The reception of Primo Levi in Romania
di Mirona Ioanoviciu
The reception of Primo Levi in Romania raises various complex issues tied in with the absence or presence in the cultural scenario of an Eastern European country of this extraordinary witness of the Shoah, this writer so fundamental for the analysis and understanding of human nature. One of the primary characteristics of the spread of Levi’s works in Romania has to do with the fact that they were discovered much later than in other countries, as is the case of the other Eastern European countries. The reasons why this happened were political. For many years, in fact, topics related the deportation of the Jews, which were then considered a taboo, ran up against the heavy hand of censorship. Under communism, the official writing of history never covered the Shoah. Similarly, the history of literature never touched upon this topic, never considering the works of Romanian writers of Jewish origin as testimony of the extermination by the Nazis. Discrimination had been abolished, as it was officially claimed. In reality, it continued to exist both because of the persistence of hardened xenophobic attitudes and because of the delicacy of the issue. Thus what took shape was a kind of discrimination that was subtler, made possible by people’s covering over what had happened or being completely in the dark about it. The issue of facing up to the recent past was never raised at all because it was totally disregarded.
The fall of communism in 1989 caused people to re-evaluate their history and take a fresh look at a past that had been manipulated and falsified by the ideology and the interests of a single party in a totalitarian state. The accounts of the dark years of Nazism revitalized the discussions of anti-Semitism and the Shoah in Romania, issues that had previously been frozen in the clichés of the communist era, when the dimensions of the massacres and deportations had been minimized by their being talked about generically as “excesses” in order not to soil the “image of the nation.” It could be said that only at the end of the 1990s did historians understand the depth and gravity of this chapter of their history. In those years they began to take an interest in the victims of the Shoah and concentrate on them in a more incisive way, thus taking their past into account. Another reason for the late discovery of Primo Levi’s works is the ideology-stricken atmosphere of the 1950s, characterized not only by the total isolation of Romania from the Western world, even culturally, but also by a period of stasis for the reading of foreign literature and of decline in Romanian literature1With the proclamation of the People’s Republic of Romania in 1947, the communist party began the “Sovietization” of the country by applying the socialist model in the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. This was brought about through nationalizing the banks, businesses, and publishing houses as well as through extending censorship over everything that was to be published. Furthermore, there were massive arrests and cruel persecutions of every real or presumed enemy of the regime. Agents and informers of the secret police, the Securitate, infiltrated the society at all levels (teachers, priests, ex-politicians, etc.). However, the group that was most watched was that of the intellectuals. This happened especially after the 1956 anti-communist revolt in Budapest, which led to a spontaneous reaction of optimism and hope for change, the end of the dark period of abuses, and the creation of a democratic society. However, the defeat of the revolt led to bitter disappointment that quickly changed into fear and terror. In reaction to the anti-communist revolt in Hungary, protests broke out in several university centers that led to numerous arrests and expulsions. The existing prisons overflowed with “political” detainees and a new system of camps and forced-labor prisons was created on the model of the Soviet Gulag. The useless project of excavating the Danube-Black Sea Canal served as the pretext for setting up numerous labor camps where many people found their deaths. The most famous prison camps were located at Sighet, Gherla, Aiud and Piteşti. There was another foreign event that impacted upon Romania – the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Russian, B. Pasternak for his novel, Dr. Zhivago, in 1958. This event made the communists afraid that something similar could happen in Romania. This set off a campaign of terror against those Romanian intellectuals considered dangerous subversive leaders. See K. Verdery, Compromis și rezistență. Cultura română sub Ceaușescu [Compromise and resistance: Romanian culture under Ceausescu] (Bucarest: Humanitas, 1994). . Furthermore, we should not underestimate the fact that the Romanian publishing industry had been entirely nationalized under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, which, in turn, had to bend to the rigid measures taken by the single party. Besides, the decisions in the field of culture were very frequently made by politicians, who were uneducated and lacking in any adequate professional training. This kind of cultural regression surely lessened any chance that readers would come into contact with Primo Levi’s works.
