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Se questo è un uomo

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    Se questo è un uomo
    [If This is a Man (UK) or Survival in Auschwitz (USA)]

    “Se questo è un uomo”, De Silva, Biblioteca Leone Ginzburg, 1947

    Se questo è un uomo is Primo Levi’s first published book. He wrote it after he had survived the extermination Lager in Auschwitz and after he had crisscrossed all of Europe on a journey home that lasted more than eight months. At the end of the text the author wrote down two places and two dates “Avigliana-Turin,December 1945 - January 1947.” Avigliana was the site of the factory that had just hired him as a chemist. Turin was city of the house where he was born and was to live for all his life. Levi went about writing his first book in any bit of time that he could find. When he was not writing, he used to talk about his own experiences with anyone he could find. Telling stories was one of his basic needs, like food.

    The first edition of the book was printed by a little Turin editing house, De Silva, directed by Franco Antonicelli, after the manuscript had been rejected by several big publishers, including Einaudi. It came out in the fall of 1947 with a run of 2,500 copies. Antonicelli decided to substitute the name chosen by Levi, I sommersi e i salvati, with the greatly successful name, Se questo è un uomo. The book had several authoritative reviews, the most enthusiastic of which was written by Italo Calvino, who called it the most beautiful book written on the experience of deportation. However, it took many decades for Levi to be considered a writer of the same stature as he was as a witness. Years later in 1958, Se questo è un uomo was reprinted by Einaudi in Saggi, its non-fiction series. This edition had a few variations, including a new chapter, “Initiation,” as well as a comment on the book jacket that was not signed but written by Calvino. (This comment appears below.) From that moment on, the book was translated into dozens of languages and by now is considered one of the greatest works about the extermination of the Jews, both in the precision of its testimony and in its literary worth. Levi focused his absolute attention on seeing and getting to know Auschwitz through and through. He was able to communicate both the essence of the experience as a whole and its smallest details.

    In Se questo è un uomo Levi tells the story of an entire year spent in the Buna-Monowitz Lager from February 1944 to January 27 1945. Buna was one of the 44 satellite camps of Auschwitz in Polish Upper Silesia. The camp owed its name to a synthetic rubber factory - Buna, which was never able to start functioning, as Levi tells us. The story begins with the Levi’s imprisonment in the camp for Jews in Fossoli, near Carpi. It ends with the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian army. Levi manages to survive thanks to the additional food that an Italian worker, Lorenzo, gets to him secretly and thanks to the fact that the Germans had intended to start producing synthetic rubber in Monowitz. Levi had graduated from the university in chemistry and so was “hired” after an unnerving examination whose description figures among the heights of his memoirs. Thus, he is able to spend several months in the camp’s industrial laboratory away from the cold and away from heavy labor. Levi said that he had not written the various parts of Se questo è un uomo in chronological order but according to how much he needed to tell the story. In fact, the last chapter, “The Story of Then Days,” written in the form of a diary, was the first piece that he wrote. There are few other books that bear the mark of absolute necessity that this does. For this reason, the work opens with a poem entitled "Shemà", which means "listen" in Hebrew. The poem asks its readers to consider if they could still define as a “man” someone “Who works in the mud / Who does not know peace / Who fights for a scrap of bread / Who dies because of a yes or a no.” After this, Levi commands the readers to focus their attention and remember what has been told to them. Levi does not ask for pity, but for moral consciousness and vigilance. In fact, this prayer is modeled after the fundamental prayer in the Jewish religion and makes a real explosion of Biblical wrath manifest right before the beginning of the story itself. After this, Levi’s tone is always kept inflexibly mild. His is a voice that does not judge and does not hate, but is not at all ready to pardon his torturers. His aim is “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.”

    Levi describes an indescribable reality without morbidity and thus with enhanced effectiveness. He writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” Levi describes the deportation in cattle cars, the senseless beatings, the commands yelled out at them in foreign languages, the slave labor, the famine, the selections of prisoners unable to work so that they could be sent to the gas chambers, the war of everybody against everybody, the visible and invisible hierarchies, the figures of the privileged prisoners (nicknamed Prominenten) and the dead men walking (nicknamed Muselmänner – i.e. Muslims), the absolute brutalization, and the ethics based on swindling and oppression. Yet, Levi also describes his rare friends and fellow prisoners, sketching them like the extraordinary physiognomic-moral portraitist that he is.

