents, and, Oblomov-like, takes to his bed for the next twenty-two years. Nona Màlia, Levi’s paternal grandmother, a woman of forbidding remoteness in old age, lives in near estrangement from her family, married to a Christian doctor. Perhaps “out of fear of making the wrong choice,” Nona Màlia goes to shul and to the parish church on alternate days. Levi recalls that when he was a boy his father would take him every Sunday to visit his grandmother. The two would walk along Via Po, Levi’s father stopping to pet the cats, sniff the mushrooms, and look at the used books:

My father was l’Ingegnè, the Engineer, his pockets always bursting with books, known to all the salami makers because he checked with a slide rule the multiplication on the bill for the prosciutto. Not that he bought it with a light heart: rather superstitious than religious, he felt uneasy about breaking the rules of kashruth, but he liked prosciutto so much that, before the temptation of the shop windows, he yielded every time, sighing, cursing under his breath, and looking at me furtively, as if he feared my judgment or hoped for my complicity.

From an early age, Levi appears to have possessed many of the qualities of his later prose—meticulousness, curiosity, furious discretion, orderliness to the point of priggishness. In primary school, he was top of his class (his schoolmates cheered him on with “Primo Levi Primo!”). As a teen-ager at the Liceo D’Azeglio, Turin’s leading classical academy, he stood out for his cleverness, his smallness, and his Jewishness. He was bullied, and his health deteriorated. His English biographer Ian Thomson suggests that Levi developed a sense of himself as physically and sexually inadequate, and that his subsequent devotion to robust athletic pursuits, such as mountaineering and skiing, represented a self-improvement project. Thomson notes that, in later life, he recalled his mistreatment at school as “uniquely anti-Semitic,” and adds, “How far this impression was coloured by Levi’s eventual persecution is hard to tell.” But perhaps Thomson has it the wrong way round. Perhaps Levi’s extraordinary resilience in Auschwitz had something to do with a hardened determination not to be persecuted again.

On the basis of the first chapter of “The Periodic Table” alone, you know that you are in the hands of a true writer, someone equipped with an avaricious and indexical memory, who knows how to animate his details, stage his scenes, and ration his anecdotes. It is a book one wants to keep quoting from (true of all Levi’s work, except, curiously, his fiction). With verve and vitality, “The Periodic Table” moves through the phases of Levi’s life: his excited discovery of chemistry, as a teen-ager; classes at the University of Turin with the rigorous but not unamusing “Professor P.,” who scornfully defies the Fascist injunction to wear a black shirt by donning a “comical black bib, several inches wide,” which comes untucked every time he makes one of his brusque movements. Levi admires the “obsessively clear” chemistry textbooks that his teacher has written, “filled with his stern disdain for humanity in general,” and recalls that the only time he was ever admitted to the professor’s office he saw on the blackboard the sentence “I do not want a funeral, alive or dead.”

Throughout, there are wittily pragmatic, original descriptions of minerals, gases, and metals, as in this description of zinc: “Zinc, zinco, Zink: laundry tubs are made of it, it’s an element that doesn’t say much to the imagination, it’s gray and its salts are colorless, it’s not toxic, it doesn’t provide gaudy chromatic reactions—in other words, it’s a boring element.” Levi writes tenderly about friends and colleagues, some of whom we encounter in his other writing—Giulia Vineis, “full of human warmth, Catholic without being rigid, generous and disorderly”; Alberto Dalla Volta, who became Levi’s friend in Auschwitz and seemed uncannily immune to the poisons of camp life: “He was a man of strong goodwill, and had miraculously remained free, and his words and actions were free: he had not lowered his head, had not bowed his back. A gesture of his, a word, a laugh had liberating virtues, were a hole in the stiff fabric of the Lager. . . . I believe that no one, in that place, was more loved than he.”

The most moving chapter in “The Periodic Table” may be the one titled “Iron.” It recalls a friend, Sandro, who studied chemistry with Levi, and with whom he explored the joys of mountain climbing. Like many of the people Levi admired, Sandro is physically and morally strong; he is painted as a headstrong child of nature out of a Jack London story. Seemingly made of iron, and bound to it by ancestry (his forebears were blacksmiths), Sandro practices chemistry as a trade, without apparent reflection; on weekends, he goes off to the mountains, to ski or climb, sometimes spending the night in a hayloft.

