“Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far.”
Few quotes embody the spirit of their author like this one, from Primo Levi’s autobiography, The Periodic Table. Levi was a chemist, something that is evident not only in the subject, but in the style of his measured, meticulous prose. He was also an Italian Jew, and he was 24 years old when he was sent to Auschwitz. “Distillation” could describe Levi’s writing style, which eschews ostentation in favour of clarity. It could also describe his own journey from Turin to Auschwitz and then back to Turin, where he lived the rest of his life in the same apartment in which he was born. The experience stripped him of what ego and vanity he had, and left him clear-eyed.
More like this:
– The Danish network that defied Hitler
– Art from the Holocaust
– How the children of Nazi Germany remember World War Two
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.
The demolition of a man
“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.
Levi admits he feels our language is inadequate to describe the offence of the Holocaust
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.
The days are cold and hungry, and wring the life out of the prisoners. Doing what they are told, and eating what they are given, only the exceptional last longer than three months. One morning, during manual labour, Levi sees the task at hand and knows “[he] would be dead of exhaustion in half an hour.” Soon, he is “deaf and almost blind from the effort.” He bites his lips, knowing that “to gain a small, extraneous pain serves as a stimulant to mobilise our last reserve of energy.” The kapos, the Jewish overseers, knew this too. Some of them beat the prisoners “from pure bestiality and violence”, but others did it “almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses.”
At night, two to a bunk, the men dream. They dream one of two dreams. Either it is a nightmare in which they are trying to tell their story, to explain what is happening to them, to their friends and family, only to be ignored. Or they dream of food. “Many lick their lips and move their jaws. They are dreaming of eating.” Any dream is preferable to waking up. The dawn command of Auschwitz, ‘Wstawàch’ (get up), arrives like a whip crack.
Even as he writes these scenes, Levi admits he feels our language is inadequate to describe the offence of the Holocaust. That he may use these words, but for the reader who was not there they have associations that do not come close to what he means. “We say ‘hunger’, we say ‘tiredness’, ‘fear’, ‘pain’, we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers [camps] had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born.”
Auschwitz showed Levi the limits and laws of human nature
A new language to describe the new phenomena produced in the camps, which were an infernal kind of social and biological experiment. Levi never stopped observing, with “the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.” Auschwitz showed Levi the limits and laws of human nature. By pushing the prisoners to extremes, it performed a kind of psychological, even metaphysical stress-testing. How does a man change under these conditions – and how should this change our perception of mankind? The book’s title reads like a logical deduction: “If this is a man, then…” In the camp, Levi wrote “it was better not to think”. He observed and filed the memories for a time when he could consider them as a man.
The drowned and the saved
After 11 months in Auschwitz, and in the depths of a second winter, the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers, who were ashamed by what they saw. Levi’s second memoir, The Truce, describes his journey home to Turin. But for Levi, that did not mean going southwest, direct from Auschwitz to Turin, but east. East into the USSR, north almost to Minsk, then looping around and running south to Romania. Only then did the path run west: through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and finally into Italy. It is a Homeric voyage. Winter breaks, the sun returns, and the first chapter is called The Thaw. Levi’s humanity returns like flesh and fat on his bones.
The fact of his survival troubled Levi. Why him?
When Levi arrived in Turin, the recurrent dreams of Auschwitz were realised. Home, family and food, yes, but also the need to tell his story, and the fear he would be unable to communicate it. He returned to being a chemist, and spent his whole working life in the same paint factory, dedicating his Sundays to writing.
The fact of his survival troubled Levi. Why him? What determined survival in Auschwitz? To Levi, it was entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Luck was vital, too. Levi enjoyed two big pieces of good fortune: meeting an Italian civilian who sneaked him food for six months, and falling ill at just the right moment to avoid the death march out of Auschwitz as the Russians approached. But Levi spat at the suggestion of providence. “The worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the ‘grey zone’, the spies. It was not a certain rule… but it was, nevertheless, a rule… The best all died.”
“The grey zone” is Levi’s term for the moral realm in between the Nazis and the “drowned”, the victims who died without struggling or compromising themselves. That is, the people like himself who cooperated with evil in order to extend their lives. For some, this collaboration was minor, perhaps cobbling Nazi boots for an extra ration of bread. For others, it was deep. A handful of prisoners helped administrate the smooth running of the camps. Between those poles, there was every shade of complicity and coercion, and this confounds the desire to pin innocence and blame.
It is hard to make sense of the Holocaust, which was devoid of sense by any civilised standard
What Levi saw in the Holocaust changed his perception of humans, but he never believed it had shown us their true nature. “We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilised institution is taken away… We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.”
But what of the Nazis? Was it “logic intent on evil, or the absence of logic? As so often in human affairs, the two alternatives coexisted.” It is hard to make sense of the Holocaust, which was devoid of sense by any civilised standard. But Levi stresses that it is not incomprehensible. On the level of the individual, at least, it was made up of recognisable human motivations. Some Nazis were fanatics; some were opportunists; some were cowards. But humans, en masse, can do inhuman things.
In 1961, 14 years after its initial publication, If This Is a Man was translated into German. Levi agonised over his foreword to the book. He felt the pull of, and resisted, the consolations of rage and blame and despair. The words he chose were defiance, distilled: “I am alive, and I would like to understand you in order to judge you.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.