SURVIVAL IN AUSCHWITZ and THE REAWAKENING: Two Memoirs.
By Primo Levi. Translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf. Summit. 397 pp. $19.95 MOMENTS OF REPRIEVE. By Primo Levi. Translated by Ruth Feldman. Summit. 172 pp. $14.95. ON DECEMBER 13, 1943, a 24-year- old chemist, Primo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had joined the Italian partisans, was captured by Fascist militia. He spent several months in a detention center near Modena, and then he was sent to Auschwitz, a little town in Silesia where the Nazis had built their most efficient death camp. "It was my good fortune," he writes, "to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination."
Levi became one of the thousands of slaves who worked in the factories that Krupp and the Farben conglomerate had built there to take advantage of "cheap labor," and somehow he managed to survive. He also managed to preserve an extraordinary humanity. In the three books he has written about his time in Auschwitz and his return to Turin, Levi never gives way to bitterness or to easy feelings of victimization. His books are more than documentations of the atrocities man is capable of inventing; they are a study of the limits of being human.
Today Levi is one of Italy's premier writers. His novels, If Not Now, When? and The Periodic Table (both published in 1982) were greeted with critical acclaim. But in 1944, he was a young man "with little wisdom, no experience and a decided tendency . . . to live in an unrealistic world of (his) own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female friendships." Levi was thrown into the world of the death camps -- which he calls "the Lager" -- where everyone "is bound to pursue his own ends by all possible means, while he who errs but once pays dearly."
For most prisoners, Auschwitz was the transition to death. For Levi (so insistent are the primordial, the ritual forms of social life), it was the harrowing initiation into adulthood. Here there were no fantasies of dismemberment, no emblems of death, characteristic of such initiatory rites, but the stench of disease, mange, hollow stomachs and even hollower eyes, and the omnipresence of the cadaver. Here there was no symbolic cessation of time (with the hope of a time to come) but a moribund time in which an intolerable hope, the stimulus, I suppose, for nightmares, slips into the crevices of no-hope. "For us, no end is foreseen and the Lager is nothing but a manner of living assigned to us, without limits of time, in the bosom of the Germanic social organism." Attached to a laboratory, Levi is moved to a sadness precluded elsewhere in the camp when he listens to three frivolous lab assistants (who spend their time filing their nails and eating bread and jam) talk about rationing, their fianc,es, their homes and the approaching holidays. He regrets.
Levi's subject is everyday life. His forte is the anecdote, the character sketch, the singular fact that quickens an experience we would rather forget or confronts us with a conundrum we would rather ignore. On the day the Jews are to be shipped north from Modena, the center's commissar orders that all services continue as usual. The children are sent to classes, Levi tells us, but that night they are given no homework. "Sooner or later in life," he writes, "everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable." And he adds: "It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair."
In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes daily schedules, work, sleeping arrangements, the elaborate system of barter that developed among the prisoners -- bread was the standard of exchange -- delousings, Waeschentaschen (the ceremonial exchange of undergarments), the meaning of the numbers tattooed on a prisoner's wrist. Occasionally he writes about particular individuals: his friend Alberto with whom he is often confused; Lorenzo, a worker who finds him extra soup; Dr. Pannwitz who gives him a chemistry exam before he is allowed to work in the laboratory. But for the most part he writes about the anonymous people who circulate like shades through the camp. Survival becomes almost an allegory -- almost an Inferno -- but its power is that it refuses any allegorical import, any transcending significance. Its referent is brute fact.
Just before the Germans evacuate Auschwitz, Levi catches scarlet fever (by eating a dead man's soup that he had gotten in exchange for stolen pipettes), and he is left to die in a sick bay. But he and some of the other patients do not die. They begin to rediscover their social being; they care for one another. The Russians arrive. "They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene." Levi is sent to an infirmary, and then for the next 10 months, he and other Italian prisoners are moved in seemingly meaningless ways around upper Silesia and finally, by slow train, through Bessarabia, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria back to Italy. The moves become inadvertent metaphors for Levi's rebirth. The dying were dead, and life beings to flow in the living. Emotions of the past -- regret, nostalgia, longing -- are recovered; the present opens into the future. There is room for play, adventure, laughter. Nature gives solace. Levi describes walks in the forests. Some of the prisoners pair up. They play games, give theatricals, wander about in towns, trade. Others retreat into the forests and live alone.
What is most striking about The Reawakening is the appearance of character: the solitary trader from Salonica who accepts the Lager as "a sad confirmation of things well known" and seems to be able to ply his trade anywhere and with anything from eggs to women; Cesare, the hustler with a plan, who is determined to return to Italy in style on a plane (and manages to do so, we learn, in Moments of Reprieve); and Pista, the Hungarian boy, who wonders from station to station like a stray dog until he attaches himself to the Italians just because they pity him. The very possibility of character seems to have been precluded in the timeless time of the Lager.
And yet, the therapy of memory is such that as the years go by, the people encountered during the war take hold of Levi. In Moments of Reprieve, he fills in and, in a sense, perhaps, betrays the reality of Auschwitz with these characters. The scenarios "are bizarre, marginal moments of reprieve," he remarks, "in which the compressed identity can reacquire for a moment its lineaments." He writes not about the prostrate men whose being as men he questioned but about "real men" whose survival may even have rested on morally questionable qualities. We meet Cesare again, Dr. Pannwitz and Lorenzo. We also meet Frau Meyer, the one lab assistant who actually talked to Levi. We meet Otto, the German barracks chief who washes Vladek, a feebleminded Pole who never bathes, and who saves soup for Ezra, a cantor who insists on fasting on the Day of Atonement. We meet Elias, the dwarf spy, Scabieswolf, the pharmacist from Berlin who lives on music and somehow manages to get hold of a violin and, in another context, the would-be-king Rumkowski, the mad president of the Lodz ghetto.
When Levi was in Auschwitz, he scribbled down -- at great risk -- what he experienced, and then always had to destroy his scribblings. He wrote Survival in the months immediately following his return to Turin, but found no major publisher for it until Einaudi took it on in 1958. The Reawakening was published, also with success, and now we have Moments of Reprieve. All bear witness, in their different ways, to events that are slipping from memory today. Today, I am told, visitors to Auschwitz can buy little pink, plastic, made-in-Hong-Kong television sets in the local tourist shop and, looking into them, see the gas chambers.
Levi makes no excuses, he offers no interpretations. He describes. And ultimately the reviewer is left with only one thing to say: Read.