Primo Levi in Bosnia

Primo Levi’s works are not very well known in the countries that originated out of the dissolution of ex-Yugoslavia. After The Periodic Table (1991), the release of the poems (Shemà) in Zagreb in 1992 coincided, in fact, with the outbreak of the war. If This is a Man was translated one year later when the crisis was getting even worse. An edition of The Drowned and the Saved was published in Belgrade in 2002, but it was distributed only in Serbia.

Yugoslavia under Tito and the extermination

In addition, for all the preceding years, Yugoslavia under Tito had paid scant attention to the extermination of the Jews during World War II. This made the reception of accounts written by survivors problematic. What imposed its mark, instead, was the official memory of political deportation and of the wounds that had never healed, those provoked by the deep awareness among the people of the various nationalisms that had been unleashed during that war. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rest of Europe that had been affected by the fall of communism finally began to delve into the real dimensions and the responsibilities of the Jewish tragedy. At this time, the weak attempts in this direction, such as the translations of Levi in ex-Yugoslavia, ended up being sucked into the whirlpool of an unstoppable disintegration.

It is an indisputable fact that there was no elaboration of how abhorrent the racist persecution perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies in Yugoslavia was. This was a persecution motivated because the Jews were Jews and not because they had committed any crimes. This missing elaboration made it all the more easy for excesses to spread, those committed in the name of belonging to one national, ethnic or religious group or another.

Primo Levi at the 8th International Seminar for Remembrance

Nevertheless, this lack of awareness and reflection is something that should not be accepted as an inevitable act of fate. To this end, the Fondazione Alexander Langer of Bolzano and the Tuzlanska Amica association in Tuzla, Bosnia, asked the International Primo Levi Studies Center to participate in the 8th International Seminar for Remembrance scheduled at Srebrenica for the end of August.

In reality, the real promoters of the week originated from and have been working in Srebrenica itself, the city devastated by the genocide of more than 8000 men massacred by the Serbo-Bosniak militias of Mladic on July 11 1995. They founded Adopt Srebrenica in 2007, a little mixed group in which local Bosnians and Serbs participate along with their friends in Bolzano and Tuzla, with the support of a network of Italian cities. They have set out on the extremely difficult task of keeping the memory of that tragedy alive directly in the place where it happened. In fact, it was the request that the women and men who were the protagonists of the hard reality of Srebrenica that gave legitimacy to a proposal that might have seemed forced or careless of the sensitivities of the survivors. The proposal was that of offering the stories and reflections of Levi as an opportunity for encounter and reflection. Levi’s works could serve to move people again to work out an experience that was traumatic and in many ways not comparable to Levi’s.

All this activity gave rise to several encounters in Tuzla, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo. About 50 Italians of all ages from various cities took part along with members of the Adopt Srebrenica group and people active in civic life: at the Srebrenica-Potočari Genocide Memorial and at the Forum of Tuzla Citizens, whose initiative originated in the recent general uprising in very many areas of Bosnia. Other participants included ex-concentration camp internees, members of human rights associations, and General Divjak, commander of the defense of Sarajevo during the siege and promoter of initiatives to educate war orphans. Each time, the encounters were introduced by the presentation of Levi’s works, his way of taking stock of his experience in the concentration camp, and his innate disposition for dialogue as well as several particular topics he took on in his books. Especially, there was his constant and repeated focus on the dignity of the human being and the paradox, illustrated in The Drowned and the Saved – of the shame that deportees and ex-deportees feel about the effects on them of wrongs committed by others. The discussions were very rich, especially in reference to individual experiences, and raise various topics, as outlined below.

