Sunday, January 10, 2010

Riding the rails with Primo Levi

Been car sharing several days per week with my son, who works part-time at a local Così restaurant. On Monday he will start taking courses at the local community college as well, so I'll definitely be taking the train to work Monday through Thursday. Maybe Friday too, if his work schedule requires. He cannot get to college or to work except by car, while the train leaves me right on the campus where I work. So I only need to be dropped off at the station closest to home.

  During the Thanksgiving break, I watched movie La Tregua (The Truce), based on the book of the same title by Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. While John Turturro turned in a moving performance as the newly liberated narrator, he sure looked a whole older than the 25-year-old Buna camp survivor. The film piqued my curiosity and I located a copy of Levi's autobiographical novel describing his circuitous journey home, much of it on and off trains. I feel as though he has been keeping me company on my train ride to and from work. 

If being able to pick up and read a book in your native language anytime, anywhere is like sampling your grandma's home cooking whenever you want, then the ability to read another language is like having at your fingertips tasty tidbits of another culture’s cuisine. And just as dishes can be sweet, savory, piquant, or even pungent in flavor, so it is with works of literature. La Tregua constantly regales the reader with such passages, suprisingly humorous at times, but more often bitter or bittersweet and always imbued with the powerful insights of the moving that I just have to share them, translating myself as best as I can. Hope you enjoy them, gentle reader.

By the way, the Italian text is available in its entirety at

The English translation is available in several editions, often published with Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), Levi's first autobiographical novel relating his experiences as a prisoner. Here's a fairly recent edition.

First, a little information about Primo Levi, in case you're not familiar with him.  Levi was born into an Italian Jewish family in 1919 and enrolled in the doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Turin in 1937. Levi managed to defended his thesis and receive his degree in chemistry with honors in spite of the fascist regime's racial laws that abrogated the civil and human rights of Jews, including the right to study at the university. He went to live in Milan and worked for a branch of a Swiss pharmaceutical company. There Levi came into contact with resistance fighters, members of the clandestine Partito d'Azione, and became a partigiano. Untrained and poorly armed, he and his ragtag band were arrested  by the Germans near Saint-Vincent (Val d'Aosta).  As prisoner #174 517, Levi was sent to Buna-Monowitz (known then as Auschwitz III).

Out of a total of 650 prisoners, Levi was one of only twenty who survived Buna, and he attributed his survival to a series of fortunate coincidences. More on that in a later blog post. 

   As the book opens, the prisoners of Buna see four Red Army soldiers come riding toward the camp on horseback:

   ...four men bearing arms, but not against us; four messengers of peace... They did not wave at us or smile. They seemed strangely inhibited; an emotion  stronger than pity, some sort of awkward reserve was keeping their mouths sealed while their eyes stayed glued to the dreadful scene before them. It was that same sense of shame that we had come to know so well, the shame that would overwhelm us after the selections and whenever we were forced to witness or submit to an outrage. A shame that the Germans never knew but that the just man feels when another commits a crime. And it torments him that such crime exists and has been irrevocably introduced into the world of things that exist, and that the will to do good has been rendered either null or unsubstantial, totally useless as a means of defense.

...quattro uomini armati, ma non armati contro di noi; quattro messaggeri di pace...Non salutavano, non sorridevano; apparivano oppressi, oltre che da pietà, da un confuso ritegno, che sigillava le loro bocche, e avvinceva i loro occhi allo scenario funereo. Era la stessa vergogna a noi ben nota, quella che sommergeva dopo le selezioni, ed ogni volta che ci toccava assistere o sottostare a un oltraggio: la vergogna che i tedeschi non conobbero, quella che il giusto prova davanti alla colpa commessa da altrui, e gli rimorde che esista, che sia stata introdotta irrevocabilmente nel mondo delle cose che esistono, e che la sua volontà buona sia stata nulla o scarsa, e non abbia valso a difesa.

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