Michael Ignatieff on what he learned about the Holocaust from Primo Levi

(Credit: michaelignatieff.ca)

Auschwitz, summer 1944. On a hot Sunday afternoon, two young men in their twenties, one from northern Italy, the other from Strasbourg in Alsace, are walking through the camp to the kitchens to pick up a tureen of soup and carry it back to their barracks. They have both been in the camp for about six months and know its routines. They do not trust each other because you cannot trust anybody here, but Jean has picked Primo for the soup detail. It is the one moment they can stretch out, a brief hour of grace in an infernal routine of exhausting and degrading labor in a place where the smoke from the crematoria colors the sky.

The camp is a babble of languages, with Hungarian and Yiddish being the most prominent, but these two are conversing in French and German. When Jean, the Frenchman, says he would like to learn Italian, Primo, to his own surprise, begins reciting a few fragments from canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno that he had memorized in high school. The canto tells the story of the Greek hero Ulysses who reaches the Gates of Hercules and exhorts his exhausted crew to go farther, to sail out beyond the gates into the wide-open sea. As the verses return to the Italian’s memory, fragment by fragment, Jean becomes engaged in how to translate them best: mare aperto, should it be “open sea”? A Blockfuhrer passes by on a bicycle. They freeze and remove their caps. Once he passes, they resume. When Ulysses “sets out” into the open sea, they argue about whether Dante’s misi mi should be rendered as je me mis in French. Then, with a growing sense that they are sharing a text that contains a promise of freedom, Primo remembers the key lines—the exhortation delivered by Ulysses to convince his crew to set out beyond the Gates of Hercules, beyond the known world: Consider well the seed that gave you birth/ You were not born to live your lives as brutes,/But to be followers of virtue and knowledge.

When these lines rise from the darkness of his memory, Primo feels as if he were hearing them for the first time, like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. Jean begs him to repeat them and tell the rest, since they are approaching the kitchen. Primo struggles to remember the concluding lines. He closes his eyes, he bites his finger—it is no use. The cooks are shouting “soup and cabbage” in German and Hungarian, and behind them the men from the other barracks are clamoring to take their turn.

In Primo Levi’s account of this scene, he does not tell us whether he managed to remember the ending. What matters is that the words reminded the two prisoners that they were not born to be brutes, and that there was another world, beyond the wire, where one day they might live as men. This is undoubtedly why he felt such a surge of exaltation, but we also need to remember how Dante’s tale actually ended. Ulysses and his crew did sail beyond the Gates of Hercules into the wide-open sea. Their mad journey continued into the darkness. They lost sight of the stars and the moon, then a storm struck and just as they saw an island looming up above them, their ship foundered, turned over, and they all drowned. The last line of Dante’s canto di Ulisse reads:

Until the sea again closed over us.

For anyone born in the decade after the war’s end, as I was, Primo Levi—and other witnesses of the two twentieth-century tyrannies—became touchstones of moral judgment.

We turned to them to understand the history from which our parents came and from which our own world emerged. It was a past that put paid to any possibility, at least for me, that I could ever be consoled by faith in progress or faith in revolution.

What these survivors had endured gave them the authority once accorded to saints. Except, of course, that they didn’t want to be thought of as saints. Still, I could not help but think of them in this way, for they exercised the moral authority of saints. Like them, they had suffered for a faith, not a belief in paradise or salvation, but instead a resolute conviction that hell existed and that they had an obligation to chronicle it.

Their act of witness was not just a vindication of art but also an affirmation of allegiance to a tradition, stretching back in time, for example, to Dante, whose courage in exile six hundred years before had been an inspiration to both the poet Anna Akhmatova and Levi. To write poetry was to assert their belonging to a fellowship of witness, across the centuries, that made sense of the human project as a whole, and if it did this, it was a fellowship they hoped would extend into the future.

Consolation was for them a form of political hope. They wanted to win the vital political battle of the future, over what meaning their nations and peoples would give to the horror they had endured. They wanted victims to be remembered and to ensure that their once all-powerful Tormentors would be consigned to infamy. Their passionate belief that history would not forget the suffering they had chronicled was a consoling thought, and not just for them. We, their readers, also hope that history is given meaning by virtue of their exemplary courage. They had wrung poetry from extremity; they had preserved the memory of the persecuted; they had kept faith with writing, with lucidity, in the midst of terror. Their greatness of spirit, their determination to remember, consoled us for being members of a human family that had done this to them. We allowed ourselves to believe that their acts of witness could weigh in the balance against the horror they described. 

