I approached this book with a degree of reluctance after it was recommended by a friend. A book about the Holocaust atrocities sounded very heavy going. I was delighted to find it to be one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. The stories, beautifully told in crystal clear language, are filled with the humanity that still struggled along in this darkest of places. It's full of little details that bring the events to life with heart-rending effectiveness, and yet it leaves you sharing the author's belief that humanity is stronger still.
Thank God, or fate if you prefer, that Primo Levi was spared in the final days of Auschwitz as the Russians advanced. By some miracle he was hospitalised with scarlet fever and the Nazis in a rare oversight neglected to liquidate the few sick and infirm left. Levi had survived that long due to his skills as a chemist. It also turned out that he was an equally gifted writer. In fact a brilliant one! If it were not for Auschwitz this talent may never have surfaced, but Levi was a decent man with a conscience who felt compelled to act as a witness for all those mute dead. He carried this duty out in the most beautiful and moving prose.
This work is much smaller than “If this is a Man” and “The Truce”, which are often published together. I would suggest you read these works first before reading this one, which helps to make order of events. Those works I would venture to say are some of the most important of the 20th Century! In this one Levi wanted to write about ‘the human figures who stood out against the tragic background...the few, the different, the ones in whom I had recognised the will and capacity to react, and hence a rudiment of virtue’. He focuses on individuals caught up in the vast human tragedy that was Auschwitz in what he called ‘bizarre, marginal moments of reprieve’. In bearing witness to this he shows that man even in the most awful of conditions can still act decently and rise above the brutality. It is a brave book from a brave man who suffered so much!
Like the First World War that is so particularly poignant at this time, Auschwitz and the holocaust should never be forgotten. This little work helps keep the memory of those people alive, and the shadows are pushed away. We are brought that little bit closer to them. As Levi himself said in “If this is a man”, ‘You who live safe in your warm houses. You who find warm food and friendly faces when you return home. Consider if this is a man who works in mud, who knows no peace, who fights for a crust of bread, who dies by a yes or no’. It happened not so long ago. Levi powerfully warns us at the end of this book about insidious complacency. ‘We too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our own fragility , forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting’. The train took Levi on the 11th April 1987, but his works live on. He remains a one of the holocausts most damning witnesses. Essential reading! Should be compulsory! In dire need of a reprint!