Levi tastes “freedom” with Sandro—a freedom perhaps from thinking, the freedom of the conquering body, of being on top of the mountain, of being “master of one’s destiny.” Sandro is a powerful presence on the page; aware of this, Levi plays his absence against his presence, informing us, in a beautiful lament at the end of the chapter, that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, that he joined the military wing of the Action Party, and that in 1944 he was captured by the Fascists. He tried to escape, and was shot in the neck by a raw fifteen-year-old recruit. The elegy closes thus:

Today I know it’s hopeless to try to clothe a man in words, make him live again on the written page, especially a man like Sandro. He was not a man to talk about, or build monuments to, he who laughed at monuments: he was all in his actions, and when those ended nothing of him remained, nothing except words, precisely.

The word becomes the monument, even as Levi disowns the building of it.

One of the most eloquent of Levi’s rhetorical gestures is the way he moves between volume and silence, appearance and disappearance, life and death. Repeatedly, Levi tolls his bell of departure: these vivid human beings existed, and then they were gone. But, above all, they existed. Sandro, in “The Periodic Table” (“nothing of him remained”); Alberto, most beloved among the camp inmates, who died on the midwinter death march from Auschwitz (“Alberto did not return, and of him no trace remains”); Elias Lindzin, the “dwarf” (“Of his life as a free man, no one knows anything”); Mordo Nahum, “the Greek,” who helped Levi survive part of the long journey back to Italy (“We parted after a friendly conversation; and after that, since the whirlwind that had convulsed that old Europe, dragging it into a wild contra dance of separations and meetings, had come to rest, I never saw my Greek master again, or heard news of him”). And the “drowned,” those who went under—“leaving no trace in anyone’s memory.” Levi rings the bell even for himself, who in some way disappeared into his tattooed number: “At a distance of thirty years, I find it difficult to reconstruct what sort of human specimen, in November of 1944, corresponded to my name, or, rather, my number: 174517.”

In the fall of 1943, Levi and his friends formed a band of anti-Fascist partisans. It was an amateurish group, poorly equipped and ill trained, and Italian Fascist soldiers captured part of his unit in the early hours of December 13th. Levi had an obviously false identity card, which he ate (“The photograph was particularly revolting”). But the action availed him little: the interrogating officer told him that if he was a partisan he would be immediately shot; if he was a Jew he would be sent to a holding camp near Carpi. Levi held out for a while, and then chose to confess his Jewishness, “in part out of weariness, in part also out of an irrational point of pride.” He was sent to a detention camp at Fòssoli, near Modena, where conditions were tolerable: there were P.O.W.s and political prisoners of different nationalities, there was mail delivery, and there was no forced labor. But in the middle of February, 1944, the S.S. took over the running of the camp and announced that all the Jews would be leaving: they were told to prepare for two weeks of travel. A train of twelve closed freight cars left on the evening of February 22nd, packed with six hundred and fifty people. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, more than five hundred were selected for death; the others, ninety-six men and twenty-nine women, entered the Lager (Levi always preferred the German word for prison). At Auschwitz, Levi was imprisoned in a work camp that was supposed to produce a rubber called Buna, though none was actually manufactured. He spent almost a year as a prisoner, and then almost nine months returning home. “Of six hundred and fifty,” he wrote in “The Truce,” “three of us were returning.” Those are the facts, the abominable and precious facts.

There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that “Job never existed and was just a parable.” The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem “Homily.” Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God’s test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn’t understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: “But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.”

Pagis’s poem means: “Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.” In just this way, Levi’s writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi’s books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything—every detail, object, and fact—becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. “Death begins with the shoes.” Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: “The Lager is hunger.” In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is “the voice of the Lager” and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the “useless violence” of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox—the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead.

Cartoon
“Business is terrible.”

Many of these horrifying facts can be found in testimony by other witnesses. What is different about Levi’s work is bound up with his uncommon ability to tell a story. It is striking how much writing by survivors does not quite tell a story; it has often been poetic (Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, Yehiel De-Nur), or analytical, reportorial, anthropological, philosophical (Jean Améry, Germaine Tillion, Eugen Kogon, Viktor Frankl). The emphasis falls, for understandable reasons, on lament, on a liturgy of tears; or on immediate precision, on bringing concrete news, and on the attempt at comprehension. When Viktor Frankl introduces, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the subject of food in Auschwitz, he does so thus: “Because of the high degree of undernourishment which the prisoners suffered, it was natural that the desire for food was the major primitive instinct around which mental life centered.” Along with this scientific mastering of the information comes something like a wariness of narrative naïveté: such writers frequently move back and forth in time, plucking and massing details thematically, from different periods in and outside the camps. Surely, Frankl’s rhetoric calmly insists, “this material did not master me; I master it.” (This gesture can be found even in some Holocaust fiction: Jorge Semprún, who survived Buchenwald, enacts such a formal freedom from temporality in his novel “The Long Voyage”; the book is set on the train en route to the camp, but breaks forward to encompass the entire camp experience.)

