In memory of Jean Samuel
Jean Samuel passed away last September 8. Born in 1922 in Wasselonne, Belgium, he was three years younger than Primo Levi. Like Levi, he was arrested at the beginning of 1944 – in Dausse in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France – and then deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz. Unlike Levi, he then went through the terrible experiences of the “death marches”.
I remember his mild and gentlemanly presence, a lifestyle to match Levi's own. I remember his participation in the Aned conferences in the 1980s [for ex-deportees] and, above all, the moving comments he made at the Turin conference of 1988, one year after Levi's death. Invited by Bruno Vasari, who was a friend of his, Samuel stayed in Turin only a few hours. It was as if he could not stand the idea of Turin without Levi. He read a short but intense account in the hall of the Regional Council, which, I think, should be thought of as the catylist for what was to become, many years later, his book-interview, Il m’appelait Pikolo. Un compagnon de Primo Levi raconte [My name is Pikolo: A companion of Primo Levi's speaks] (Paris: Laffont, 2007; ital. translation – Milano: Frassinelli, 2008).
The ties between Turin and Brussels were rather close in those years, as were those between Vasari and Samuel, fostered by mutual friendships with Maurice Goldstein, president of the Fondation Auschwitz at Brussels. These two “characters” of Levi's could not help but be friends. Samuel was the Pikolo. Vasari was, more briefly, B.V., the person to whom the famous poem, Il superstite [the survivor], was addressed.
Samuel was cast in a more demanding role, a very demanding one, perhaps too demanding. He was the character who was called to become the symbol of literature and its potential under the extreme conditions of the Lager. As the years passed by and as the fortunes of Levi grew, Samuel accepted playing this role, perhaps in a way he was not aware of, to the point of being oppressed by it. He represented the power that literary memory, that poetry, can harness in the face of adversity. For Italian readers, as well as those worldwide, he represented the power of classical humanism, of Dante the humanist. This was a role that was symbolic and certainly very important in the interpretation of a writer like Levi, whose literary tendencies have long been overshadowed by the image of him as a chemist-writer or writer-scientist. The episode of Pikolo and the Canto of Ulysses evokes a theme central to If This is a Man, that of literary sources.
Nevertheless, Jean Samuel was, first of all, a man, not a symbol and, like Levi's other real- people/characters (for example, Henri and Cesare), they often did not manage to recognize themselves immediately in the pages of the book. His being so present “inside” the works of Levi cannot excuse us from remembering him as a man and, specifically, as a friend of Levi's. To do this, we need to shift our attention to another period in Levi's life that is equally important, the period after the return, the first attempts – difficult for both of them – to put together a normal life.
The passages from the private correspondence that Samuel published in his book are almost as beautiful as those in the Ulysses chapter. Without a doubt, they are the most noteworthy pieces of Levi's correspondence that we know. Levi's first letter, from March 23, 1946, answers a letter where Jean had written: Il a fallu un hasard extraordinaire. Tout semblait nous empêcher de nous retrouver [An extraordinary stroke of fortune has taken place. Everything had seemed to be preventing us from finding each other.] These wonderful letters, like those between Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti in those same weeks and months – give us a some glimpse of the importance of a topic related to the concentration camp experience that we often tend to underestimate.
In those first months, in those first weeks, the survivors were first trying to find each other and often did discover each other again. This gave life to correspondence spanning Europe, a topic that calls for specific historical research. These were the years of silence, of the life stories that were not listened to, even by the survivors' families. The prisoners were searching for each other and needed to run into a bit of luck – hasard extraordinaire – to find each other and be able to embrace each other again, as happened to Primo and the Pikolo. This is the pre-history of the history of the deportation.
Before Levi entrusted the memories of his own dramatic experiences to a book, he entrusted then to letters, to long private letters that precede his account in his book and in some ways make that book possible. In these antecedents to the book, Levi and Samuel were the two “Ulysses” who had returned to their Ithaca after having feared their shipwrecks. These two of the “saved” sought each other out, wrote each other letters, searched for each other, and asked each other for news of the other survivors. This extraordinary dialogue, which merits systematic research, reached a high moment in the correspondence between Levi and Samuel in the period from the liberation of the camps to the first edition of If This is a Man.
There is nowhere else that we can find an adequate response to the problem of the return from the lagers, of the shining hope in life that was born again after the abomination. These were the weeks and the days of intense story-telling as well as of light-heartedness, of real encounters (not all of which came to a good end), of a re-embracing of freedom, and, above all, of the happiness that consists in re-finding a love for life.
In the summer of 1947, a few weeks after Levi had sent Samuel his chapter on the Pikolo, the two friends were thinking of meeting each other on the Côte d'Azur. Eravamo giovani fra giovani [we were young among the young], Levi put it. For the first time in his life, Samuel saw the Mediterranean of Ulysses at Nice. Levi was intent on reaching him, riding a Lambretta scooter that he had just bought, but he was stopped at the border in Menton because he did not have a passport, something that Jean did not have either. The border officials, even without knowing what their history was, agreed to let them meet each other briefly in their offices. Primo brought some fruit and chocolate as gifts. Now that Jean Samuel has left us it is a pleasure to remember their long friendship in this way.
Available online, in Italian, the interview Samuel released for the 2003/2004 Yearbook (Annuario 2003/2004) of the Primo Levi High School in Montebelluna (Tv).
Primo Levi's biographer Carole Angier (The Double Bond. Primo Levi: A Biography, Viking, London 2002) wrote an obituary of Jean Samuel for «The Times»: Jean Samuel. Survivor of Auschwitz who formed a close bond with Primo Levi and was immortalised in If This Is a Man, «The Times», September 23 2010, p. 63.
Available online, Jean Samuel: Auschwitz survivor who featured in Primo Levi's Holocaust masterpiece If This Is a Man, Samuel's obituary written for «The Independent» by Robert Gordon, professor of Italian Culture at the Cambridge University and author of the first Primo Levi Lecture (published as «Sfacciata fortuna». Luck and the Holocaust, Einaudi, Torino 2010).