If This Is a Man

Mona Simpson in The Atlantic Monthly:

Levi_2 The 20th century left us the work of two particularly somber artists, one of whom would have hesitated to call himself an artist at all. I’m speaking of W. G. Sebald and Primo Levi, whose homemade genres emphasized the lability of the line between fiction and history. Levi lived 64 of his 67 years in Turin. He lived a year and a half in Milan. And he lived one year in Auschwitz. After the war, he returned not only to Turin, but to the flat in which he’d grown up. He worked as an industrial chemist for the next 30 years, writing nights and weekends in what had been his childhood bedroom.

He writes about a small child in Auschwitz who was paralyzed from the waist down, who could not speak, and who had no name:

Hurbinek [the name the prisoners called the child], 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.

More here.