Levi’s prose has a tone of similar command, and in his last book, “The Drowned and the Saved,” he became such an analyst, grouping material by theme rather than telling stories. Nor did he always tell his stories in conventional sequential fashion. But “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” are powerful because they do not disdain story. They unfold their material, bolt by bolt. We begin “If This Is a Man” with Levi’s capture in 1943, and we end it with the camp’s liberation by the Russians, in January, 1945. Then we continue the journey in “The Truce,” as Levi finds his long, Odyssean way home. Everything is new, everything is introduction, and so the reader sees with Levi’s disbelieving eyes. He introduces thirst like this: “Will they give us something to drink? No, they line us up again, lead us to a huge square.” He first mentions the now infamous refrain “The only way out is through the chimney” thus: “What does it mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.” To register his discoveries, he often breaks from the past tense into a diaristic present.

The result is a kind of ethics, when the writer is constantly registering the moral (which is to say, in this case, the immoral) novelty of the details he encounters. That is why every reader who has opened “If This Is a Man” feels impelled to continue reading it, despite the horror of the material. Levi seems to join us in our incomprehension, which is both a narrative astonishment and a moral astonishment. The victims’ ignorance of the name “Auschwitz” tells us everything, actually and symbolically. For Levi, “Auschwitz” had not, until this moment, existed. It had to be invented, and it had to be introduced into his life. Evil is not the absence of the good, as theology and philosophy have sometimes maintained. It is the invention of the bad: Job existed and was not a parable. Levi registers the same astonishment when first hit by a German officer—“a profound amazement: how can one strike a man without anger?” Or when, driven by thirst, he breaks off an icicle only to have it snatched away by a guard. “Why?” Levi asks. To which comes the answer “Hier ist kein warum” (“Here there is no why”). Or when Alex the Kapo, a professional criminal who has been given limited power over other prisoners, wipes his greasy hand on Levi’s shoulder, as if the other man were not a man. Or when Levi, who was fortunate enough to be chosen to work as a chemist, in the Buna laboratory, comes face to face with his chemistry examiner, Dr. Pannwitz, who raises his eyes to glance at his victim: “That look did not pass between two men; and if I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.”

Levi frequently emphasized that his survival in Auschwitz owed much to his youth and strength; to the fact that he understood some German (many of those who didn’t, he observed, died in the first weeks); to his training as a chemist, which had refined his habits of curiosity and observation, and which permitted him, in the last months of his incarceration, to work indoors, in a warm laboratory, while the Polish winter did its own fatal selection of the less fortunate; and to other accidents of luck. Among these last were timing (he arrived relatively late in the progress of the war) and what seems to have been a great capacity for friendship. He describes himself, in “The Periodic Table,” as one of those people to whom others tell their stories. In a world of terminal individualism, in which every person had to fight to live, he did not let this scarred opportunism become his only mode of survival. He was wounded like everyone else, but with resources that seem, to most of his readers, unfathomable and mysterious he did not lose the ability to heal and to be healed. He helped others, and they helped him. Both “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” contain beautiful portraits of goodness and charity, and it is not the punishers and sadists but the life-givers—the fortifiers, the endurers, the men and women who sustained Levi in his struggle to survive—who burst out of these pages. Steinlauf, who is nearly fifty, a former sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian Army and a veteran of the Great War, tells Levi, severely, that he must wash regularly and keep his shoes polished and walk upright, because the Lager is a vast machine that exists to reduce its victims to beasts, and “we must not become beasts.”

