Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at 70

Philippe Sands in The Guardian:

LeviI was 19 when I first read If This Is a Man, and the book filled a gap created by the shadows cast across an otherwise happy childhood home by Auschwitz and Treblinka: my maternal grandparents, rare survivors of the horrors, never talked about their experiences or those who were disappeared, and in this way Levi’s account spoke directly, and personally, offering a fuller sense of matters for which words were not permitted. His has not been the only such book – there are others, including more recent works such as Thomas Buergenthal’s A Lucky Child, Göran Rosenberg’s A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, and Marceline Loridan-Ivans’s But You Did Not Come Back – but it was the first. He was a messenger of detail, allowing me to see and feel matters of dread and horror: waiting for a deportation order; travelling in a cattle cart by train; descending a ramp for selection; imagining what it must be like to know you are about to be gassed and cremated; struggling for survival surrounded by people you love and hate. Levi’s voice was especially affecting, so clear, firm and gentle, yet humane and apparently untouched by anger, bitterness or self-pity. If This Is a Man is miraculous, finding the human in every individual who traverses its pages, whether a Häftling (prisoner) or Muselmann (“the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection”), a kapo or a guard.

Levi, a 23-year old chemist, was arrested in December 1943 and transported to Auschwitz in February 1944. There he remained until the camp was liberated on 27 January 1945. He arrived back home in Turin in October, unrecognisable to the concierge who had seen him only a couple of years earlier. This and more I learned from Ian Thomson’s nuanced biography, Primo Levi, which enriches our understanding of the author. On Levi’s return, stories were told and notes prepared, as he went back to work at a paint factory. By February 1946, he had completed a first draft about the last 10 days of his time in the camp, a section that would come to be the book’s last chapter, written “in furious haste”. Ten months later, there was a complete text, worked on “with love and rage”, reflecting a vow “never to forget”.

More here.