The period of cultural opening of the 1960s and the early 1970s2 In the 1960s and 1970s, once the communist regime was firmly entrenched, its desire to separate itself from the Soviet model and move closer to the west was strengthened. This caused a certain relaxation of its domestic policy of repression as it freed its political prisoners from the prisons in 1964 in order to show the west a positive image, which was embodied in a particular cultural enthusiasm with an opening towards western ideas and writers. Good relationships were forged with western governments and with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Nevertheless, the diplomatic openings did not have any effects on Romanian society, which remained one of the most isolated in the world. In fact, there was no real freeing-up of public life because the Soviet model kept on being dominant and the return to the climate of the 1950s was possible for moment to moment. The period of freedom and apparent prosperity did not last long. See K. Verdery, Compromis. did not lead to anything new in relation to the spread of Levi’s works. No one was ever capable of coming into contact with Primo Levi’s works, even when people were sometimes able to have access to information about books printed outside of Romania, even when scholars occasionally were able to take part in some convention abroad, or even when new and competent editors entered the world of publishing. The university circles were no exception to this. In spite of all this, Levi’s name appeared for the first time in 1969 – in the Istoria literaturii italiene [History of Italian literature]3N. Façon, Istoria literaturii italiene [History of Italian literature]. Bucarest: Editura Științifică, 1969), p. 493. , edited by the scholar of Italian literature, N. Façon, who wrote only one line referring to Levi’s books, which deal with the topic of the lager. We can conclude that this is the way that the name of Primo Levi arrived in Romania at the end of the 1960s, if only in a fleeting way. It was to take five more years to achieve the publication of the Romanian translation of Levi’s most famous book, Mai este oare acesta un om? [If This is a Man], written by the scholar of Italian literature, Doina Condrea Derer, the most active promoter of Levi’s works in Romania.
In 1971 Derer had received a letter from one of Levi’s relatives, a teacher from Turin, who asked her to have Levi’s text promoted and translated in Romania. The book was able to get by the filters of the censor thanks to the Ministry of Culture, which archly labeled the book a work of fiction. Hence the book was not sent to be published by Politica but rather by the state publisher, Univers. This is the way that If This is a Man got published by one of the most important publishers of that time. The book met with a considerably good reception in 1974 and has been available for many years, but only in the libraries. Thus Levi’s works were spread and translated in Romania thanks to the fortunate moment when a relative of his started a letter exchange with Derer and thanks to Derer’s stalwart commitment to offering the Romanian translation of his work to the public. It was not possible to trace the name of the relative because Derer’s notes for 1969-70 have been lost.
Derer worked with Levi himself in translating If This is a Man into Romanian through exchanging letters. Their correspondence, which goes back to the early 1970s, is first marked by a “mutual lack of understanding”4D. C. Derer, “Primo Levi in Romania,” La manutenzione della memoria. Diffusione e conoscenza di Primo Levi nei paesi europei [Keeping memory up: The spread and the recognition of Primo Levi in European countries], ed. G. Tesio (Torino: Centro Studi Piemontesi, 2005), p. 153.
because Levi was afraid of being translated badly. Levi had reacted similarly to his German translator, whom he did not trust at first. However, the German translator sent Levi his translation bit by bit as it progressed, so that Levi could check it over. Doing this, Levi realized that he had no reason to distrust him and expressed his satisfaction with the German translation. Levi had the same fears in relation to the Romanian translator. He had thought that Doina Derer would not manage to translate his book faithfully. The topic of the book had been virtually unknown in Romania under communism, and so Levi was worried that the translator would not be able to grasp the real meaning of what he was trying to say and she would change the meanings of his words. Levi thus asked to have a copy of the translation along with a Romanian grammar and a dictionary in order to check the translated text, which was his way of dealing with translations, by the way.
When Derer sent all of this to Levi, she pointed out that the texts he asked for were written by her, the only ones in print in that period. The translator later explained to Levi that she had rendered the text with a great sense of responsibility and that she had perfectly understood the psychological tension at that time, while in 1973 she had not managed to fully understand the “fears of the survivor.” All this was clearer after she read the last work of Levi’s, The Drowned and the Saved, where Levi alludes to his fears at the prospect of being translated into German. Derer admitted that she felt a “scathing sense of guilt”5Ibid. , but Levi was satisfied with her translation. After If This is a Man had been translated,” it was reviewed in a short passage in the Dicționar enciclopedic al literaturii italiene [Encyclopedic dictionary of Italian literature] edited by Façon:
Levi Primo (Turin 1919- ), chemist, deported to the Auschwitz Lager in 1944. If This is a Man? (Mai este oare acesta un om?, 1947) is the story of the time he spent there and The Truce (Armistițiul, 1963) narrates his return to his country. Written in a serious style, both books are works of an anti-Fascist intellectual of exquisite human qualities. While his first writings come out of his intimate need to make a painful piece of reality known, his subsequent writings lead us to see in P.L. a writer by vocation. His books of “technological fantasies” – Storie naturali, [Nature stories], 1966, (appearing under the pseudonym, Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma [Structural defect], 1971, are followed by The Periodic Table, 1975, and the novel, The Monkey’s Wrench, 1979, an elegy to work and to the passion for work6N. Façon, Dicționar enciclopedic al literaturii italiene [Encyclopedic dictionary of Italian literature] (Bucarest: Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică, 1982), 231. .
