If This Is a Man

by Primo Levi

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Critical Context

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In 1963 George Steiner observed that silence is the only possible response to the Holocaust because “the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.” Levi makes a similar point when he comments that no words can describe his experience. Terms such as “hunger,” “fear,” and “pain” were created “by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.” Only a new, harsher languagecould express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.

Many who survived the concentration camps chose this path of silence, but Levi was not among them. As the patient in psychotherapy must purge his memory by bringing dark secrets to light, so Levi had a psychological need to tell his story. Like the Ancient Mariner he interrupted those who wanted to go to the wedding, who wanted to get on with life, to tell his tale of death. The writing also gave purpose to his existence; no longer was he engaged in the meaningless labor of Auschwitz. In writing he found work that could truly make him free.

If This Is a Man, like all other Holocaust literature, also represents a political act. As Steinlauf told Levi, each person at Auschwitz had a moral obligation to remain alive so that he could testify to the world about what had occurred and thus prevent the recurrence of the horror. Combining careful observation and philosophical insight with poetic elegance and imagination, Levi’s book recounts the fall of mankind as a warning for future generations.

Levi’s subsequent success as a writer and scientist suggested that the healing begun when the Germans abandoned the camp had been complete, that here was the story of man’s rise as well as his fall. Nevertheless, as the Belgian philosopher Jean Amery, a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz who took his own life in 1978, commented,He who has been tortured remains tortured. . . . He who has suffered torment can no longer find his place in the world. Faith in humanity—cracked by the first slap across the face, then demolished by torture—can never be recovered.

Levi began to have nightmares about his experiences in the camp, and on April 11, 1987, he committed suicide by throwing himself down a stairwell. Just as the radioactivity from the atomic blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki continues to kill, so the horrors of Auschwitz still breed a hectic in the blood, still claim their victims.

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