If Not Now, When?

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

Mendel, a village watchmaker, is one of the hundreds of thousands of stragglers missing from the Red Army. He meets Leonid, another Russian Jew, behind the German lines. Together, they hide from the Germans and the peasants. From another straggler, Mendel and Leonid learn of the bands of partisans hidden in the woods. Mendel, tired of being a missing person living like a wolf, decides to join a band. The pair make their way to Novoselki, a village of armed Jews in the midst of the Polessia marshes.

Despite its members’ being weak and poorly armed, the hidden settlement is the safest place for Jews who have escaped from ghettos and German labor camps. The camp leader, Dov, an older man, does his best to keep the camp fed and guarded while carrying out acts of sabotage. In Novoselki, Mendel meets a passionate Zionist woman named Line and a clever and strong former actor named Pavel.

During the harsh winter, Dov, who by now considers Mendel his lieutenant, receives a message from the legendary Jewish partisan leader Gedaleh, who belongs to a strong and well-organized band. He invites Dov’s participation in a mission, and, feeling it is important to show the Russians that the Jews will fight the Germans, Dov agrees. The engagement is not a success, and German reprisal with machine guns and tanks wipes out most of the Novoselki band.

Dov, Mendel, Leonid, Line, and Pavel set off to locate Ulybin, the chief of Gedaleh’s band, to continue to fight their partisan war. In Ulybin’s prosperous, well-organized camp, Mendel learns more about Gedaleh, who is away on a mission. Gedaleh’s life was saved by his violin, which stopped a bullet. It appears that there was a quarrel between Ulybin and Gedaleh over accepting Jews in the band.

While they wait for orders in the camp, they experience great hunger and homesickness. The Russians’ longing for home is not unreasonable, for their homes still exist, but for the Jews, regret for their destroyed villages and dead families is complete despair, and they wonder for what future they are fighting.

Because of an old knee wound, Dov is taken by plane to a hospital in Russia. The others continue to wait. Then a ragged band appears, led by Gedaleh, with Dov among them. They bring the news that the Germans are weakened and retreating. It will be possible to head west into Poland.

The band splits up. Mendel and the other Jews go with Gedaleh and Dov to harass the German rear lines. They make their way west, in relative safety. It is a period of rest. Gedaleh plays the violin and sings the anthem of the Jewish partisans: “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If not this way, how? If not now, when?”

After the rest period, the band hijacks a freight train. Upon learning that the Germans are losing ground in Russia, that German cities are being bombed, and that the Allies are gaining in Italy, they leave their life of hiding in the marshes and enter the inhabited world of Poland. Their purpose is to continue to sabotage and harass the German army and to liberate camps of war prisoners and Jews.

They find that Poland has been devastated by German reprisals. The partisans help the starving local peasants with the harvest. Gedaleh and the band formulate their determination to fight until the end of the war and then to go to Palestine to start over.

The band finds a small labor camp, in which 120 Jewish prisoners are being guarded by only...

(This entire section contains 899 words.)

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a few Germans. The retreating Germans have already killed most of the Jews, but the guards remain. The band raids the camp that night, killing the guards and freeing the few remaining prisoners. Leonid is killed in the attack.

The band passes the winter with a group of Polish partisans. During this time, White Rokhele becomes pregnant by young Isidor, and they are married. Now Gedaleh’s band is more than ever resolved to head for Palestine, carrying new life. They plan to go through Italy, from where, they hear, ships are leaving for Palestine.

The Russians arrive, liberating Poland from the Germans but leaving the Jews in an undefined, uneasy situation. Not recognized as partisans, they become men and women without papers. Dov returns to his home in Siberia. The others realize that as Jews they are no safer with the Russians than they were with the Germans. They continue on their way in a stolen truck. They are delayed by the Russians and lose the truck, but by the spring of 1945 the members of the Gedalist band resume their trek, traveling through defeated Germany. They continue to encounter hatred from German refugees, and while looking for food in a German town, Black Rokhele is shot. The band takes revenge by killing the town mayor.

Once the war is over, they continue westward during the late days of Rokhele’s pregnancy. They commandeer a passenger car, set off across the Alps by train, and make their way to an assistance center for refugees in Milan. Here they are introduced to Italian Jews who are to help them find a boat to Palestine. In Milan, Isidor and White Rokhele’s child, the child of them all, is born. There is hope for a new life.