Shame prevents breaking the silence

There is a primary and broadly divided consideration that prevents us from misunderstanding and facilitates our discussions: the universal dimension of Levi’s works does not depend on the fact that Nazi concentration camps have to be used as terms for comparison for whatsoever traumatic and violent events that may have struck the society and life of a country. On the contrary, Levi’s words have to do with us primarily because they manage to shed light on the innumerable facets of the human spirit, as he himself suggested, in their measured search for truth that begin with his analysis of the extreme conditions of the concentration camp. His words can take us along in the daily dialogues that that we have, first of all, with ourselves. For example, we do not have to ask ourselves beforehand whether or not the trauma of the genocide at Srebrenica or the experience of the war in ex-Yugoslavia can be compared with the events related to Jews deported by Hitler if we want to take in Levi’s observations about shame developed in The Drowned and the Saved. Rather, we should know how to pick up on the resonances that Levi’s observations evoke in our encounters with the lives and sufferings of any individual. I am especially referring to a topic that came up often in the open forums – the topic of the special shame that prevents many people from breaking their silences about their own histories and losses suffered in the years of the conflict. “I had never put together silence with shame,” somebody said in Sarajevo, enlightening by his discovery.

Misunderstanding and indifference

There is another important aspect that is connected to this. After Levi’s return from the concentration camp, all his life was run through with his unshakeable effort to tell the story of his own experience as a deportee, even at times when he was surrounded by aversion to the subject, misunderstanding, and/or indifference. Levi serves as an extraordinary example for people who are hesitant to speak out or do not feel like it, often motivated rightly by the conviction that they had nobody who was willing to listening to them. Often they are discouraged because people – above all, very young people in ex-Yugoslavia and elsewhere – tend to want to distance themselves from a past that is too painful and disquieting. Thus Levi’s works serve as an example, but also as a comfort against loneliness. As someone pointed out, almost with relief, “He too went through experiences and sensations comparable to ours.” Indeed, loneliness is one the causes of the worst suffering for people who have lost those near and dear to them and for those who sink deeper and deeper into the spiral of trauma without any chance to escape.

Besides, Levi too faced rejection and indifference when his book was rejected by many publishers in the immediate post-war period and, above all, when Italy and Europe had chosen to remove the extermination from its mental horizons for many long years until a new generation arose to ask for the truth about the past. The encounters in Tuzla, Srebrenica and Sarajevo brought out how Levi’s experiences were analogous to those in ex-Yugoslavia, but there was an important difference. In Bosnia the problems of going over the tragedies of the past again have been compounded heavily by a seemingly endless post-war period caused by an economic crisis that has no way out, the persistence of nationalist impulses fed by a blocked political system and the isolation that the country has been forced to live in – in the face of the indifference of the European Union and many other countries, including Italy.

Levi's strength and calmness

In such a troubling landscape, the words of Levi can make an important contribution through their power, their clarity, and the calm that makes them easier to listen to and take in.  In the various encounters, the Bosnian participants were very much struck that Levi was not able to hate, even so, that he was not all ready to pardon, and that he kept on helping readers think and, as much as possible, understand. They felt reassured that Levi was determined primarily to entrust his readers with the task of judging, putting them face to face with the truth of the events, and that Levi did this without ever giving up his own point of view and without hiding his own hard labor when faced with circumstances hard to grasp and ethical dilemma of extraordinary complexity. These are aspects of Levi’s works that his close readers are very well aware of, but these aspects can become extraordinary discoveries for those who approach his works for the first time, spurred on by what we might almost call a state of necessity. One of the many comments that were heard at Sarajevo can help us take in the weight of such a discovery: “Even the reading of a short passage of his works [as was done in several of the encounters] can help us think, to get our minds moving.” It was like being thirsty and having found water without having dared to hope for it.

His stories and the thoughts that go along with them can manifest themselves in a much more direct and involving way for his new readers because Levi does not like to reason abstractly but opts to discover and describe how ideas are incarnated in the concrete lives of individuals. Therefore seeing victims and persecutors as flesh-and-blood individuals can also be an extraordinary discovery in a world where silence often harbors rigid and never changing stereotypes, which are made even more rigid and unchanging by official propaganda conducted by one group against another in an authoritarian and aggressive logic. The more official propaganda feels itself immune from punishment, the more virulent it becomes.

There are many reasons why these discussions gave their participants many chances to meet with new ideas, time to time on different topics with different conversation partners. One of these reasons is the presence of a writer who had conceived and articulated his writings exactly with this in mind.


Login or register to leave a comment