Above all, there is Lorenzo Perrone, a mason from Levi’s Piedmont area, a non-Jew, whom Levi credited with saving his life. The two met in June, 1943 (Levi was working on a bricklaying team, and Lorenzo was one of the chief masons). For the next six months, Lorenzo smuggled extra food to his fellow-Italian and, even more dangerous, helped him send letters to his family in Italy. (As a “volunteer worker” for the Reich—i.e., a slave laborer—Lorenzo had privileges beyond the dreams of any Jewish prisoner.) And as crucial as the material support was Lorenzo’s presence, which reminded Levi, “by his natural and plain manner of being good, that a just world still existed outside ours. . . . Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

You can feel this emphasis on moral resistance in every sentence Levi wrote: his prose is a form of keeping his boots shined and his posture proudly upright. It is a style that seems at first windowpane clear but is actually full of undulating strategies. He is acclaimed for the purity of his style and sometimes faulted for his reticence or coldness. But Levi is “cold” only in the way that the air is suddenly cold when you pull slightly away from a powerful fire. His composure is passionate lament, resistance, affirmation. Nor is he so plain. He is not afraid of rhetorical expansion, particularly when writing forms of elegy. “If This Is a Man” is shot through with sentences of tragic grandeur: “Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were an ally of the men who had decided to destroy us. . . . Now, in the hour of decision, we said to each other things that are not said among the living.” He loves adjectives and adverbs: he admired Joseph Conrad, and sometimes sounds like him, except that, while Conrad can throw his modifiers around pugilistically (the heavier the words the better), Levi employs his with tidy force. The Christian doctor whom Nona Màlia married is described as “majestic, bearded, and taciturn”; Rita, a fellow-student, has “her shabby clothes, her firm gaze, her concrete sadness”; Cesare, one of those morally strong, physically vital men who sustain Levi in time of need, is “very ignorant, very innocent, and very civilized.” In Auschwitz, the drowned, those who are slipping away into death, drift in “an opaque inner solitude.”

This is a classical prose, the possession of a civilized man who never expected that his humane irony would have to battle with its moral opposite. But, once the battle is joined, Levi makes that irony into a formidable weapon. Consider these words: “fortune,” “detached study,” “charitably,” “enchantment,” “discreet and sedate,” “equanimity,” “adventure,” “university.” All of them, remarkably, are used by Levi to describe aspects of his experiences in the camp. “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.” This is how, with scandalous coolness, he begins “If This Is a Man,” calmly deploying the twinned resources of “fortuna” in Italian, which combines the senses of good fortune and fate. In the same preface to his first book, Levi promises a “detached study” of what befell him. The hellish marching music of the camp is described as an “enchantment” from which one must escape. In “The Drowned and the Saved,” Levi describes a moment of crisis when he knows he is about to be selected to live or die. He briefly wavers, and almost begs help from a God he does not believe in. But “equanimity prevailed,” he writes, and he resists the temptation. Equanimity!

In the same book, he includes a letter he wrote in 1960 to his German translator, in which he announces that his time in the Lager, and writing about the Lager, “was an important adventure that has profoundly modified me.” The Italian is “una importante avventura, che mi ha modificato profondamente,” which Raymond Rosenthal’s original translation, of 1988, follows; the new “Complete Works” weakens the irony by turning it into “an ordeal that changed me deeply.” For surely the power of these impeccable words, as so often in Levi, is moral. First, they register their contamination by what befell them (the “adventure,” we think, should not be called that; it must be described as an “ordeal”); and then they dryly repel that contamination (no, we will insist on calling the experience, with full ironic power, an “adventure”).

In the same spirit of calmly rebellious irony, “If This Is a Man” ends almost casually, like a conventional nineteenth-century realist novel, with cheerful news of continuity and welfare beyond its pages: “In April, at Katowice, I met Schenck and Alcalai in good health. Arthur has happily rejoined his family and Charles has returned to his profession as a teacher; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.” That emphasis on resistance makes its sequel, “The Truce,” not merely funny but joyous: the camps are no more, the Germans have been vanquished, and gentler life, like a moral sun, is returning. There may be nothing more moving in all of Levi’s work than a moment, early in “The Truce,” when, after the months in Auschwitz, a very sick Levi is helped down from a cart by two Russian nurses. The first Russian words he hears are “Po malu, po malu!”—“Slowly, slowly!”; or, even better in the Italian, “Adagio, adagio!” This soft charity falls like balm on the text. (But „Pomalu“ (not „Po malu“) is polish, not russian.
In russian it would be:     медленно/medlenno, or:  тихо / ticho, or  постепенно / postepenno. Note: JSB)