In my generation’s way of thinking, or at least in mine, there was a hidden desire for absolution. In paying tribute to their greatness of spirit, we appropriated their greatness as if it were our own. They were saints, too, because they had faith in us, the generations who would come after them. They would have given in, surely, had they not held on to the conviction that their writings would survive and find readers who would take their truths to heart. They even hoped, as saints do, that our faith would move mountains, that once we had taken their truth to heart, such torments would never happen again.

We were their consolation. They were sustained by the hope that we—the succeeding generations—would ensure that they had not spoken truth in vain. They were consoled by the thought that we would remember them.

But have we?

The last survivors of the Holocaust and Stalin’s terror are dying, and what they endured is passing from memory into the contested domain of history, and from there, into the still more uncertain terrain of opinion. More and more people actually think they have a choice about whether to believe these things happened. 

The ruler of contemporary Russia, whose father worked for Stalin’s killers, has made nostalgia for Stalin the official ideology of his regime. He has said the destruction of the Soviet empire was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. 

Such faithless heirs—and they also include Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, racists and hate-mongers—force us to ask whether the faith of these saints has been misplaced. Those of my own generation, who came to adulthood schooled in their unsparing testimony, may now feel something akin to shame. We have become unwilling witnesses to the creation of a new alternative reality in which what they witnessed and suffered is disbelieved. 

If the meaning they stood for had won the battle, the once popular slogan—Never Again—would not now ring so hollow. New genocides would not have returned. This crime, it turned out, was not some elemental rupture with history, but the reenactment of a persistent historical temptation to create by force a world without enemies. Stalin and Hitler understood the appeal of this utopia, and it captivated millions of believers in the twentieth century. The same demonic utopia is bound to remain a permanent temptation in politics in the twenty-first and beyond.

It is just as well, really, that none of these saints lived to see who their heirs might be and that none of us will live to see how the story of our own times turns out. History has no consolations to offer because it never ends and its meaning is never settled, not even by witnesses as heroic and courageous as these. History may have no consolation to offer, but it does leave us with duties. Since they had faith in us, we should keep faith with them and defend the truths they bequeathed to us.

At the end of his life, Primo Levi wrote an incomparable memoir, The Drowned and the Saved, about being a witness. He lived long enough to see many of his fellow survivors die and for the Holocaust to slowly transform from a lived memory to a historical fact, and then, more disturbingly, into a myth. He did not spare himself in the struggle against this tide of amnesia and willful distortion. He answered the letters from Germans who wrote him ignorant or self-deceiving responses to his books. He showed up at schools and learned to listen patiently to children asking him, in small voices, why he hadn’t been able to escape. 

One little boy could not believe that escape was impossible. So Levi drew him a map of the camp, with the barbed wire and the guard posts marked in.

The little boy was still not convinced. “This is how you should do it,” he said, and with a few energetic arrows and lines, the little boy tried to show Levi how. 

In this and so many other encounters, Levi as witness had to struggle with the disbelief in evil that is the chief illusion of happy lives. He despised the moral kitsch that turned all Holocaust survivors into heroes. He knew otherwise. He chronicled the “grey zone,” the ambiguous world of compromise he inhabited as a scientist spared from the crematorium by virtue of his technical skills. He even admitted that his year in Auschwitz was when he felt most fiercely alive. He viewed his own survival as a privilege for which he felt ashamed. He became convinced that the best had drowned, while the worst had been saved. 

He never stopped thinking through the responsibilities he had as a witness, never ceased to interrogate the role he had unwillingly embraced. When a fellow prisoner whom he met told him that Providence had saved him in order to be such a witness, Levi recalled bitterly, “Such an opinion seemed monstrous to me. It pained me as when one touches an exposed nerve and kindled the doubt I spoke of before: I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another.”

In 1988, exhausted and depressed by age, a recent prostate operation, and the unremitting burden of caring for both his aged mother and his mother-in-law, Levi took his own life, hurling himself down the stairwell of the apartment in Turin where he had lived most of his life. Many of his readers allowed themselves to be disappointed that he had given up, that his role as a witness no longer gave him a reason to go on. One such reader wrote at the time:

No one wants to believe it [that he committed suicide], not just for his sake, but for our own. It was as though Primo Levi held up a light for us—almost the only human being who did, in that worst place and time. It is as though…he helped us to regain our self-esteem. And if he laid down that light himself, was he not saying that he no longer believed in it—that he no longer believed in us? 

He had carried so many burdens. He should not have been asked to carry that one as well.

Excerpted from On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff. Copyright ©2021 Michael Ignatieff. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.