Primo Levy is one of my partner’s heros, but for one reason or another I’d not read any of his books until picking up If This Is A Man & The Truce the other day.
These books cronicle some of the experiences that Levy had as a slave in Auschwitz towards the end of the Second World War, and then in the chaos that followed the end of the war as he struggled to survive and return to Italy.
I’ve talked to one or two people who escaped from the Nazis, visited Holocaust museaums, and watched part of the Shoah as well as other documentaries about the period. But I can’t say that I’ve seen or heard anything that brought home the horror of what individuals were put through, or how it was organised, as clearly.
Levy says he’s trying to write as a witness and that provides the books with a clarity that is chilling, revealing and deeply affecting.
He was also good enough to add a postscript in the edition I read which answers some of the questions that his readers and those he spoke to kept on returning to, and in doing so answers some of mine. In particular as a teenager learning about this period in history I’d wondered why there hadn’t been more resistance from within the camps. Levy makes it clear as you read that that couldn’t have happened; because of the exhaustion, starvation, and the brutal levels of reprisal that followed any breach of the ‘rules’. But he also makes the point that the fact that there wasn’t a common language, that there wasn’t a background of political organisation also played a part.
As you can imagine in no way is this comfortable reading, but it’s essential.