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Date: Wed, 17 Jan 1996 00:11:06 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <>
From: "Kenneth M. Kladnik" <>
Subject: Antidote to Holocaust Revisionism

Review of Primo Levi, If This is a Man and The Truce

By Phil Shannon, 17 January 1996

If This is a Man and The Truce
By Primo Levi
Abacus, 1995. 398 pp., $16.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

The poisonous Demidenko/Darville rewriting of the history of the anti-Semitic horror of European fascism needs an antidote. There are none better than Primo Levi, the Italian chemist whose books on his experiences in the Nazi death camps are everything that Demidenko/Darville is not - honest, compassionate, literate and, yes, a force for good in the world.

If This is a Man and The Truce is the two part record of Levi's enslavement in Auschwitz and his return to Italy after liberation by the Red Army. This 1995 re-publication is the 10th in nine years, a testimony to Levi's continuing relevance and artistic skill, and to his truthfulness. There is no hoax, no invention of facts, just an accurate rendering of the reality of the fascist hell on earth.

In 1943, 24 year old Levi, a member of a Resistance group in northern Italy, was captured by the fascist militia and sent with 649 other Italian Jews to the Monowitz camp in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in Poland. Levi was one of only three of these 650 who survived.

The Nazis soon turned the new camp inmates into demoralised and expendable slaves who were worked remorselessly until they were ready to be disposed of in the gas chambers and crematoria. They were broken by hunger, the cold, disease and terror.

The political prisoners held out better than the Jewish and criminal prisoners. The Jewish prisoners had mostly been so traumatised, and constantly disrupted by "selections'' for the gas chambers, that even when Levi's fellow prisoners at Monowitz hear of the news that prisoners had managed to blow up one of the crematoria at Birkenau, they are unmoved to emulate this act of resistance. There were "no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement''. The "gigantic death machines'' appeared invincible and eternal.

After Levi had spent one year in Monowitz, however, the rapid advance of the Red Army caused a hasty evacuation of the camp. Twenty thousand "healthy'' prisoners - those capable of walking and working - were force-marched to further slavery in Germany.

Almost none survived the trek. Levi, fortuitously stricken with scarlet fever, was one of 800 ill prisoners left to die. Five hundred did so before the Russians arrived and 200 died immediately after, beyond the assistance of Russian and Polish medical help.

Then began a circuitous eight-month train journey from Auschwitz to Turin. This trial was exacerbated by the absurd comedy of Soviet bureaucracy, "an obscure and gigantic power, not ill-intentioned towards us, but suspicious, stupid, contradictory and as blind as the forces of nature''.

Yet behind official Russia lay a "vigorous people full of the love of life who entered our hearts'' during Levi's return home. Levi and the other ex-prisoners rediscovered "a joy in living which Auschwitz had extinguished''. The Truce is increasingly full of humour and laughter, as the human condition should be.

Some survivors tried to forget their experience. Others, like Levi, chose to keep alive "the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago'' as a warning against fascism and a lesson in where the demonising, abuse and scapegoating of particular peoples, expedient victims of politically organised hate, can ultimately lead.

Levi's survival, too, is a lesson. He survived, often through good luck, but fundamentally because he "never lost the capacity to see his companions and himself as men and not things''. He therefore avoided "that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck''.

Levi's unexpected suicide late in life may have been the slow revenge of Auschwitz. It robbed us of more of his sombre but unbowed writing of profound humanity. The vacuum has been defiled by the likes of Demidenko/Darville with her pathetic apology for anti-semitism, crude anti-communist caricatures and her thin literary disguise justifying fascism.

Hate, however, is foreign to Levi, who also knows that "a socialism without prison camps'' is possible and desirable but that "a Nazism without concentration camps is unimaginable''. Without fascism, there would have been no literary Primo Levi. We should make the most of his works to help ensure fascism never happens again.

First posted on the Pegasus conference by Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption inquiries: