“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944…” Thus begins Primo Levi’s preface to his stunning but short memoir of his time as a prisoner in the infamous Nazi death camp. And already, from these first words, we know that we are in good hands. This is an account that has been masterfully rendered. Every word is in its place, and the story moves forward with a relentlessness that captures the cataclysm Levi found himself in and that we as his readers are pulled into from the first sentence. But from these very first words we also know that oddly enough, even though he is going to take us to the very bottom of what humans have done to each other, he is also going to have some kind of positive lens, if that could even be said about an account of something so harrowing. And yet, I found that this was the case.
Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I think this is the perfect time to write about Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz that my Advanced Memoir Workshop at StoryStudio Chicago read as our book selection last month. When the class decided to read this book, most of us, even those who voted for it, approached the actual reading with some trepidation. I certainly did. In fact, I decided I could only read this book early in the morning because I have learned that I cannot read Holocaust books at my usual reading time, which is bedtime, or I will have nightmares. So for a week, at five in the morning, I settled on the couch with this book, rather than doing my usual writing. And that, it turned out, was a blessing.
For reading Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz in the mornings put my days in perspective. Suddenly, the daily squabbles with my teenage son seemed trivial, easily surmounted. But more importantly, with Levi’s deprivation in my mind, I went about my days with a certain celebration in my heart. I was overly conscious of my good fortune, even if it was just the simple luxury that I could get a glass of water any time I wanted.
One of the things that stuck most in my mind from Levi’s account: The immense thirst they suffered in the Lager. And while the prisoners in their thin garments were yearning for the cold of the Polish winter to abate, they were also leery of the snow disappearing, because, after the Nazis had left, the snow was the only remaining source of water. Levi’s account of the last days in the Lager, “A Story of Ten Days,” the last chapter, is my favorite part of this book, even though “favorite” is not the right word for the story of such a precarious and desperate situation. And yet it amazed me how these few surviving prisoners, who hadn’t been put on the death march that killed all the others because they were in the infirmary at the time the Nazis cleared the camp, in various stages of illness from typhus, diphtheria or, in Levi’s case, scarlet fever, banded together to survive.
It was heartening to read how quickly their humanity returned after they had learned to live “every man for himself” in the camp. The cruel brilliance of the Nazis’ simple dehumanizing acts is driven home when Levi shares, for example, how the tattooing of his prisoner number on the left forearm, where his watch had been, reminded him, as a new prisoner, every time he looked for the time, that he had no name anymore, that he was just a number, a creature with no possessions, not even a watch. But then, once the camp is empty, in the days before the Russians reach it, the prisoners are left to fend for themselves, and they stick together. One of them cleans up another patient who had defecated the entire floor of their small room, even though that mess was contaminated by typhus. And Levi brings some potatoes to a few diphtheria patients, even though he knows they will not survive.
Sadly, while reading Levi’s masterful memoir, I also had in my mind what Elie Wiesel had shared about his friend Primo Levi when I heard him speak at a Chicago Tribune event last fall, as the conversation turned to the question of how do you go on after an experience like that. He had spoken to Primo Levi a few days before Levi killed himself in 1987. Wiesel had sensed that all wasn’t well with his friend and had asked him whether he should come to Italy. Levi had answered, “It’s already too late.” And Wiesel felt he should have gotten on a plane right away; maybe, he said, he could have saved his friend, and he regrets, to this day, that he didn’t act on that impulse.