Saul Bellow once said that all the great modern novelists were really attempting a definition of human nature, in order to justify the continuation of life and of their craft. This is preëminently true of Primo Levi, even if we feel, at times, that it is a project thrust upon him by fortune. In some respects, Levi’s vision is pessimistic, because he reminds us “how empty is the myth of original equality among men.” In Auschwitz, the already strong prospered—because they were physically or morally tougher than others, or because they were less sensitive, and greedier and more cynical in the will to live. (Jean Améry, who was tortured by the S.S. in Belgium, averred that even before pain we are not equal.) On the other hand, Levi is no tragic theologian. He did not believe that the “pitiless process of natural selection” that ruled in the camps confirmed man’s essential brutishness. The philosopher Berel Lang, in one of the best recent inquiries into Levi’s work, argues that this moral optimism makes him a singular figure. Lang says that Levi can be turned into neither a Hobbesian (for whom the camps would represent the ultimate state of nature) nor a modern Darwinian (who must struggle to explain pure altruism, except as camouflaged biological self-interest). For Levi, Auschwitz was exceptional, anomalous, an unnatural laboratory. “We do not believe that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic, and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away,” Levi writes forthrightly. “We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving need and physical privation many habits and social instincts are reduced to silence.”

In normal existence, Levi argues, there is a “third way” between winning and losing, between altruism and atrocity, between being saved and being drowned, and this third way is in fact the rule. But in the camp there was no third way. It is this apprehension that expands Levi’s understanding for those caught in what he called the gray zone. He places in the gray zone all those who were morally compromised by some degree of collaboration with the Germans—from the lowliest (those prisoners who got a little extra food by performing menial jobs like sweeping or being night watchmen) through the more ambiguous (the Kapos, often thuggish enforcers and guards who were themselves also prisoners) to the utterly tragic (the Sonderkommandos, Jews employed for a few months to run the gas chambers and crematoria, until they themselves were killed). The gray zone, which might be mistaken for the third way, is an aberration, a state of desperate limitation produced by the absence of a third way. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who judged Jewish collaboration with infamous disdain, Levi makes a notable attempt at comprehension and tempered judgment. He finds such people pitiable as well as culpable, because they were at once grotesquely innocent and guilty. And he does not exempt himself from this moral mottling: on the one hand, he firmly asserts his innocence, but, on the other, he feels guilty to have survived.

Levi sometimes said that he felt a larger shame—shame at being a human being, since human beings invented the world of the concentration camp. But if this is a theory of general shame it is not a theory of original sin. One of the happiest qualities of Levi’s writing is its freedom from religious temptation. He did not like the darkness of Kafka’s vision, and, in a remarkable sentence of dismissal, gets to the heart of a certain theological malaise in Kafka: “He fears punishment, and at the same time desires it . . . a sickness within Kafka himself.” Goodness, for Levi, was palpable and comprehensible, but evil was palpable and incomprehensible. That was the healthiness within himself.

On the morning of April 11, 1987, this healthily humane man, age sixty-seven, walked out of his fourth-floor apartment and either fell or threw himself over the bannister of the building’s staircase. The act, if suicide, appeared to undo the suture of his survival. Some people were outraged; others refused to see it as suicide. The implication, not quite spoken, was uncomfortably close to dismay that the Nazis had won after all. “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later,” Elie Wiesel said. Yet Levi was a survivor who committed suicide, not a suicide who failed to survive. He himself had seemed to argue against such morbidity, in his chapter on Jean Améry in “The Drowned and the Saved.” Améry, who killed himself at the age of sixty-five, said that in Auschwitz he thought a great deal about dying; rather tartly, Levi replied that in the camp he was too busy for such perturbation. “The business of living is the best defense against death, and not only in the camps.”

Many contemporary commentators knew little or nothing about Levi’s depression, which he struggled with for decades, and which had become desperately severe. In his last months, he felt unable to write, was in poor health, was worried about his mother’s decline. In February, he told his American translator Ruth Feldman that his depression was, in certain respects, “worse than Auschwitz, because I’m no longer young and I have scant resilience.” His family was in no doubt. “No! He’s done what he’d always said he’d do,” his wife wailed, when she heard what had happened. In this regard, one could see Levi as a survivor twice over, first of the camps and then of depression. He survived for a very long time, and then chose not to survive, the terminal act perhaps not at odds with survival but continuous with it: a decision to leave the prison on his own terms, in his own time. His friend Edith Bruck, herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, said, “There are no howls in Primo’s writing—all emotion is controlled—but Primo gave such a howl of freedom at his death.” This is moving, certainly, and perhaps true. Thus one consoles oneself, and consolation is necessary: like much suicide, Levi’s death is only a silent howl, because it voids its own echo. It is natural to be bewildered, and it is important not to moralize. For, above all, Job existed and was not a parable. 

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/28/the-art-of-witness