Immediately after Levi’s tragic death (1987), the Italian Cultural Institute organized a conference dedicated to him despite the obstacles that there were for any foreign institution that was working in communist Romania. In this conference, Derer presented Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved. Several excerpts from the book were translated for Secolul XX, the best and most “open” journal at that time. However, the excerpts were not published and the translator never asked for an explanation. She was well aware of the fact the editors were influenced by the rigid political atmosphere of the time.
The interest that there was in Primo Levi crystallized in 2004 with the reprinting of the revised text of If This is a Manand the publication for the first time in Romanian of The Truce (Armistițiul) by the renowned publisher, Polirom di Iaşi. Derer did both translations. These two books are the only narratives available in Romanian. When they were published, there were four positive reviews in prestigious literary journals7Reviews of If This is a Man: G. Sârbu, Un roman-mărturie [A novel of witnessing], Observator cultural 210 (March 2004); G. Sârbu, Despre lagăre și supraviețuitori [On the lagers and the survivors], România literară, 49, (Dec. 2004).
Reviews of The Truce: C. Cercel, “Proză. Primo Levi, Armistițiul” [Prose. Primo Levi, The Truce], Observator cultural, 234 (Aug. 2004); C. Popa, “Meseria de a trăi” [The craft of living], România literară, 49 (Dec. 2004). .
In present-day Romania, there are a variety of reasons why Primo Levi is not a well-known or widely studied writer. Although there are the two translations cited above, they cannot be found in bookstores nor can they be found in every library. Furthermore, even the students who would want to read the books in Italian cannot buy books printed in Italy in bookstores. This could also be a reason why Levi’s works are almost never studied in Romanian universities. In any case, although there are not any entire courses devoted to Primo Levi, Levi’s works are studied along with other twentieth century writers at the Schools of Letters at the universities of Bucharest, Iaşi, Constanţa and Timişoara. However, Levi is not included in the programs of study at the universities of Cluj Napoca and Oradea.
Although Levi is not studied in depth in universities, he is a presence within the Romanian cultural panorama. On the occasion of the Day of Memory in Romania8October 9 was instituted as the Day of Memory in Romania in 2004, a day that marked the beginning of the forced deportation of Jews from southern Bukovina, a region under Romanian administration then and now, to Transdnestria [presently, a separatist enclave in Moldavia].
in October, 2011, Levi’s works, along with those of Elie Wiesel, were the subjects of a television program entitled Lumea din cărți [The world of books]9To watch the television broadcast, see http://lumeadincarti.newspascani.com...i-elie-wiesel/
. In 2005 a stage play, Shoah. Versiunea Primo Levi [Shoah: Primo Levi’s version], directed by M. Măniuţiu, was put on at the Radu Stance National Theater in Sibiu as well as in Oradea and Arad. The play was an adaptation of several interviews with Primo Levi, whose role was played by M. Râlea. The Levi interviews that the play is based on have been collected on the Internet and then translated by A. Maniuţiu. The play is an effort to focus the audience’s attention on the experience of the Shoah, of the Nazi lagers, and of the point of view of a survivor, Primo Levi. The play portrays what it meant to be a Jew, a state of affairs Levi discovered only after he was at Auschwitz, what it meant to be humiliated and reduced to a subhuman condition, what it meant to be weak when one is stripped of every kind of defense and support. Doing so, the play aimed to draw from memory. We should remember in order not to repeat the horror. The play was revived in October of 2007 and 2010 on the occasion of the Day of Memory at the National Theater in Sibiu. The play received two positive reviews10M. Constantinescu, “După Auschwitz” [After Auschwitz], România literară, 22 (June 2005); M. Morariu, “Gândiţi-vă că toate astea au fost aievea!” [To think that all this has always been happening!]. Familia, 2 (Feb. 2005).
. It certainly made an effective and strong impression on Romanian audiences, who were put in touch with an issue like the Shoah, one that was almost unknown because its history was fairly rarely taught in the schools11In 2004 the first manual on the history of the Shoah was printed and introduced in the academic program of the secondary schools.
or covered in the mass media in general.
These events certainly are an important step forward in understanding how Primo Levi is a center of gravity where we always have to start from in order to have ethical points of reference. What can be learned from Levi is confirmed in the accounts of a Romanian writer and a Romanian reader.
