Our language lacks words

“Our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.” In If This is a Man this is the way that Primo Levi underscored how hard it was to express the atrocious and fathomless experience of the Nazi deportation and extermination with the language of our everyday lives. Levi spent all his life keeping on trying to look for those words to tell the story of his experience, above all, to young people, with the hard-headedness of a tireless witness and the bravura of a great writer. Many years later, it is our turn now to take up this commitment. It is our turn to turn to Levi’s words, repeat them, translate them into other languages, have them appreciated and discuss them with those who have not yet found out about them. This is even more important because If This is a Man is a work of historical testimony that cannot be replaced and because it gives us, as the author himself writes, an extraordinary contribution to “a detached study of certain aspects of the human mind.” With this, Levi was able to talk to everyone and to each one of us overpassing the differences in language and culture in a universal perspective.

La nostra lingua manca di parole

Tra l’autunno 2012 e l’estate 2013 il Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi ha promosso tre letture multilingui di testi di Primo Levi aperte al pubblico scolastico e alla cittadinanza. Protagonisti e interpreti dei reading sono stati ragazzi italiani e stranieri che vivono a Torino.

In this spirit, the Fondazione Villa Emma-Ragazzi ebrei salvati di Nonantola [foundation in remembrance of the Jewish children saved in Nonantola], in collaboration with the International Primo Levi Studies Center, organized a public reading from If This is a Man in ten languages – Arabic, Hebrew, French, English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Slovenian. The event took place at Modena’s Teatro Storchi on January 27 2011. People who have lived in Italy for years and done a large range of jobs alternated with each other in the readings. Edith Bruck, Pupa Garribba, David Grossman and Boris Pahor also took part with video contributions.

Two years later a DVD of that event was produced, one that allows viewers to re-experience that event in two ways. Viewers can choose between the original version that offers multi-lingual readings without any aids. Or, they can use a menu to choose to watch the event completely subtitled in French, English, Italian or German. The DVD was conceived as a teaching aid that teachers can easily use during their classes.

The Villa Emma performance kicked off a season of multilingual readings of If This is a Man and other works by Primo Levi, mainly by and for upper secondary school students. At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the Primo Levi Studies Center involved schools and civic associations in the organization of a reading that took place at the Piedmont Region Meeting Center in Turin on November 20 2012.

Students of foreign origin who were studying in Italian schools read the stories and reflections of Levi in their native languages to an audience composed of junior and senior secondary school students in Turin. The words of Primo Levi resounded in Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Hebrew, Romanian, French, Italian, and Romani. At times, music by Tatè Nsongan quietly accompanied the excerpts. At other times, the readings alternated with Yiddish melodies sung by Elisa Di Dio. For the most part, the texts were taken from If This is a Man and The Truce as well as an excerpt from  The Drowned and the Saved. In addition, Valter Malosti of the Teatro Stabile di Torino read the entire text of the story, The Gypsy, from Lilith and Other Stories after a young Rom man from Turin introduced the story in Romani. As chosen, the central theme of the readings was the theme of the encounter in the concentration camp between people with different languages, customs, and origins.

The various portraits of characters conveyed the motif of differentness in its many nuances as well as the complementary motifs of confrontation and dialogue, things both very hard to do but at the same time not to be neglected in that extreme situation. The students in the audience of the multilingual readings had already read and studied Primo Levi’s works with the guidance of their teachers and the help of the Studies Center.  

On January 30 2013 in connection with the commemoration of the Day of Remembrance, secondary school students of the Liceo classico e linguistico Carducci in Bolzano gave readings of several texts of Primo Levi at the Teatro San Giacomo in Laives to an audience consisting of their fellow students, at both advanced and lower levels, as well as the teachers involved in the event. Levi’s words were read in Italian, German, English, French, Romanian, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and Bulgarian. The teachers at the Liceo Carducci posted a detailed description of their work on the School Bulletin Board. 

In the wake of the success of the readings in Turin in November, this reading project was continued and broadened thanks to the collaboration of a greater number of associations and schools. The Studies Center had been committed to this project from the beginning of the 2012-13 scholastic year. The highest point of this projects was the reading at the Turin book fair, the Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino, on May 17 2013 at 10:00. There and then, students read a wide section of texts from The Truce on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. The initiative served as the model of a format that was and is still being featured in several schools, acting independently or in collaboration with the Center. In the 2013-2014 school year, the project was continued with the contribution of the UCEI, the union of Italian Jewish communities.