    The Lager appears like a monstrous anthropological experiment that reveals what is natural and what, instead, is acquired by the human spirit. Levi’s voice, his language, his glance, and his ear are both those of a scientist and of a humanist. His syntax is modeled after Latin and Italian classics. His epic reach has the archaic leanness of Homer. His energetic skill with metaphors comes from Dante, especially apparent in the very celebrated episode where he translates the Inferno’s canto of Ulysses from memory for a French fellow prisoner, the so-called Pikolo. His linguistic wit and inventiveness are inspired, paradoxically, by Folengo and Rabelais. In fact, even in the Lager, Levi manages to mark his prose with streaks of worldly wise humor. As witness and artist, Levi offers us this book as a mirror for victims, perpetrators, and common readers.

    Se questo è un uomo is divided into eighteen brief chapters and is less than 200 pages long. In 1976 Levi added an “Afterword,” where he answers the questions most frequently asked in the schools where he would go in order to talk about his experiences. This text of reflections is the first nucleus of I sommersi e i salvati, his last thoughts on the Lager, which would be published in 1986.


    Publicity Flyer printed for the first edition of “If This is a Man” (Turin: De Silva, 1947). The anonymous text is by Franco Antonicelli.

    "There was a dream, Primo Levi tells us, that came back often to afflict the nights of the prisoners in the extermination camps - the dream that they had come back home, that they were trying to tell their family and friends what sufferings they had gone through and that they noticed with a feeling of desolate pain that the listeners were not understanding, that they were not managing to take it in. It may be that any book - for it to hold up - about deeds like those done at the extermination camps would have to be very much less than the reality of the camps. Nevertheless, if we take stock of the “concentration camp” literature today, we see that at least two books stand out as being among the highest-level books of our times. One is French – The Human Species by Robert Antelme, which has already been translated by our publisher. The other is Italian – Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi, published for first time by De Silva publishers in Turin and long out of print. We are delighted to be able to offer this book to a wider public as a text of exemplar value in our literature. Primo Levi, a chemist from Turin, was deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of 1944 together with a contingent of Italian Jews in the concentration camp at Fossoli. The book opens with the Biblical scene of the departure from Fossoli and continues with the journey and arrival at Auschwitz, and a scene of devastating power, the separation of the men from the women and children, whom the men were never to see again. There is Null-achtzen (zero-eighteen), Levi’s fellow worker, who is by then like an automaton who no longer reacts and marches towards death without rebelling. He is the type of human that most prisoners are modeled after in their slow process of moral and physical annihilation that inevitably carries them to the gas chambers. His opposite is the so-called Prominent, the privileged one, someone who manages to find a way to increase his daily intake of food by just so much as to be able not to be eliminated, someone who manages to win a position of dominance over the others. All of his faculties are stretched towards one goal – to survive. Primo Levi sketches figures for us that are real-life characters – the engineer Alfred L., who continues to maintain in the camp the position of authority that he had in civil life; that absurd Elias, who seems to have been born in the mud of the camp and is impossible to be imagined as a free man; and Dr. Pannwitz with his chilling scientific fanaticism. There are certain scenes that reconstruct an entire atmosphere and a world. There is the sound of the musical band that accompanies the men doing hard labor every morning, the ghostly symbol of that geometric madness; and the anguished nights on the narrow bunks with the feet of their companions up in their faces; the terrible scene of the selection of men to send to the gas chamber; and the scene of the hanging, where one person still finds the courage to plot and to resist until his final shout from the gallows – Kamaraden, ich bin der Letze! “Comrades, I am the last.” This is the only book written by Primo Levi, born in Turin in 1919, a university graduate in chemistry who is now practicing his profession".
    [jacket flap Einaudi, 1958, unsigned but written by Italo Calvino]
     

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