An essay “Primo” by E. Bernstein12B. Elvin (1927-2011) is the author of eight books of literary criticism, essays, seven novels, an anthology of short stories, numerous studies, and various books. In 1992 he was editor in chief of the Romanian edition of the journal, Lettre Internationale. Between 1969 and 1989 he published the famous Caietele Teatrului Național [National Theater Quarterly], a quarterly that published 80 issues and sold four million copies. The name of Nicolae Ceauscescu was never mentioned on its pages. [B. Elvin] appeared in his Datoria de a ezita [The duty to wait]. In it, Elvin points out how he had read the writings of Primo Levi in 1988 and how this made him understand that “it is the duty of the intellect to seek out the sense in a lack of sense… to discover the logic of illogicality”13B. Elvin, Datoria de a ezita [The duty to wait] (Bucarest: Hasefer, 2003). . At the time he was reading Levi’s writings, he was living under a totalitarian regime whose basic principles and acts, whose dominant thought, and whose vocabulary contradicted and manipulated the truth. This was “one more reason to grow to be sensitive to the rightness of the judgments and words of the writer”14Ibid. . According to Elvin, Levi’s writings about the universe of the Nazi concentration camps surpass all others because his writings are marked by one unique characteristic – that of wanting to understand beyond indignation, beyond revolt, and beyond the impulse of vengeance. This need to understand became its literary force.
M. Constantinescu’s article, După Auschwitz [After Auschwitz] appeared in the June 2005 issue of the journal, România literară. She writes about her being introduced to Primo Levi’s works thanks to a fellow student of Italian at the School of Letters at Bucharest University, who had talked about, read, and translated passages from Levi’s books and interviews for her. At the time, she was still living under a dictatorship. Even though she knew very little about the recent history of the Jews, “the dimensions of the crime” came across intuitively and therefore she wanted to learn more about the topic, about what had happened in that zone of death, in the inferno of Auschwitz. Primo Levi’s last work, The Drowned and the Saved, focuses on the tragedy of the Shoah, the historical issues of Nazism and anti-Semitism. However, it goes beyond those issues, examining the crimes committed in the Gulag, in the Middle and Far East, and in Latin America. These pages of the rigorous Primo Levi succeeded in confirming the intuitions and judgments of Romanians, who were then still isolated from the western world.
The articles by Elvin and Constantinescu are evidence that Levi’s moral lessons were being understood in the hope for a better world, one inclined towards tolerance and towards the respect of diversity. This would be a world that depends on us. We were the ones who had to help it be improved with our ways of exploring it in the abysses of yesterday, in the plans for the present, and in the future that we intend to build.
I would especially like to thank Professor D. Meghnagi for his constant support in the process of my research and for his precious suggestions for the drafting of this essay. I would also like to thank Professor Derer for making precious information about Primo Levi available as well as for her cooperation and courtesy.
Works of Primo Levi:
Mai este oare acesta un om? [If This is a Man]. Trans. from the Italian D. C. Derer. Iaşi: Polirom, 2004.
Armistițiul [The Truce], trans. D. C. Derer. Iaşi: Polirom, 2004.
I sommersi e i salvati, M. Belpoliti, ed., Opere [Works], II. Torino: Einaudi, 1997. [The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Vintage, 1989].
Constantinescu, M. “După Auschwitz” [After Auschwitz]. România literară, 22 (June 2005).
Cristian, C. “Proză. Primo Levi, Armistițiul” [Prose. Primo Levi, The Truce]. Observator cultural, 234 (Aug. 2004).
Doina, D. C. “Primo Levi in Romania.” La manutenzione della memoria. Diffusione e conoscenza di Primo Levi nei paesi europei [Keeping memory up: The spread and the recognition of Primo Levi in European countries]. Ed. G. Tesio. Torino: Centro Studi Piemontesi, 2005.
Elvin, B. Datoria de a ezita [The duty to wait]. Bucarest: Hasefer, 2003.
Façon, N. Istoria literaturii italiene [History of Italian literature]3N. Façon, Istoria literaturii italiene [History of Italian literature]. Bucarest: Editura Științifică, 1969), p. 493. . Bucarest: Editura Științifică, 1969.
Façon, N. Dicționar enciclopedic al literaturii italiene [Encyclopedic dictionary of Italian literature]. Bucarest: Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică, 1982.
Morariu, M. “Gândiţi-vă că toate astea au fost aievea!” [To think that all this has always been happening!]. Familia, 2 (Feb. 2005).
Popa, C. “Meseria de a trăi” [The craft of living]. România literară, 49 (Dec. 2004).
Sârbu, G. “Un roman-mărturie” [A novel of witnessing]. Observator cultural, 210 (March 2004).
Sârbu, G. “Despre lagăre și supraviețuitori” [On the lagers and their survivors]. România literară, 49 (Dec. 2004).
Verdery, K. Compromis și rezistență. Cultura română sub Ceaușescu [Compromise and resistance: Romanian culture under Ceausescu]. Bucarest: Humanitas, 1994.
Reviews of The Truce: C. Cercel, “Proză. Primo Levi, Armistițiul” [Prose. Primo Levi, The Truce], Observator cultural, 234 (Aug. 2004); C. Popa, “Meseria de a trăi” [The craft of living], România literară, 49 (Dec. 2004).