Perhaps this would be a good time to revisit these masterpieces.
This year is the centenary of Levi’s birth, and a fine moment to revisit his three Holocaust memoirs. If This Is a Man, written almost as soon as he returned home after the war, describes his time in Auschwitz. The Truce, written over a decade later, describes the odyssey between leaving Auschwitz and returning to Turin. Three decades after that, and shortly before he died, Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, a polemic in which he took on the myths that had gathered around the Holocaust in his lifetime.
“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944,” wrote Levi. At that point, late in the war, the Nazis had decided to extend the lifespan of valuable Jewish labourers and no longer executed them on a whim. That improved the odds. Still, of the 650 Italians that arrived on the same train as Levi, only 20 survived.
It took some time before Levi realised what the camps were. For the Jews, they were neither extermination camps, nor labour camps. They were designed for “the demolition of a man”. On arrival, the newcomers were herded into two groups – useful or not – and Levi, though not a formidable man, found himself in the first. They were stripped, shaved and tattooed: Levi became 174517. The language, by turns heroic, indignant and fearful on the opening pages, changes to the present tense.
From then on, Levi’s account is neither a philosophical nor historical treatment of his experience. It does not explore the roots of Nazism, nor the origins and nature of evil. Instead, it focuses on details of life in the camp. Levi liked to say, wryly, that he modelled his writing on a chemist’s lab report. Here, his telling is so matter of fact that there are even moments of bone-dry comedy. But mostly it is eerie and disturbing, and unmistakably real.