Best known for his novels If This is a Man(1947) and The Periodic Table (1975), both recounting his time at Auschwitz, Primo Levi is perhaps the most famous literary figure to have emerged from the Holocaust. Looking forward to the course, we asked Suzanne to tell us more about Primo Levi’s work and what it has to say about memory, meaning, and history 70 years after the end of the Second World War.
Q – How does literature in general, and Primo Levi’s work in particular, influence our historical understanding of the Second World War? In what ways does it ascribe meaning, or not, to historical events?
A – Ever since the First World War, writers and artists have struggled to find an expressive language with which to convey the horrors of modern, industrialized warfare, and historians are indebted to these accounts, however partial and imperfect they may be. In many respects, Levi’s work continues this struggle against the limits of language; he notes, for instance, that terms like “cold” or “hunger” mean something entirely different in the concentration camp than when used in common speech, conveying a depth of misery unknown to most. So we find that from the outset, the attempt to represent the camp experience through fictional or non-fictional portrayals is fraught with difficulty. Levi even goes as far as to remind us, with all the accompanying horror, that the survivor is not representative of the camp experience, for the vast majority did not live to tell their stories. The relationship between literature, memoir, and history is therefore not a simple one and the reader can feel both that the survivor literature falls short of capturing the horrors of the Shoah and that our historical understanding of the Shoah would be feeble with dangerously abstract ideas were it not for writings like Levi’s.
Q – As Holocaust survivors enter great age and WWII recedes into history, what does it mean to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive? To what purpose, according to what ends?
A – This is an interesting question, and the answer is riddled with difficulties as Holocaust remembrance has become embedded within contemporary polemics. Everyone seems to think the Holocaust has a lesson to teach – the debate is over what that lesson is. For example, does it testify to the impossibility of Jewish life in the Diaspora and thus justify exclusive Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the Occupied Territories? Or are the lessons here more about the dangers of fascism and rabidly exclusionary nationalist projects? In short, is this a unique story of Jewish suffering or a universal warning about how easily the rationalized forces of modernity can undermine human existence? Levi is interesting because of the way in which he answers, and indeed unsettles, this binary. It is by now an unfortunate fact that the language of “never again” has been largely ineffective in preventing genocides in places like Rwanda. Even today, the herding of Burmese Muslims into concentration camps is barely mentioned by the Western media. We come up against the morally unsettling reality that “we” seem to care more about some humans than others, and this hierarchy of outrage is itself something that Levi cautions us against.
To continue exploring these questions please join us for Primo Levi: Memory, Meaning, and the Holocaust, which will take place at the Center for Jewish History on Wednesday nights starting July 6th, 2016.