The Rumkowski Variations: Up and Down the Trails of the Gray Zone - by Martina Mengoni
Hurbinek continued in his stubborn experiments as long as he lived.
PRIMO LEVI, The Truce, 1963
“It is typical of regimes in which all power rains down from above and no criticism can rise from below, to weaken and confound people’s capacity for judgment, to create a vast zone of gray consciences that stand between the great men of evil and the pure victims” [“Story of a Coin,” Moments of Reprieve (New York: Penguin, 1995), p, 127]. These words were printed on the pages of the newspaper La Stampa on November 20, 1977, in an article whoseItalian title is “Il re dei giudei” [The king of the Jews]. With these words at that time, Primo Levi expressed the essence of a category he termed the “gray zone” in crystal clear, bare-bones terms, a category that was to be developed, analyzed and discussed nine years later in The Damned and the Saved. Levi seems to have already been thinking over some of the basic characteristics of the gray zone – a political regime that stands outside a person, a moral person who vacillates, and a space between the victims and persecutors that fades into gray. It seems that there is already at least one name that springs out in all this spawning of half consciences -- Rumkowski, rather,Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, elder of the Łódź ghetto, Poland, from 1941 to 1944. He is the “King of the Jews” of the article’s title. The pretext of the story is a coin from the Łódź ghetto that Levi found on the ground in Auschwitz right before the lager was liberated, a coin he kept in his pocket all his way home.
“Vast zone of gray consciences” [Vasta fascia di coscienze grigia] is an expression whose words Levi did not choose randomly. This is one of the many places where we can feel the vibrations of Levi’s obsession with lexical roots andhis trust in etymology. His method is not just the well-meaning fixation of an enthusiastic linguistic amateur. Instead, it is a means of focusing our attention, a means that we often can take as an analogy for understanding how his thinking as a writer is developing. Levi pursues what he is thinking about by tracing the object of his thought back to its roots, assessing its origins, and getting a feel for its shape with his own hands. Only then does he put together the picture of its meanings, stubbornly and rigorously insisting on linguistic honesty, with his attention fully focused and with a steady eye fixed on what he is doing. There is a telling example here in his use of the noun fascia[zone]. The Italian word fascia is a literal translation of the Greek word zona, as is the Latin word. Catullus, a Latin poet so much admired by Levi that he was able to remember his verses long after the time he studied them in secondary school, uses the word zona in his Carmina, his collection of poems, to indicate the sash/belt [fascia- cintura] of his beloved: Tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae / pernici aureolum fuisse malum / quod zonam soluit diu ligatam (Carmina, I, 2b); “It is as pleasing to me as they say / The golden apple to have been to that swift girl, / Which untied that long-bound girdle” [http://www.uq.edu.au/hprcflex/lt2270/poetry1.htm 2011_7_18]. The Italian word fascia is an intermediate term, a bridge that links the Greco-Latin word zona to the Italian word zona, which is the word that Levi would adopt later in full awareness of its lexical meaning.
The passage from the “Story of a Coin” is one that marks the first time after If This is a Man that Levi is thinking over the lager again, this time using a new category that was to be developed more extensively in the future. This passage is a link between the two reflections, a theoretical, well thought-out point of articulation between If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. My initial intuition is that we can map out of diagram of Levi’s possible transition from the original word to the final one: in Italian, zona – fascia – zona; in English, zone – sash/belt/girdle –zone.
We can make up various theories and trace various trails in an effort to figure out how Levi was led to come up with the category of gray zone. We cannot deny that they might overlap, nor can we imagine that they might come down to a definite and finite number of theories. The diagram that Levi places at the beginning of The Search for Roots shows that we can get from the Book of Job to the black holes in space going down various trails [Chicago: Dee, 1997, p. 9]. Levi points out four, but others can very well be found. Similarly, there are many trails that link If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. One of these trails is the one I suggest that passes through a literary stopping off point that is not visited so often – the story collection Lilìt, which was published by Einaudi in 1981. [This collection is not published in English as a collection, but partially published as individual stories.] The last story of one of its sections -- Passato prossimo [the near past / the present perfect tense] – is “Il re dei Giudei” [King of the Jews, translated as the “Story of a Coin”]. This is the very story that appeared four years before (1977) in the newspaper La Stampa. Five years later, in 1986, Rumkowski comes back for the third time in Levi’s writings. Rumkowski’s last appearance is not at all marginal. His story is the one that Levi chooses to comment on in the second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, the one entitled “The Gray Zone.” Levi does this by inserting the “Story of a Coin” almost entirely except for some minor stylistic changes. Thus our special itinerary has a leading man, who is a character that should be understood in his intrinsic complexity and likewise as a possible key that opens us up to the thought and writings of Levi.
The sketch that Levi draws of Rumkowski is that of a man intoxicated with power. He was 62 and a Jew. Chosen by the Nazis to preside over the ghetto, he began to wield his authority ostentatiously and obsessively. He set up a grotesque tyranny in stark contrast with the absolute misery of the place where he was living and with his status as underling/collaborator of the Germans. Let us go over his feats as recounted by Levi in The Drowned and the Saved:
He had a carriage drawn by a skeleton nag in which he rode through the streets of his miniscule kingdom....He had a regal mantle and surrounded himself with a court of flatterers and henchmen; he had courtier-poets compose hymns in which “his firm and powerful hands” were celebrated, as well as the peace andorder which thanks to him reigned in the ghetto. He ordered that the children in the nefarious schools,devastated daily by epidemics, malnutrition, and German raids, should be assigned essays “in praise of our beloved and providential president.” Like all autocrats, he hastened to organize an efficient police force, ostensibly to maintain order, but in fact to protect his own person and impose his discipline: six hundred guards armed with clubs, and an unspecified number of spies. He delivered many speeches, some of which have been reserved for us and whose style is unmistakable: he had adopted the oratorical technique of Mussolini and Hitler, the style of inspired recitation, the pseudo-colloquy with the crowd, the creation of consent through subjugation and plaudit.”
Drowned and Saved, p. 63
All in all, at least at first glance, he was a Jewish collaborator who was overwhelmed by his fascination with personalpower. Yet he is a complex and unnerving figure at well: “his identification with the oppressor alternates, or goeshand in hand, with an identification with the oppressed.... Even though he was constantly despised and derided by the Germans, Rumkowski probably thought of himself not as a servant but as a lord” [D&S, p. 64]. “The Elder” looked at himself through the eyes of the oppressed, but identified himself with the oppressors. The image he had of himself is that of the savior of his people, who are oppressed by a power which, with the enormous strength ofits coercion, legitimizes his status as “Lord.” (Levi spells this word with a capital letter, something that is tragically ironic under the circumstances.)
It is Rumkowski’s point of view, his self-esteem, that raises him in his own eyes to the category of the powerful. He thinks of himself as a peer among peers in relation to his German dominators. In this switching back and forth of identifications there is no dialectical process but rather there is a co-presence of both identifications. This is wherethe ambiguity of the words “King of the Jews” comes from. The Jews are and his Jews in the two ways that the equivalent Greek adjective philos implies: they are mine and they are dear. This double self-awareness, each part feeding on the other, is what makes it hard for us to unravel the thread of Rumkowski’s actions, to draw a simple outline of them. The final outcome of his earthly vicissitudes is also double: “About Chaim Rumkowski’s final fate there exist two versions, as though the ambiguity under whose aegis he had lived had extended to envelop his death” [“Story of a Coin,” p. 124]. According to the first version, Levi’s 1977 newspaper article, Rumkowski did not manage to save his brother from deportation and leaves for Auschwitz voluntarily. According to the second version of 1986, he is also deported, but in a special railway car as befitting his rank. In this way, the “King of the Jews” didnot save himself, but his double-ness is confirmed by our not being able to establish if he gained an awareness of himself at last or if he persisted in his obstinate identification of himself as Lord of the oppressed to the point of riding towards his own fate alone in a special railway car.
*Original and previously unpublished text; available on www.primolevi.it from July 11th, 2011.
Bibliographical references to published English translations are made within the text, as are any references to Primo Levi’s works in Italian: SQU: Se questo è un uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 1958); T: La tregua (1963); SN: Storie naturali, (1966;) SP: Il sistema periodico (1975); L: Lilìt e altri racconti (1981); AM: L’altrui mestiere (1985); SES: I sommersi e i salvati (1986); and RS: Racconti e saggi (Torino: La Stampa, 1986). All the quotations from these Italian texts, including Pagine sparse, are taken from Primo Levi, Opere. I-II. Ed. Marco Belpoliti (Torino: Einaudi, 1997).works in Italian: SQU: Se questo è un uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 1958); T: La tregua (1963); SN: Storie naturali, (1966;) SP: Il sistema periodico (1975); L: Lilìt e altri racconti (1981); AM: L’altrui mestiere (1985); SES: I sommersi e i salvati (1986); and RS: Racconti e saggi (Torino: La Stampa, 1986). All the quotations from these Italian texts, including Pagine sparse, are taken from Primo Levi, Opere. I-II. Ed. Marco Belpoliti (Torino: Einaudi, 1997).
Let us begin at the beginning of the process -- If This is a Man. We should not force this first great text of Levi’s to take on a category -- “the gray zone” – that was to take on definite shape only forty years later. However, we maybe able to detect the seed of the concept of “gray zone” and analyze it as that. If this book is his “prosthesis memory,” as he admits,1Levi recounts this in an interview with Marco Vigevani: “Now, after so many years, it’s hard even for me to return tothe state of mind of the prisoner of that time, of myself back then. In particular, writing the book has worked for me as a sort of ‘prosthesis,’ an external memory set up like a barrier between my life of today and my life then. Today I relive those events through what I have written” [Primo Levi, The Voice of Memory, eds. Marco Belpoliti & Robert Gordon (New York: The New Press, 2001), p. 251]. it becomes the original set of words to which any attempt at writing by or about Levi turns back.
There is no explicit reference to any “gray zone” in If This is a Man. However, in the chapter entitled “The Drowned and the Saved,”2Giorgio Calcagno recounts in a July 26, 1986, interview collected in The Voice of Memory [p. 109] that The Drowned and the Saved was supposed to be the title of Levi’s first book. The word drowned/sommersi is a quotation of a tercet from Dante’s Inferno: Di nova pena mi convien far versi / e dar materia al ventesimo canto / della prima canzon, ch’è de’ sommersi.” [Now I must turn strange torments into verse / to form the matter of the twentieth canto of the first chant, the one about the damned Inf., XX, vv. 1-3]. Lorenzo Mondo (“Primo Levi e Dante,” [Primo Levi and Dante] in Primo Levi: memoria e invenzione, Atti del Convegno Internazionale, San Salvatore Monferrato, 26-27-28 settembre 1991, ed. Giovanna Ioli (San Salvatore Monferrato: Edizioni della Biennale Piemonte e Letteratura, 1995) underlined that a potential second source of this title was: evo’ che sappi che, dinanzi ad essi /spiriti umani non eran salvati, [and you should know, before these souls were taken /no human soul had ever reached salvation,” Inf., IV, vv. 62-63] . Belpoliti also recalls another tercet from Canto VII of the Inferno:“Cerbero, fiera crudele e diversa, / con tre gole carinamente latra / sopra la gente che quivi è sommersa,” Inf., VI, vv. 13-15 [Cerberus, a ruthless and fantastic beast, / with all three throats howls out his doglike sounds / above the drowning sinners of this place]. The English translations are from The Divine Comedy. Vol. I: The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 1984). Levi first outlines the difference between these two categories of prisoners – “the drowned” andthe “saved.” He thus uses this difference as his analytical and conceptual tool for two reasons. First, this difference is more effective than other pairs of opposites: “the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, and the unlucky and the lucky are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations” [If This is a Man (London: Abacus, 1998), pp. 93-94.] Second, the pair drowned/saved can almost only be applied in the life of the lager, where “the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone” [If This, p. 94]. The ambiguity of this passage comes from the expression meno congenite, literally “less congenital” (in Stuart Woolf’s translation “less essential”), which refers to the pairs of opposites that Levi rules out of his method of analysis. Can being “drowned” or “saved” be a characteristic that is “congenital”? It may seem obvious to assume that saving oneself or being drowned are two attributes that are entirely contingent, facts that are to be evaluated after they happen, categories of the memory of a survivor. Nevertheless, all this obviously comes down to the fact that there is a sharp contradiction between the two attributes. What is “congenital” is naturally predetermined and, although generated by chance, takes on the status of necessity. On the other hand, we have supposed this to be obvious: if the pair “the drowned/the saved” is tied in with the fate of the prisoner, then this pair should not seem to be very different fromthe pair “the unlucky and the lucky.” Therefore the pair “the drowned/the saved” has a meaning only in the context of the lager, where the people’s behavior is reduced to absolute zero. The lager shares its struggle for survival and its loneliness with the Hobbesian state of nature. In the lager people can make a difference about their own positions thanks to an external system of management that is also made up of people who can help or hinder their struggles through awards for collaboration. This is exactly the type of phenomenology that Levi is interested in. He wants to understand the facets of this tainted laboratory, of a system that produces the corruption of its own victims -- this being its most grotesque result. One of Levi’s favorite words for defining the drowned is Muselmann, a term from camp jargon that the veteran prisoners used to describe the weak and inept. Levi uses the disturbing synonym “adaptive” to define the saved. This is an apparently neutral, scientific, and Darwinian term that, nevertheless, carries along the moral issue of adaptability in the lager. Levi is lapidary about the drowned: “To sinkis the easiest of matters: it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way.... They are overcome before they can adapt themselves.” There is no escape without adaptation. The drowned reach the status of death before death: “One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.” Levi creates an emblem of this condition: “if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose the image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen” [If This, p. 96]. These are very famous passages, but we should read them again in the light of this strong bond between the lack of adaptation and the suppression of thought. This leads us to the conclusion that even the two opposes are linked: where there is adaptation, says Levi, a person maintains a certain awareness of himself, a being-there in the face of reality, a vigilant thinking.
Levi’s description of the saved needs to be gone into more. Levi was quick to note that not one of “the old Jewish prisoners” who were surviving in 1944 was an ordinary prisoner. Precisely, Levi wrote sopravvivevano/were surviving and not sono sopravvissuti/survived [SQU, I, p. 85; Woolf’s translation reads: “in 1944... only a few hundred had survived” (p. 95).] This is yet another sign that Levi was not talking about their biological destiny. The survivors could be put into three categories: a) doctors, shoemakers, whoever worked in jobs useful to the camp or entered into the good graces of the SS (young homosexuals, fellow Germans) and were somehow compensated for this in some way; b) individuals that Levi defines as “particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman,” who became Kapos and barrack chiefs; c) “those who, without fulfilling particular functions, had always succeeded... in successfully organizing, gaining in this way, besides material advantages and reputation, the indulgences and esteem of the powerful people in the camp” [p .95].
Interestingly, of these three categories, Levi dwells on a description of the “Prominent,” which encompasses thefirst and the second groups. This is the heart of the chapter, which both anticipates and unites with the chapter“The Gray Zone,” in The Drowned and the Saved.
In quanti modi si possa dunque raggiungere la salvazione, noi cercheremo di dimostrare raccontando.... / “We will try to show in how many ways it was possible to reach salvation with the stories of Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias and Henri,” [If This, p. 98; SQU, I, p. 88]. There are two linguistic signals that characterize this sentence – the word salvazione/salvation (the noun form of salvati/the saved) and the expression dimostrare raccontando/to demonstrate by recounting. Demonstrating by recounting is the very heart of Levi’s poetics. We will discuss these two signals later. Now our interest consists in the four stories that Levi sets about to narrate.
Schepschel is a saddler without any marked characteristics. He gets by as he can in the lager, robbing this and that, improvising little shows, selling some utensil that he had made. However, he does not hesitate to have his companion, Moischl, his accomplice in thefts, whipped “in hope of gaining favor in the eyes of the Blockältester” [If This, p. 99].
Engineer Alfred L., the former director of a “factory of chemical products,” was a methodical and disciplined man of about fifty. His “self-denial” in keeping up his clean, decorous, and respectable appearance was interpreted by Levi as his desire to grow in the esteem of the others, to go one step higher, and to gain respect for himself through a distinct image. Alfred succeed in his plans: he “was nominated the technical head” of the chemical Kommando, withthe task of examining the new recruits (p. 101).
The diametrically opposite stories of Elias and Henri are even more interesting. Elias was a dwarf of extraordinary physical strength who was adaptable for any job, untiring, a versatile jack-of-all-trades and insatiable. Occasionally a jester, he gave Levi the material for one of his most interesting reflections on the category of the saved.
Elias has survived the destruction from outside, because he is physically indestructible; he has resisted the annihilation from within because he is insane. So, in the first place, he is a survivor: he is the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living.... In the Lager Elias prospers and is triumphant.He is a good worker and a good organizer, and for this double reason, he is safe from selections and respected by both leaders and comrades. For those who have no sound inner resources, for those who do not know how to draw from their own consciences sufficient force to cling to life, the only road to salvation leads to Elias: to insanity and to deceitful bestiality. All the other roads are dead-ends. This said, one might perhaps be tempted to draw conclusions, and perhaps even rules for daily life. Are there not all around us some Eliases, more or less in embryo? Do we not see individuals living without purposes, lacking all forms of self-control and conscience, who live not in spite of these defects, but like Elias precisely because of them?
If This, pp. 103-04
Finally, Henri is the direct opposite of Elias -- “eminently civilized and sane.” At 22, he is multilingual, young and cultivated. From the time that his brother died the year before, he “has cut off every tie of affection.” He theorized and applied three survival methods in the lager – “organization, pity, and theft” [If This, p. 104]. The second of the three methods is the most distressing. Henri had realized that pity, “a primitive and instinctual sentiment,” is the best weapon for breaching the walls of most brutalized souls of the lager, whether they be prisoners, the “Prominent,” or even the SS. Using this hidden discovery, Henri conducted his strategy for salvation, treating the others, without any exception as tools in his hands.
Of the four, Levi only knew the fate of Henri: he made it; he survived. Levi does not write about the fate of the others because he does not know what happened. It is obvious that the saved are not necessarily those who survive, although it is certainly true that the survivors are the saved. The portraits of these four saved prisoners are so different from each other that they cannot help but make us wonder if there was anything congenital in common at all. Rather, the saved are a category of study, products from a laboratory of special interest. They emerge from a reaction whose results are recorded only in the characteristics of one of the two reagents (the lager) but not necessarily in those of the other (life outside the lager). Therefore drowned/saved is the first analytical distinction that gray is based on. Levi goes no further. His urgency at that time was to tell the stories of what happened to the people-guinea-pigs of Auschwitz. There were many reactions to describe. This classification rests here, like a provisional label. The experiment will be taken up again and gone into more deeply later.
In 1977, the year that Levi wrote his first story about Rumkowski (“Story of a Coin”/Re dei giudei [King of the Jews]), there were three reference texts on the Holocaust that featured a profile of Chaim Rumkowski: (1) Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe (London: V.Valentine, 1953), translated into Italian and published by Saggiatore in 1962; (2) Léon Poliakov’s Bréviare de la haine. Le troisième Reich et les Juifs (1951), the French original translated into Italian as Il nazismo e lo sterminio degli Ebrei (Torino: Einaudi, 1955) and into English as Harvest of Hate. (London: Elek, 1956); and (3) Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven: Yale UP, 2003; 1961), translated into Italian (Torino: Einaudi, 1995). Hilberg’s textwas translated only in 1995 even though it was published in English in 1961. Despite the utmost important of its historical reconstruction, The Destruction of the European Jews does not seem to be one of the sources closest to Levi. In Hilberg, Rumkowski is mentioned in the reconstruction of the relationship between the Judenrat and the German hierarchies, but he is never described in his profile as a political leader. However, the other two books seem to have served as decisive sources for Levi.
Poliakov’s Harvest of Hate draws a brief, roughly one-page, portrait of Rumkowski that has many elements in common with Levi’s. Poliakov dwells almost exclusively on the description of the most exasperating aspects of Rumkowski’s populism and vanity as a leader – the court poets, the coins and postage stamps with his effigy on them, and the compositions that the school children wrote about him. Harvest of Hate is of capital importance and Levi most certainly had acquired and studied it. Levi himself wrote a preface to another work by Poliakov, Auschwitz. Here Levi presents Poliakov’s historical reconstruction of the lager that he himself was imprisoned in. Indoing this, he underlines the tension between the impossibility of understanding an extermination committed bymen who were “diligent, calm, vulgar and flat” and the need to know about it in the way one learns about the symptoms of a disease that is partly preventable and partly inevitable. In Levi’s words, Auschwitz is “all around us, in the air,” like an “infection” that still “lingers”/serpeggia [“Preface to L. Poliakov’s Auschwitz,” in Primo Levi, The Black Hole of Auschwitz (Malden, MA, USA: Polity, 2005), pp. 27-29]. This reference to disease is a significant preview that readers of Levi can easily relate to the category of contagion/contagio between victims and torturers that Levi was to borrow from the Italian novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, in The Drowned and the Saved. In addition, Levi encounters the symptoms of this infection in Harvest of Hate – that is, a “rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of the moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a colossal cowardice” (p. 29).3Levi’s Preface to Poliakov’s Auschwitz is anthologized in Opere, I, pp. 1175-77; “Preface to L. Poliakov’s Auschwitz,” in Primo Levi, The Black Hole of Auschwitz. Trans. Sharon Wood (Malden, MA, USA: Polity, 2005), pp. 27-29. We can safely maintain that this kind of semiotics of Auschwitz has already been well mapped out in If This is a Man. At the same time, the increasing climax that culminates in the concept colossal cowardice / viltà abissale seems to be closely tied in with his working out of the concept of gray.
In Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution, we can find a portrait of Rumkowski that has several elements in common with Levi’s narration and that holds our attention because of the context in which this portrait is found. For Reitlinger, the history of the presidents of the Jewish councils in the main ghettos of Europe is a history of “suicides and executions” in which the “ghetto dictatorship was something unusual.” Hence Rumkowski’s dictatorship was anexception. He lists the fates of Adam Czerniakov (Warsaw), Marek Biberstein (Cracow), Abraham Rotfeld (Lvov), and Marcus Horowitz (Kolomyia). All of them, except Biberstein, were ghetto elders who commited suicide. Here Reitlinger maintains that there are dozens of examples like this. Rumkowski, on the other hand, was chosen by the Germans in 1939 and, as Reitlinger implies, did their bidding. The political portrait of the elder of Łódź is formulated in a few emblematic lines: “He was treated like a dog outside the ghetto but allowed to be king within the barbedwire. He issued currency notes bearing his signature, and postage stamps, engraved with his portrait, a genial elderly philanthropist with a cloak and flowing mane of white hair, who moved about the ghetto in a respectable broken-down carriage” [The Final Solution, p. 63-64]. The image of the broken-down carriage was effectively picked up by Levi as well. However, what strikes readers more than anything else is the way Reitlinger’s judgment is structured, the way it hinges on the opposition inside vs. outside the ghetto, which Levi uses as a key for interpreting the way the elder acted. Reitlinger’s version of Rumkowski’s destiny also has no precedents. He is said to have boarded the train for Auschwitz after he realized that a certain speech was a trick, the one Biebow gave to the Jews of the ghetto about a new “peaceful” deportation in order to work somewhere else.
What remains significant for Reitlinger is the exceptional nature of Rumkowski’s parabola in the Łódź ghetto in theface of the experience in the other Polish ghettos. There, the various leaders of the Jewish councils (Judenrat) commited suicide quickly, struck by remorse and their inability to do this type of task; or, they did not wield any power at all because power was in the hands of the Gestapo, which gave orders to the police forces. The history and the position of Rumkowski, his restless commandeering, his fancies as a charismatic dictator – all of these are the features of an isolated case and therefore of the tragedy of an individual rather than of a recurring historicalphenomenon. Levi’s story is doubtlessly very sensitive to this type of reading. In fact, Levi does not allude to the historical phenomenon of the Judenräte.
We need to add that Reitlinger’s The Final Solution was the topic of comments written by Luigi Meneghello about it entitled Promemoria. It was a three-installment kind of review of the book that came out in the monthly, Comunità, which was founded by Adriano Olivetti in Ivrea. The review appeared in the issues of December, 1953, and February and April, 1954. It is likely to assume that these monthlies circulated in Levi’s home in that Anna Maria Levi, Primo’s sister, was an employee of the Olivetti company. The Final Solution is more than 600 pages long and Meneghello’s Promemoria 100 pages. (Meneghello’s article in installments was published under the pseudonym Ugo Varnai, but the collected work appeared under his own name when it was published by Il Mulino in 1994.) The figure of Rumkowski did not appear in Meneghello’s review, as we could easily guess. Nevertheless, it was possible that this review was what drew Levi’s attention to The Final Solution, which he most probably acquired and read in the Italian edition nine years later.
The Final Solution is a potential bridge for readers who wish to learn more about the literature that developed around the figure of Rumkowski. It is the source for a novel that is explicitly inspired by this “King of the Jews,” Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews (1979). (Epstein’s father and his uncle were the screenwriters of the 1942 film Casablanca.) Epstein, an American writer, recounted in an interview with The New York Times that he was inspired by a fascinating description of Rumkowski’s life in a book he picked up by chance while he was preparing for exams at Oxford University -- The Final Solution. [For this interview, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh-jndxJxGc.]
Thus Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution intrigued Luigi Meneghello right after it was published. It was introduced to Italian readers in the form of his review/summary in three issues of Comunità. After that, it continued to travel from Italy to England like a seed that took root in the minds of two writers. Both seemed obsessed by the influence of the same person. This is really what is most surprising. The results are a story and a novel that were published within two years of each other (Levi 1977, Epstein 1979) and both (is it an accident?) have the same title – Il re dei Giudei, King of the Jews.
There is another possibility to take into consideration. Both Poliakov and Reitlinger quote from an article by Solomon F. Bloom in the December 1948 issue of the American journal Commentary as one of their main sources on Rumkowski. The article in question is “Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto: The Strange History of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski,” the first detailed story about the Elder of Łódź. We may wonder if Levi had read this article back then,but this is hardly probable. A check of Italian libraries reveals that almost none of them possess any of the early issues of Commentary. However, we should not judge too quickly because if we read Bloom, we will surely notice
some outstanding details that Levi must have picked up from him. The most blatant example is the quotation from aline of poetry about Rumkowski that Levi relates, “he had his poet-courtiers compose hymns celebrating his ‘firm and powerful hand’” [“Coin,” p. 122]. Levi’s original words here -- mano ferma e potente -- are his translation of the prayer-poem that Bloom reported. According to Bloom, these were the words of a poem that the court poet L. Berman dedicated to Rumkowski in the Getto Zeitung, a newspaper of June, 1941: “Our President Rumkowski / Is blessed by the Lord above / Not alone with brains and talent / But with a firm and powerful arm.”6S.F. Bloom, “Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto. The Strange History of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski,” Commentary VII (December, 1948), p. 116.
There are many correspondences between Bloom and Levi. There is the double ending of Rumkowski’s story, whichLevi seems to have taken faithfully from Bloom, as if it were a word-for-word translation. Then there are other features from Bloom where we can make out a certain slant that Levi gives his character. One example occurs when a large group of children are deported under the eyes of Rumkowski, “Since Rumkowski truly loved the young, this was the most tragic day in his life, but he was no man to be broken by tragedy, even his own.”7p. 120. In addition, Bloom outlines that Rumkowski was weak to the pleasures of the flesh, but only up to a certain point: “He was not mercenary. He was captivated rather by the psychological and political perquisites of his strange and – he dared to think – promising role. Like all dictators he affected to despise politics, to love order, and to protect his loyal subjects.”8p. 115.
It therefore seems very probable that Levi had read this article, which was accompanied by an influential send off to European readers. The introduction to Bloom’s article states, “in a note asking permission to reprint this study in Les Temps Modernes, the editor, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, makes this comment: ‘The case of Lodz is especially important because it shows that the mechanism of Nazi power is the same even when it relies upon Jewish assistance; and that the passions which support such a power are the same, even when they grow in the mind of aJew.’” Bloom’s article was translated into French and republished one year later in the December-January 1949 issue of Les Temps Modernes. Levi might have read this during those years, given the wide circulation of this journal in Turin. He might have bought this issue because of this article, read it, and left it in the back of his mind for years. However, what Levi says at the beginning of the “Story of a Coin” forces us to jettison this hypothesis: that he had only “recently” [p. 67] heard of the life and story of Rumkowski.9These general hints can be taken more or less into account according to which factors we decide to take into consideration. Levi retired from the SIVA paint factory in 1975. In 1982 If Not Now, When? was published. This novel was accompanied by a bibliography of texts on the resistance in Eastern Europe. Levi said he had already gotten the idea for the novel in 1972. However there is evidence (here is not the place to go into it) that proved that he had meant to write this novel for a long time previously. Possibly, his research on Rumkowski may have been involved with his research for his novel, madeeasier by his increased free time. If we keep in mind that the “Story of a Coin” was published in November, 1977, we can imagine that his research on it was concentrated in 1975-77. Since all of this is conjectured chronology unsupported by concrete proof, it obviously cannot serve as the basis for any reasoning on Levi or any claims to do so. Rather, it still remains possible that Levi came across Bloom’s article in the 1970s, taking advantage of the references to it in Poliakov and Reitlinger. Although René Guyonnet translated the English original faithfully, he changed the order of the first paragraph, making what was a parententhical remark in English into an introduction: “Il est donné à peu d'hommes d'incarner les limites d'une société, à plus forte raison de deux. C'est ce que Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, de Lodz, qui n'avait parailleurs rien de remarquable, sut faire de façon rigoureuse.”10S.F. Bloom, “Dictature au ghetto. Le gouvernement de Chaim Rumkowski à Lodz,” Les Temps Modernes 39, décembre [Dec.] 1948 - janvier [Jan.] 1949, pp. 96-121: 96. [Few men have the chance to incarnate the limits of a society, much less two. This is what Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, from Lodz, who had no other remarkable features, was able to do to the hilt.] These considerations -- that Rumkowski represented the limits of a particular
society and that there was nothing remarkable about him – are very far from the profile that Levi traces of him. Levi, instead, was interested in the parabola that story takes as told by Bloom -- a gripping series of events that sometimes seem decisive and sometimes seem entirely superficial, events that give us the feel of the wayRumkowski acted. As Bloom himself says (alluding to one of Levi’s favorite books), “Under this autocracy a shadow state arose with all the panoply of the real. The panoply plays here the role of the precise detail in Gulliver's Travels: it persuades us, for a moment, that the fantasy is true. But the meaning of Swift lies elsewhere, and so does that of Rumkowski's state.”11“Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto,” p. 113.
Levi’s fourth source is the most mysterious, underground one but it is certainly as important as the others. In 1967, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore published I topi [Mice] for its Nuovi scrittori stranieri series [New foreign writers], an anthology of stories by the Polish writer Adolf Rudnicki, active as a writer since 1932. This anthology collected six of his most famous stories. The last story (both in the anthology and chronologically), entitled Il commerciante di Łódź [The merchant of Łódź], traces a historical and psychological profile of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. According to Rudnicki, this was an episode of Polish national history that had mysteriously been ignored by mainstream (and other) Polish historians, who had never written a single book about him.12“We have allowed ourselves to be robbed of one of the most colorful characters of the last world war, seeing that, at least up to now, there is not one Polish book that speaks of this man and it does not seem that there will be one soon.”Adolf Rudnicki, “Il commerciante di Łódź” [The merchant of Łódź] in I topi [Mice] (Milano: Mondadori, 1967), p. 212. The short story “The merchant of Łódź” was published in Poland in 1963 in an anthology of the same title, Kupiec lodzki. This entire Polish anthology was translated into French -- Le Marchand de Lodz (Paris: Gallimard, 1969). In contrast, the Mondadori anthologycollects six of Rudnicki’s most famous stories, which were written in different periods and which had been published atdifferent times and in different anthologies in Poland. [Translator’s note: there is seemingly no published English translation of Kupiec lodzki, so the translations here are from the Italian.]
Above all, Rudnicki’s short story and Levi’s article/story both seem to have the same overall approach as an essay- portrait. The book-jacket introduction in I topi reads: “A long essay of disconcerting narrative vigor, ‘The Merchant of Łódź,’ the biography and historical reconstruction of the old Jewish man whom the Nazis put in charge of aghetto, second in Poland only to that of Warsaw, a man who, inebriated with power, forgot his own people totransform himself into a torturer in a sinister parody of a ferocious dictator.” This is a comment that can easily bemistaken as a review of Levi’s “Story of a Coin.” Like Levi, Rudnicki seemed more interested in the man than in thehistorical phenomenon. He too wanted to sound out his thoughts rather than accuse him of sins. He wanted to go over his story in order to find out whether there was a point that he could fix as one of no return – a point of awareness, of consciousness of the self – or whether Rumkowski really had lived “enchanted with himself and with his situation.” Rudnicki riddles his story with rhetorical questions: “was it possible that he never saw his ownmisery? that he never noticed that he had become a caricature?... was is possible that he never understood that his actions, beginning with the files of records he himself had prepared, worked to the advantage of the Germans? If he understood, he was probably thinking: and what way out is there? How can I act in any other way?... Why him in particular? In what way was his so different from the others?... Is there a normal person who has such a need forthousands of human corpses?” However, all these questions are not just rhetorical devices in the narrative. It isRudnicki who was extremely anxious to understand. This is what made him write his story: he could not suppress his own questions about Rumkowski. More than anything else, this is what the affinity between Rudnicki and Levi consists in: Rumkowski was a Pandora’s box of questions, questions that generate other questions, and these even more questions without any end in sight. Rumkowski was a point of friction where the history of a people grates against the history of an individual.
Levi too was tormented by the same open questions, even though he asked himself explicit questions only twice in his story. The first time he asks himself, at the end of the story, “Who is Rumkowski?” [“Coin,” p., 126]. The secondtime, he puts his questions inside parentheses only in his “Story of a Coin” of 1977: “He delivered many speeches,which in part have come down to us, and whose style is unmistakable. He had adopted (deliberately? knowingly? or did he unconsciously identify with the man of providence, the ‘necessary hero’ who at that time ruled Europe?)” [“Coin,” p. 122-23]. At the beginning of this article, we read this same passage as it appeared in The Drowned and the Saved, one of the few passages with significant changes. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi’s questions come out of the parentheses where they had been nine years before and are changed into statements.
What Levi and Rudnicki, both writers portraying Rumkowski, had in common was their obsession with Rumkowski’s point of view. They wanted to understand what Rumkowski thought of himself, how he saw himself, and how he reasoned out his own choices. There are some broad differences between Rudnicki and Levi. Rudnicki focused onthe importance of Rumkowski’s work ethic and his thirst for money, which Rudnicki considered his primemotivation. (We can easily see this in his emphasis on Rumkowski’s role as the “merchant” in the title of his story.) Rudnicki emphasized the turning point in 1942, when the daily deportations from the ghetto began. According to Rudnicki and according to most of the contemporary historians who have worked on the events surrounding Rumkowski,13There are several historians that have reconstructed the figure of Rumkowski without dedicating a book to him alone. Perhand the most detailed is that of Étienne Jaudel, La malediction du pouvoir [The curse of power] (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2004), which includes an updated, detail bibliography on Rumkowski. For the personal story of Rumkowski, the following are the most significant pieces (besides Jaudel): Leonard Tushnet, The Pavement of Hell: Three Leaders of Judenrat (New York, St.Martin Press), 1972; Shmuel Huppert, “King of the Ghetto. Mordechai Haim Rumkowski, the Elder of the Lodz Ghetto,” Yad Vashem Studies 15 (1983), pp. 125-58; Michal Unger, Reassessment of the Image of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem), 2004. This is more of a book of testimony: Lucille Eichengreen, Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2000). it would have been possible somehow, if not to forgive, but to understand what Rumkowski was doing before 1942. It would have been possible to identify with him, thinking that he had not yet understood the insanity of the Nazis. After that, everything fell apart. As is known, the Gross-Wannsee conference took place January 20, 1942, where the “final solution” was planned within a half day. It was there where that name of Auschwitz, once a quarantine camp in the mid-1930s, was noted for the first time. Only after this conference did the Auschwitz lager become the heart of the deportation and the extermination and it is clear that the deportation first began from the ghettos themselves.
Therefore it is hard to believe that Rumkowski would endorse a go-ahead for the deportations without knowing, without asking himself, and without wondering. In his historical reconstruction Reitlinger had brought up the suicides of many of the other elders of the ghettos in 1942 (as mentioned above). Curiously, Levi glosses over this point entirely. Strangely enough, he does not differentiate Rumkowski from the others. Levi writes of the deportations to Auschwitz, but puts this information in just to set the context without linking it to the story ofRumkowski. The deportations are not a decisive step in Levi’s line of thought here. The fact is that Levi is not tryingfind an exact point where he can put the blame on Rumkowski. Maybe, what interests Levi is not to reach a judgment but to think about a story rationally, to take it apart and put it together again in order to understand it better, to isolate its parts – its psychological, contextual, contingent, and hypothetical parts. There is no sentencing for punishment on the horizon. What there is is an inquiry into the man, into man. This is an anticipation of what Levi is to develop later on.
Therefore Rudnicki’s “The Merchant of Łódź” is not a minor source for Levi. Rather, it is an instrument for tracking how Levi goes about narrating a story, how he weighs his concepts without giving in to rhetoric, without saying everything all at once, and without falling into gross generalizations. This is not the place for a point-by-pointcomparison, but we should emphasize that Levi must have read “The Merchant of Łódź” attentively, that he hadbeen inspired by it, and that he was first convinced of the power and urgency that came of out the story of Chaim Rumkowski by starting out from Rudnicki’s story. This is something we can see even in the secondary details. For example, in the “Story of a Coin” Levi gives us a brief summary of Rumkowski’s life before he became the elder ofthe ghetto, a summary that later was deleted from The Drowned and the Saved. Levi wrote: “formerly co-owner of a velvet factory in Łódź. He had gone bankrupt and made several trips to England, perhaps to negotiate with his creditors; he had then settled in Russia, where somehow he had again become wealthy; ruined by the revolution in 1917 he had returned to Łódź” [“Coin,” p. 121]. This description is one that is fairly similar to Rudnicki’s: “He was atypical Lodzermensch, the co-owner of a velvet and felt factory. He went bankrupt and went to English to reach an agreement with his creditors. Then he could be found going around in Russia, where he managed to earn a lot of money. In 1917, after he had lost everything, he returned to Łódź.” We should note here that neither Poliakov nor Reitlinger refer to Rumkowski before the ghetto. Rudnicki reveals, partially, the source of his information, a certainZelman, identified as a “Polish journalist, now dead.” However, we know neither Zelman’s first name nor the title of the piece of writing in which the story of Rumkowski was told.15I have not found any certain information about Szulman. Rudnicki may have referred to Jakob Szulman. Some excerpts from his diary appeared, along with other testimony, in Alan Adelson & Robert Lapides, Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community under Siege (New York: Viking-Penguin, 1989). The Szulman of this diary is a doctor, not a journalist. Szulman’s diaries come from Polish archives. Thus Rudnicki may have consulted them, but it is very improbable that Levi had used them as primary sources. It is hard to believe that Levi could have read this primary source directly. It is much more likely he drew from Rudnicki’s account.
In Lilìt e altri racconti [Lilith and other stories], the story of Rumkowski is the last one in the first part of the book, which is entitled Passato prossimo [near present / present perfect]. It is the last of twelve stories related to the experience of the lager. [Page references to the stories from Lilìt are from Moments of Reprieve; Lilìt has not been translated into English as an anthology.] The “Story of a Coin” is Levi’s attempt to put a seal on an anthropological process. Levi repeats this same attempt, casting it in the same structure, in the chapter, “The Gray Zone,” in The Drowned and the Saved. The twelve stories in the first section of Lilìt are all portraits, each of which tell the story of a particular character. In “Rappoport’s Testament” [pp. 1-8] Capaneo-Rappoport makes an account of the good and the bad that fate had dealt him in life. Although in the lager, he still feels fate has leant him credit, having receivedmore good than bad. *Named Rappoport, Levi compares him to Capaneo from Dante’s Inferno, Canto 14. In “Our Seal” [pp. 33-38], an echo of the first story, a prisoner who is a violinist grabs a moment of evasion for himself while he plays, a moment when time and space are suspended and his briefly re-acquired humanity becomes the center of an entire lager. “The Juggler” [pp. 9-16] and “The Cantor and the Barracks Chief” [pp. 47-54] are both stories in which Kapos act with unexpected mercy. “A Disciple” [pp. 27-32] and “The Gypsy “ [pp. 39-46] focus on one of the topics that are to appear again in “The Gray Zone” in The Drowned and the Saved – the shock at entering the lager, the relationship between the Zugang (the newcomer) and the others, the veteran prisoners. The Passato prossimo ends with four nostoi, stories of return. “The Story of Avrom” [pp. 81-88], “Tired of Imposture” [pp. 89-98], and “Ceasar’s Last Adventure” [pp. 99-106] are all focused on the techniques of subterfuge used to survive, on picaresque faking crowned by a victorious return home. In contrast, in the fourth story, “Lorenzo’s Return” [pp. 107-118], the main character “Lorenzo is a man who did not know how to lie” [p.116]. Lorenzo walked all the way home, from Auschwitz up to his own threshold. Once he retuned to normal everyday life, he had lost his life force, he who had protected others in the lager risking his life every day by giving them extra food rations. He took to drinking and died. This is a way of saying that Lorenzo died sommerso, “drowned,” according to the categories of If This is a Man. The other three are the saved/salvati. They are not the saved because they had survived. (Technically, Lorenzo survived too.) They are the saved because of that spirit of dissimilation, of the adaptation they needed to survive. They are therefore the adatti, the “adaptable” [p. 9], according to the category of “The Drowned and the Saved,”Chapter 9 of If This is a Man.
“Lilith” is situated at the center of the section Passato prossimo. It is the story that gives its name to the entire Italian collection. “Lilith” contains a story inside the lager and a story outside it. The inside story is a pretext. A woman appears before Levi and Tischler, his work mate. This gives Tischler an excuse to tell “Primo the Epicurean” a legend connected with a character from the Bible. Lilith becomes a she-devil after she is not recognized as an equal -- neither by Adam nor God. She is hungry for the seed of men and so becomes the mother of thousands of devils, evil spirits who “don’t do much harm even if they would perhaps like to” [p. 23]. Lilith then becomes the lover of God, after he was rejected by his first companion, the Shekhina, “which is to say, His own presence in the creation” [p. 24]. “Lilith” is a story that is full of paradoxes. There is a natural equality that is not recognized. Thisequality is transformed into male privilege. Paradoxes and contradictions like this feed each other until they reach their climax of ambiguity in her union with God. This is where we find the only female character in all of the stories of the Passato prossimo. In fact, however, Lilith is the mother of all of them if it is true that: “As long as God continues to sin with Lilith, there will be blood and trouble on earth” [p. 24].
Passato prossimo groups together stories that Levi had published in the years 1975-81, with two exceptions.“Capaneo” was published for the first time in Il Ponte, a monthly from Florence, in 1959 and “A Disciple” was published in 1961. We do not know when the first drafts of most of the stories were written. Already back in 1954, Levi wrote this in a letter to Piero Calamandrei: “I confess I have turned my hand to a few short stories in recent years, but I don’t like them and they’re all half-finished.”16Archivio dell’Istituto Storico della Resistenza in Toscana, Firenze, Fondo Piero Calamandrei, busta 23, fasc. 4, ins. XXIV (Primo Levi). The letter was published in connection with the Primo Levi Lecture of November 2010 at the Great Hall of the School of Natural Sciences, Physics, and Mathematics at the University of Turin See the Appendix in Massimo Bucciantini, Esperimento Auschwitz - Auschwitz Experiment (Torino: Einaudi, 2011), p. 166. They were discussing the possible publication of some texts in Il Ponte, the monthly where “Capaneo” was to appear in November 1959. Thus “a few short stories” had already been written by then. In November 1961, Italo Calvino commented on several unpublished stories of Levi’s that he had read over. Calvino expressed some admiration for the stories that he called fantabiologici [fantastic-biological], a term he coined. He was less enthusiastic about other stories focused on the lager: “In regard to thestories of the other genre, there are fewer chances. The stories about the lager are pieces of If This is a Man, which, when they are detached from a broader narrative, have all the limits of sketches. And you have all my sympathies for your attempt to write a Conradian epic on Alpinism, but, for now, let it remain an intention.”17Letter of Italo Calvino to Primo Levi, sent from Turin Novembre 22, 1961 in Italo Calvino, Lettere 1940-1985, ed. Luca Baranelli (Milano: Mondadori), 2000, pp. 695-96. In other words, the “fantastic-biological” stories of Levi made a positive impression on Calvino. “This is a direction I encourage you to work in.” The stories “of the other genre,” those set in the lager, seemed to him limited like miniature paintings after If This is a Man precisely because “they are detached from a broader narrative.” What is important is that these stories existed already even though they had not found a publisher. They are certainly among the stories that were to appear in Passato prossimo. However, how many of them and which?
The issue here is not so much that of tracing the timing of the drafting of each text. We do not as yet have any means of setting up such a time line. The issue is, rather, that of determining how much the Lilìt anthology was conceived of as an organic whole made up of three subsets of equally organic stories– Passato prossimo, Futuro anteriore, Presente indicativo [present perfect/the near past, future perfect/the prior future, present indicative –three terms taken from Italian grammar].
In my opinion, Lilìt is an anthology whose structure takes shape without forcing any of its characters into an overall framework. Yet, the anthology goes forward with a rhythm that marks the times and the meanings along which the readers are to move, perhaps unwittingly. In this way, any eventual discoveries or new acquisitions of texts from the time when each story was being drafted would not be in conflict with my line of reasoning here. Let us list some examples. Both “Capaneo” and “A Disciple” were practically rewritten and expanded for their publication in Lilìt. “Tired of Imposture” is nothing more than a summary of the events described in Joel König’s Sfuggito alle reti del nazismo, a memoir whose Italian translation Levi wrote a preface for (Milano: Mursia, 1973) [Escaped from the webs of Nazism, Den Netzen Entronnen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967); this book appears in English under the name and title, Ezra Ben Gershôm, David: The Testimony of a Holocaust Survivor (Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1988)]. Likewise, “The Story of Avrom” is a summory of Marco Herman’s Storia di un ragazzo ebreo nella seconda guerra mondiale [History of a Jewish boy in the Second World War; Marek Herman, From the Alps to the Red Sea (Western Galilee, Israel: M.P., 1985], whose preface Levi wrote in 1984. Furthermore, “Story of a Coin” was to be reinserted in The Drowned and the Saved. All of this leads us to maintain that Levi is a writer who willingly makes references from among his own works and quotations from himself as long as they are part of a logical progression. This kind of analysis of the relationship between short story and collection calls to mind another analysis that is particularly appropriate – the categories of text and macrotext that Maria Corti used to analyze Calvino’s Marcovaldo in 1978:
A collection of short stories can be a simple putting-together of texts or can take shape itself as a macrotext. In that case, each story is a microstructure that is articulated within a macro-structure and from this comes the functional and narrative characteristic of the collection as a whole.18Maria Corti, “Testi o macrotesto?” ]Text or macrotext?], in Il viaggio testuale. Le ideologie e le strutture semiotiche [The journey of the text: ideologies and semiotic structures] (Torino: Einaudi, 1978), p. 185.
Besides Calvino’s Marcovaldo, any putting together of stories can make up a result, the so-called macrotext. This macrotext is something different from the sum of the single parts. Stories that are put together go on to create a network of meanings that arise in virtue of their being put together and being put together in a certain order.
In the specific case of the Lilìt anthology, the macrostructure seems to make the stories themselves more powerful. In Levi, the “combination of constants” – to stick with the structuralist terminology – is undoubtedly rich and purposely constructed. Calvino had found the random stories about Auschwitz weak, and probably rightly so, considering them to be fragile appendixes to If This is a Man. Even so, these stories take on a new light within the parabola of Lilìt as has been analyzed so far. Lilìt, as well as its component, Passato prossimo, can be considered an entirely integrated step in the flow of Levi’s thoughts. As a work, it can be analyzed as such. Its meaning can and should be held in relation to Levi’s development from If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved. All of this is directly related to the topic of these pages, even if the expression, “vast zone of gray consciences” appears first in the 1977 “Story of a Coin” [p. 127]. In the twelve stories of the Passato prossimo, Levi had already focused on several of his topics from “The Gray Zone,” Chapter 2 of The Drowned and the Saved. These topics include the isolation of the Zugang, the newly arrived prisoner; the ambiguity of the role of the Kapos; the complexity of the relationship between the drowned and the saved in relation to their processes of adaptation in the lager; the problem of maintaining one’s own personal identity in a place that was dominated by terror and where a fierce struggle for survival was played out.
These topics in Lilìt are the same ones that had appeared in If This is a Man. In the anthology the topics give off the impression that they are lightened by a half tone. Or, as Levi himself put it in a 1987 interview with Anna Bravo and Federico Cereja, “They were, you might say, and octave lower and I only wrote them much later”19Anna Bravo and Federico Cereja, “Ex-deportato Primo Levi: un’intervista (27 gennaio 1983),” La Rassegna mensile di Israel 2-3, maggio-dicembre 1987; at present, this interview appears in a book edited by Bravo and Cereja: Intervista a Primo Levi, ex deportato [Interview with Primo Levi, ex-deportee] (Torino: Einaudi, 2011); the interview is translated in part as “The Duty of Memory,” in The Voice of Memory, pp. 218-49. [The Voice of Memory, p. 233]. In other words, the focus of the narrative was shifted more and more towards the exceptions, towards attempts to pronounce a specific word of judgment, the word of If This is a Man, a word that is necessary but summary.
In fact, Passato prossimo is based above all on several stories about ambiguity. The section begins with the stories of Kapos and of new prisoners (Zugang). It continues along the lines of the Bible, “Lilith,” and reaches up to the “Story of a Coin.” In this way, as Corti put it: “The repetitive model, in as much as it arises from the various stories, is the macrostructure of the collection, which can thus speak to us of its own existence as a collection.”20Corti, Intervista, p. 191.
Interestingly enough, Levi speaks about the existence of his collection, Lilìt e altri racconti [Lilith and other stories], as a collection only indirectly. He does this in the preface of Moments of Reprieve, which is his English-language collection of some stories from Passato prossimo as well as of others from another collection, Racconti e saggi [Stories and essays], which was published in an edition by La Stampa, the Turin newspaper, in 1986. Moments of Reprieve was also published in 1986, the same year as The Drowned and the Saved, when the chapter “The Gray Zone” had already been written. This is the way Levi comments on these writings:
With the passing of the years...I realized that my experience of Auschwitz was far from exhausted. I haddescribed its fundamental features, which today have a historical pertinence, in my first two books, but ahost of details continued to surface in my memory and the idea of letting them fade away distressed me....
In these stories, written at different times and on different occasions, and certainly not planned, a common trait seems to appear: each of them is centered on one character only, who never is the persecuted, predestined victim, the prostrate man, the person to whom I had devoted my first book, and about whom I had obsessively asked myself if this was still a man. The protagonists of these stories are “men” beyond alldoubt, even if the virtue that allows them to survive and makes them unique is not always one approved of by common morality.
Moments of Reprieve, pp. vii-viii
It is evident that something has changed since If This is a Man, at least according to the perception that Levi has of his own work. Something has been added or, if it had already existed, something has bloomed. The saved have earned some space for themselves. A spotlight is lit on a part of humanity that had hitherto been in the shadows.This is the part belonging to the “men” beyond all doubt who have – not a generic spirit for survival – but a specific virtue that allows them to survive. Levi elaborates these virtues subsequently:
Bandi, my “disciple,” draws strength from the blessed gaiety of believers, Wolf from music, Grigo form love and superstition, Tischler from the patrimony of legends; but Cesare draws from his unbridled cunning, Rumkowski from thirst for power, Rappoport from a feral vitality.
Moments of Reprieve, pp. viii
In this excerpt, the eloquent and mysterious word but/ma both brings together and sets apart the two lists. These are all the virtues that the characters draw their strengths from. Yet, we can tell that the virtues are qualitatively different in tone. Faith, music, love, superstition and legends make up the first group. Cunning, thirst for power, and feral vitality make up second. The first are positive virtues, the second negative; the first are eminently human, the second animal, being that the desire for power is expressed with the noun thirst/fame. The first are virtues that are civil virtues, acquisitions, and results of upbringing or individual life histories. The second are a kind of biological heritage of the people in question, a kind of birthmark. They are virtues that are much more congenite [congenital or essential] than the first group of virtues. They correspond with those that we analyzed in If This is a Man [p. 94].
Lorenzo is missing from this list. However, it could be that the story about him is the litmus test that makes it easier for us to get a clearer picture of the others, the feeling that these moments of reprieve are nothing other than brief moments, flashes inside of a history of the drowned. Or, it may be that in the story of Lorenzo, the saved person, the man, is his friend Primo, who is endowed with a talent too, which Levi describes in this very preface. (These two interpretations of mine are ones that do not rule each other out.)
It seems to me obvious today that this attention of mine at that time, turned to the world and to the human beings around me, was not only a symptom but also an important factor of spiritual and physical salvation.
Moments, p. ix
The word salvazione [salvation] is evidently the correct derivation of salvati [the saved], as previously noted in an analysis of a passage from If This is a Man. The other noun, salvezza [safety] is not. Both Italian words derive from the Latin, salvus [unhurt, unharmed]. However, it is maintained that salvazione derives more directly from the Late Latin verb salvāre, used first by Vegetius [5th cent. AD?] to mean conservare [preserve]. In effect, the difference between the two words lies in the fact that salvezza is the condition of salvo [safety] while salvazione is the condition that persists over time.21Sources: Manlio Cortelazzo - Paolo Zolli, Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana [Etymological dictionary of Italian] (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1988); Alberto Nocentini, L’etimologico. Vocabolario della lingua italiana [The etymological: A dictionary of Italian] (Firenze, Le Monnier, 2010). To a certain extent, the result corresponds to the analysis of the item, salvazione [salvation] that appears in the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana [Great dictionary of Italian] ed. Salvatore Battaglia. Among the 10 meanings cited there, three have to do with conservazione [preservation] -- preservation from destruction (5), conversation of a city (6); preservation/maintenance of a condition that is positive or considered positive, of a moral value, or of a cultural value. There are no such analogous meanings for the item salvezza [salvation/safety]. Finally, the item salvazione may have Christian salvation as its primary point of reference, both as the condition that is earned after death and as redemption. According to me, the etymology of this word in Levi does not go along these lines. I say this in view of his education and the secular quality that distinguishes all his works. In fact, there is a stark contrast with the idea of salvation in the Christian sense, which is expressed in these words, which come from the chapter, “Shame,” in The Drowned and the Saved: “After my return from imprisonment I was visited by a friend older than myself, mild and intransigent.... He told me that my having survived could not be the work of chance, of an accumulation of fortunate circumstances (as I did then and still do maintain), but rather of Providence. I bore the mark. I was an elect: I, the nonbeliever, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz, was a person touched by Grace, a saved man.... Such an opinion seemed monstrous to me” [Drowned and Saved, p. 82]. There is a curious chain of meanings that can be put together by combiing the etymologies given in Avviamento all'etimologia italiana [Starting off towards Italian etymology] by Giacomo Devoto (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1968). On the one hand, salvare [to save] has as a root, the Late Latin word salvare (from salvus), a word that came to substitute servare. At the same time, conservare [preserve] derives from serbare, which, in turn, derives from the Latin servare. Therefore there is seemingly a direct line that link these two families of words -- that of salvarsi [saving oneself] and that of conservarsi [preserving oneself]. It is no accident that Levi gave the names “salvation through knowledge” and “salvation through laughter” to two of the four “routes” from Job to the Black Holes that gather together some of his favorite authors in The Search for Roots [p. 8-9]. Once more, it turns out to be evident that the salvati – the saved – are not simply those who had managed to survive. Rather, they are those who had known how to conservarsi [preserve themselves] in some way, or at least to conservare qualcosa di sé [preserve something of themselves] in the lager. This was not necessarily achieved through a skill or talent that was positive.
Even comrade Primo Levi, the prisoner, Häftling 174517, has a virtue or skill all his own that brought him his salvation. There is a richer paraphrase of its definition in The Drowned and the Saved:
From my trade I contracted a habit that can be variously judged and defined at will as human or inhuman –the habit of never remaining indifferent to the individuals that chance brings before me. They are humanbeings but also “samples,” specimens in sealed envelope to be identified, analyzed, and weighed. Now, thesample book that Auschwitz had placed open before me was rich, varied, and strange, made up of friends, neutrals, and enemies, yet in any case food for my curiosity, which some people, then and later, have judged to be detached. A food that certainly contributed to keeping a part of me alive and that subsequently supplied me with the material for thinking and making books.... I know that this “naturalistic” attitude doesnot derive only or necessarily from chemistry, but in my case it did come from chemistry.
Drowned and Saved, p. 141
Levi’s writing is the result of this attitude. Also, it is the first clear proof of his position as one of the saved. Certainly, his writing came forth from his need to bear witness. Nevertheless, it became the evidence of the condition he was in, in a way that he became more and more aware of. His writing was an act that burdened him with uneasiness yet showed his inborn inclination towards salvation. All this, among other factors, tended to make his storytelling opaque, and it was against this psychic interference that Levi kept on struggling. His writing was his inextinguishable desire to tell stories. His writing was a cutting edge, a proof of the inadequacy and shame of the person who is saved. Between the attention he had focused on everything in the past and the writings he was writing 40 years later, Levi found that he could not forget even the smallest detail: “Of my two years outside the law I have not forgotten a single thing” [Reprieve, p. xi]. He remembered images, phrases in unknown languages, and smells: “at times, but only for what concerns Auschwitz, I feel I am the brother of Ireneo Funes, ‘el memorioso’ described by Borges, the man who remembered every leaf of every tree he had ever seen and who ‘by himself had more memories than all the men who ever existed since the world began’” [“A Mystery in the Lager,” in The Mirror Maker (London: Abacus, 2007; 1990), p. 82].
This type of memory ends up being obsessive and maniacal. Levi was probably disturbed by this from the time of his short story, “The Mnemagogue,” which he had written in 1946 – that is, at the same time as his urgent chapters in If This is a Man. In this story, the young doctor Morandi runs into a bizarre pharmacist, Montesanto, who recreates the smells that evoke significant moments from his past life. Montesanto offers to have Morandi smell these smells,challenging him to recognize them. However, at a certain point....
Having overcome his initial uneasiness, Morandi was taking interest in the game. At random heunstoppered a fifth bottle and handed it to Montesanto. “And what about this?”
From it emanated a light airy smell of clean skin, power and summer. Montesanto sniffed, put back thesmall bottle and said curtly, “This is neither a place nor a time, it is a person.”
He closed the cupboard; he had spoken in a definitive tone.
The Sixth Say and Other Tales (London: Abacus, 1997), p. 16; SN, I, p.406
After Morandi says this, he takes his leave from Montesanto embarrassedly. He is terrorized by the possibility that he would become like him, a man who was the guardian of an invisible past that was bottled and labeled, a man who tried to reproduce the height of individuality in a laboratory – the smell of a person. This was one of the fears that had always tormented Levi – the fear of reducing the individual into a law, the fear of reducing uneven, rough matter into a flat irrefutable judgment that makes it inconsistent. Levi, among all people, a person who was savedby his attention to details and to individuals, was afraid to wake up into a world of authoritarian, odorless formulas
In the preface to the English-language anthology, Moments of Reprieve, Levi goes over his efforts in Passato prossimo to give a voice to the irregular nature of the individual. In this he brings out the shift in his stance from that of If This is a Man. However, there is another bridge that links the Lilìt anthology to The Drowned and the Saved. It is the “Story of a Coin.” In the case of the story of Rumkowski, the saved can step forward to be countedamong the people who were ambiguous and blinded by power. These were people who, most of all, had forgotten about themselves, their weakness, their mortality and their misery, as he traces in his explanation of the story of Rumkowski: “Like Rumkowski, we too...forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting.” [“Coin,” p. 128]. In The Drowned and the Saved these “‘men’ beyond all doubt” [Moments, p. viii] are no longer described during “moments of reprieve,” but they go back inside the terrible history of the lager, the memory of which had been bottled up, perhaps for too many years in small bottles not unlike those of Montesanto. The story of Rumkowski in Lilìt is the indication of this going back. Even if the story does not go back all the way, it certainly blazes the trail. It is Levi himself who calls it the focal point of the anthology:
One of these stories, the most important to my mind, sketches in a few pages the story of Chaim Rumkowski, president of the Judenrat in the Łódź ghetto. As is well enough known, this man compromised himself in every possible way in order to hang on the miserable power his German appointment had conferred upon him.
“Itinerary of a Jewish Writer,” The Black Hole, p. 164
The “Story of a Coin” opens with an illustration of a coin, heads and tails, which Rumkowski had coined in the Łódź ghetto and which Levi had picked up off the ground in Auschwitz. In all of the his writings, this is the only time that Levi felt the need to provide supporting material for his text. Why would he do so? Certainly it is really possible –and is there any reason not to believe him – that he had pieced together the story of Rumkowski starting off from the object that he had kept. However, I think that the presence of the illustration added something to the text itself.Let us read over his opening sentence without the illustration: “When I returned from Auschwitz I found in my pocket a strange coin” [“Coin,” p. 119]. This sentence would not have lost any of its powerful expressiveness without the illustration. I think that what we are dealing with is an object brought to us as a piece of legal evidence. This is perhaps an indication that the story was put together, in this case, for an open court of readers, who are summoned to sit in judgment and to whom the witness submits a piece of evidence to corroborate his own version of events, pressing the jury to take this case seriously. The fact that Rumkowski is an accused defendant who has been summoned for trial is confirmed shortly after:
This [vast zone of gray consciences] is the zone in which Rumkowski must be placed. Whether higher orlower, it’s hard to say; he alone could clarify it if he could speak before us, even lying, as he perhaps alwayslied; he would help us understand him, as every defendant helps his judge, and helps him even if he doesn’t want to, even if he lies, because man’s ability to play a role has its limits.
“Coin,” p. 127-28
Thus the legal, justice-oriented aspects of this story come to the fore, something that had already been present in If This is a Man. Levi himself defines the story in this way in his 1987 conversation with Anna Bravo and Federico Cereja.23Anna Bravo & Federico Cereja, Intervista a Primo Levi. However, in this case, this story does not consist in testimony for the prosecution. Rather, it warns us urgently that this story should not be taken as just a story because it makes us ask complex questions, because it is not clear, and because it is disturbing. In fact, after having narrated the story of Rumkowski, Levi leaves us some blank space and declares:
A story like this goes beyond itself: it is pregnant [pregno], asks more questions than it answers, and leaves us in suspense; it cries out and demands to be interpreted because in it we discern a symbol, as in dreamsand signs from heaven, but it is not easy to interpret.
“Coin,” p. 126
The adjective pregno has a double meaning to be pregnant/with child or soaked with juices and liquids. Levi uses this word only in the second sense in If This is a Man, when he referred to toxic and bitter substances -- the “poisonous saps of coal and petroleum” and the “smell of the phenyl beta” [If This, pp. 78 & 142]. Could it be that actions such as those of Rumkowski are poisonous but yet not sterile, that they are even fecund, pregnant with meanings? Levi willingly plays with the ambiguity of this adjective. It could be said that in the entire story every element is its double and every term carries its opposite along with it. In none of the other portraits of his characters are the readers delegated with the task of interpreting the very story that they were being presented with. Here, however, there is a set of actions that reach out beyond themselves that is being narrated. The narration is a “symbol,” Levi says: “Perhaps its meaning is different and vaster: we are mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, that of hybrids kneaded from clay and spirit” [“Coin,” p. 128]. When Levi refers to clay, he bringsus straight back to the Biblical birth of Lilith. She too was born of a hybrid and condemned to ambiguity. Hence there is not only polysemia, but also an intertextual network, a real tangle of meanings, oxymoronic when takentogether. The story of Rumkowski “cries out and demands to be interpreted.” Yet, it is something like a dream or an omen, and so it is not like natural phenomena to be interpreted through scientific patterns of cause and effect. We should forget about treating the story of Rumkowski in sociological terms. This is not what the story asks us to do. This is not what its author asks us to do.24This is also the opinion of Anna Bravo in her essay, “On the Gray Zone”: “In describing the gray zone, Levi distinguishes among the various positions and attitudes of its inhabitants, but he does not use the categories of social and psychological research – class, caste, culture, temperament, pulsations, or ties to politics or religious creeds – categories that he believes significant but used by other authors. Instead, Levi chose to start from inside, from a minute analysis focusing on life and death in the Lager.” See the site of the Primo Levi Studies Center (http://www.primolevi.it/Web/Italiano/Contenuti/Auschwitz/105_Sulla_%22zona_grigia%22 )
This story of the “King of the Jews” does not come across to us to deliver a message. As Levi tells us on the jacket cover of Lilìt, this would be forcing the issue. However, messages are different from meanings. Messages are sent on purpose and therefore unequivocal, or at least people do not want to send contradictory messages. If messages are contradictory, they are not sent like this on purpose. If they are sent on purpose, they are not contradictory. Meanings, on the other hand, can be held within a story, which has gestated and given birth to them. This is the reason why a story can be “pregnant.” Its meanings can resemble and attract each other as well as differ and clash.Its meanings can certainly stand together, in spite of each other.
In Lilìt, therefore, the “Story of a Coin” seems to be a story that is polyphonic, ambiguous, and complex. It is the culmination of a passato prossimo, a “recent past” charged with individual happenings that were the daughters of the lager (and of a she-devil). They are unique and therefore exceptional. It was a place that perhaps held thestories of the “gray zone,” but a place where the existence of this “zone” had not yet been theorized as such. The “Story of a Coin” was certainly a step on the way, and, I would say, a decisive step. We need to look at two of its decisive characteristics to understand how important it is. First, there is its “fecundity,” which can be interpreted asits maieutic power brought out by our urgency to come up with a judgment. Second, there is its load of poison – i.e. the paralysis that stops us from passing judgment in the face of the great ambiguity that the character is immersed in.
In a dialogue with Vittorio Foa,26Vittorio Foa, Carlo Ginzburg, Un dialogo [A dialogue] (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2003); especially, pp. 93-114. Carlo Ginzburg said that he tended to take the gray zone as a category of analysis:
I think that, when Primo Levi spoke of gray zones, he didn’t absolve all those gray zones at all. It wassomething entirely different: he wanted to show that there was a moral involvement, in the good and in the bad, even in the gray zones. It was an analytical stance. After having analyzed all those gray zones, one can give a moral judgment, which would imply a condemnation or acquittal from time to time. Nevertheless, the two levels – the analytical one and the moral one, do not coincide.27Foa & Ginzberg, p. 107.
Thus Ginzburg considered Levi’s “gray zone” neither a label nor a moral judgment, but a category of analysis. As such, it prepares the way for judgment. It is preliminary, but it itself is not the judgment. As Ginzberg emphasized,“the implication of the bid to reflect on the gray zone is the opposite of the saying, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” [to understand everything is to pardon everything].
If we use the gray zone as a way of orienting our thought, it broadens our knowledge of the lager without having us make judgments of guilt or innocence any more than Levi did in If This is a Man. A line of thinking like this might look like a finding that is trivial. Yet, if we think about it with the attention it deserves, it is not trivial at all. Levi did not intend the gray zone to serve as a mechanism for passing judgment. Therefore we can maintain that there are two levels – that of knowledge and that of morals – and that these two levels should be considered separate. To say this is to claim that Levi’s path from If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved was not a path from an enlightened optimism to an epigraphic gloominess about the present. It was not this at all. Rather, his method was rational. His style was enlightened. His constant effort was expended in concrete, close examination. All these are the pivots around which The Drowned and the Saved turns in a much more powerful way than it did in If This is a Man forty years before. It would be simplistic and reductionist to think that a chapter like “The Gray Zone” did notinvolve a good deal of moral travail for Levi. Further, “The Gray Zone” obviously gives off a greater degree of pessimism than the humanistic If This is a Man. Nevertheless, I do not fully agree with Alberto Cavaglion when he maintains that The Drowned and the Saved is the one book of Levi’s that is the most atypical28Alberto Cavaglion takes this position in “Attualità (e inattualità) della zona grigia,” [The contemporary aspects (or not) of the grey zone] in La memoria del male. Percorsi tra gli stermini del Novecento e il loro ricordo [The memory of evil: journeys through the exterminations of the twentieth century and their memory], ed. Paolo Bernardini, Diego Lucci, Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, the series Primo Levi Project Proceedings, 1 (Padova: Cleup, 2006), pp. 135-46. . Rather, it is not atypical at all, at least if we focus on the attention Levi paid to analysis, distinctions, and the weighing of concepts. He focused on the radical differences between things that are not equivalent but almost equivalent and on distillation as a work of patience that is philosophical. He carefully separated the parts of compounds in order to get them back down to their prime elements.
As time went by, Levi continued his work of distillation over various time intervals. He realized that there was still something else to say about the lager. Not only that, he realized that what would be said depends upon the how much he could fine-tune his conceptual apparatus, which consisted in the analytical language he would use to approach some new items that were still nameless. As a result of all this distillation, Levi engendered a text wholly made up of precisions, pregnant with the meanings of the story of Rumkowski, and intent on debunking myths, stereotypes, and conceptual fossilizations. If there is any pessimism, it has nothing to do with his rethinking of the mechanisms of Auschwitz. Rather, it has to do with his realization that time works on memories, including his own, in a poisonous way, making them seem banal. That period, the only one in his life that was lived in Technicolor, was beginning to become gray. In reaction to this and as an antidote to this, Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, which is a partly poisonous and partly gray itself.
Lorenzo Mondo wrote the following comment in his review of Lilìt for Notiziario Einaudi:
Aside from some rare divertissements, the writer celebrated the forever-young adventure of knowledge in Lilìt. He celebrated its victories and the many times it was held in check. It is the struggle of the intelligence that puts things in order, up against the confusion of things and events, up against the dense and maleficent night, which, as Levi had already said, is not just the night of the lager.29Lorenzo Mondo, Lilìt di Primo Levi [Primo Levi’s Lilith], Notiziario Einaudi, December 1981, p. 10.
This may be one of the keys to reading Levi’s progress from If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved. There is a vital tension between order and chaos, as Giovanni Tesio pointed out.30Giovanni Tesio, “Primo Levi tra ordine e caos” [Primo Levi between order and chaos] (1987), in Primo Levi:un’antologia della critica [Primo Levi: a critical anthology], ed. Ernesto Ferrero, (Torino: Einaudi), 1997, pp.40-50. There is also tension between purity and impurity, between theory and matter. This adventurous exercise is the distinguishing mark of Levi’s literary poetics. It is the story that runs through all his stories. The “gray zone” is one of the most resistant materials in this epicbattle. The gray zone is both a tool and an adversary because it keeps on slipping away whenever we try to use it. It is insidious, almost accursed. It is a notion that delivers its own guilty sentence along with it. The opening sentence of “The Gray Zone” chapter in The Drowned and the Saved announces this problem:
Have we -- we who have returned – been able to understand and make others understand our experience?What we commonly mean by “understand” coincides with “simplify”: without a profound simplification theworld around us would be an infinite undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient outselves and decide upon our actions.
Drowned and Saved, p. 36
This chapter works in an anti-intuitive way, trying to engage in hard combat against simplification – i.e. against something that is wished for legitimately and necessarily. It takes the fight to its utmost limits, to the undefined mire of the ambiguity of the gray. Yet, without simplification, as Levi says, what would be undermined is “our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions.” This is another way of pointing out the two lines of thought thathe tried to hold together as he treated the gray zone – knowledge and ethics. Can we really judge after we have gotten to know everything in depth?
As “The Gray Zone” chapter proceeds, it oscillates in a more and more insistent and pressing way. At times, Levi istempted to pass a universal judgment on the concentration-camp system, holding it directly responsible for the creation of a host of collaborators and privileged prisoners. At other times, instead, he is led to base everything on distinctions, on individual cases, on degrees of guilt, and on individual mitigating circumstances. The literary word is constantly being put to the test in relation to its potential to open up knowledge, in relation to the degree of understanding it can reach, even with a material as viscous as the concept, gray zone. At the same time, Levi insistently puts the moral implications of his analysis up for discussion, questions them, affirms them, and then denies them the line after. All in all, the person who is telling the story and the person who is passing judgment are both face to face with the same short circuit. Levi devotes his last seven pages of “The Gray Zone” to hisexplanation. He does this by telling us the story of Rumkowski. There are few stylistic variations from the 1977 version of the “Story of a Coin.” What is much more significant is his decision to tells us this same story again.
The story of Rumkowski is, above all, a story at the outer limits because it is not strictly a story about the lager and because, as we have seen, it is dense with ambiguity, contradictions, and issues. Why did Primo Levi choose this character to explain the second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved? There were good reasons against including this story. It had been already published twice. It is set in the ghetto and not in the lager. Although this story is also a product of the Nazi strategy for the final solution, it turned out to be a unique series of events. It was the only story in all of The Drowned and the Saved that is not enclosed within the barbed-wired parameters of the lager. The ghetto has its own structural characteristics. Like the lager, it is a closed-off space. While the lager originated as a concentrated universe of terror and annihilation, the ghetto rose inside of a city with a lesser level of planning. The ghettos were built ostensively in order to isolate and hold people as they awaited deportation. The lagers made concrete what was already announced in the ghettos. They were two different points on the assembly line of the death industry.
So, why Rumkowski? Why not a torturer like Franz Stangl, who was interviewed by Gitta Sereny, and was referred to in The Drowned and the Saved. Why not someone like the Nazi described by Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower? Why not one of the Prominent? Why not the very particular story of a Kapo, an SS man like Rudolf Höss or of a repentant Nazi like Albert Speer?
We can formulate some attempts to answer why not – a list of reasons that sum up some of the traits of the character that has been analyzed so far.
1) He was “Not a monster, nor a common man” [Drowned & Saved p. 67].
2) Rumkowski was not only a renegade and an accomplice; to some extent, besides convincing others, he must have progressively convinced himself that he was a messiah, a savior of his people, whose welfare at least at intervals, he must certainly have desired. [p. 64].
3) Paradoxically, his identification with the oppressor alternates, or goes hand in hand, with an identification with the oppressed [p. 64].
4) Rumkowski probably thought of himself not as a servant but as a lord [p. 64].
5) If the interpretation of a Rumkowski intoxicated with power is valid, then the intoxication occurred not because of but rather in spite of the ghetto environment. In other words, the intoxication with power is so powerful as to prevail even under conditions seemingly designed to extinguish all individual will [p. 67];
Here are all the unique elements in this story. Rumkowski has an uncommon personality. As we have seen in thefirst four quotations, he feels that he is an both an “oppressor” and the “Lord of the oppressed.” In other words, heidentifies with both of the categories. At times, he is the first and foremost of the Jews harassed by the Germans. At times, he is a collaborator with them. This is exactly what his complexity as an individual is. We are not dealing with a schizoid personality. Rather, we are dealing with the persistence over time of a doubleness that was not produced by dissimulation but also by conviction. The Doppelgänger, the double, that Levi talks about in “On Obscure Writing,” [Other People’s Trades (London: Abacus, 1991), p. 158] is not simply “the tenant on the floor below” [Trades, “To a Young Reader,” p. 208], someone who is separated from us only by the membrane of a floor. Rather, the Doppelgänger is an element of the human composite, an element that perhaps can be isolated through analysis if done through slow distillation and philosophical patience. Yet, it is an element that remains mixed in, chemically bonded in the daily workings of a human being.
The structure of the ghetto was such that Rumkowski was totally subordinate to the Nazi hierarchy. He was considered a Jew like all the others, whose life was subject to the Nazis’ whims. This led Rumkowski to identify withthe oppressed. On the other hand, Rumkowski was der Alter, the Elder, the first among the Jews inside the ghetto, designated to be their lord. He had full powers. In a certain way, the definition that best can be applied to him, along with that of King of the Jews, is Lord of the Oppressed. I would apply if it were not for the fact that the oppressed did not appoint him their head but the Germans, with whom he collaborated and whose orders he executed, including orders for mass deportations. This is where his doubleness, ambivalence and historical complexity lie, seemingly lie within the context of the ghetto. Could the lager have produced a similar position of power? Perhaps no. Therefore we can say, closely following the text, that Levi chose Rumkowski because of the very special double position he was able to fill in the ghetto.
On the other hand, this seems to be contradicted by the last of the passages quoted above. Rumkowski was intoxicated by power not because of the ghetto but in spite of it. Hence we should tread carefully. If, so far, we had thought that we were looking at an explanation of the manifestations of power inside a certain social-political order, we have now realized that we are already beyond that. Rumkowski went through his rise and fall independently of the context of the ghetto. He managed to keep on striving towards his own aims in spite of adverse circumstances. At the same time, Rumkowski seemingly had those adaptive traits that were typical of the saved, the ones Levi referred to in If This is a Man. Yet, again, we have to make some distinctions. First of all, Rumkowski was not struggling to survive but to keep his power. He had not developed his defense mechanisms simply to save his own skin. He did this to guarantee his position of command. Unlike the Prominenten in the lagers, he did not accept his privilege in order to survive, but, according to the way Levi put it, he did the opposite. He survived in order to keep his power, switching his aims and his means with each other. Levi explicitly acknowledged that the conditions of the ghetto were “seemingly designed to extinguish all individual will,” which, in fact, occurred in the cases of Adam Czerniakov and all the other “elders” of European ghettos who committed suicide. Rumkowski, instead, bothendured under these conditions and adapted to them. However, isn’t it undeniable that his individual will power kept on being fueled by his peculiar position of power, because Levi insisted on the intoxication of power in spite of its context? Rumkowski’s was a position that, from inside the ghetto, looked like absolute power, but, from the outside, looked like total submission.
Levi probably wanted to show the extreme consequences that could be reached if someone started off from an initial act of adaptive self-preservation in the face of a social-political order that was apparently absurd and moribund, an adaptation that let him preserve his own position of power. Such an adaptation – to have a Jew take control of the ghetto in the service of the Germans – was something amazing and extraordinary. Once this step was taken, the intoxication set in and then it took shape according to the specific features of the context in which it
developed. Yet, this first step was excessive, out of proportion to the average strengths that people have. If this is what Levi wanted to say, we are near Henri, Elias, Schepschel and Alfred in If This is a Man – – as well as near Cesare and Rappaport and several of the other characters in Lilìt. We are near them in their energy, in what spurs them on down the paths they take. However, we are far from both groups of characters in relation to everything that is connected with intoxication, contagion, and the wound that opens up in what happened after a person gives in to his fascination with power. It is in order to explore this second phase that Levi opens the gates of Auschwitz and lets the gray zone out into the world. Outside of the barbed wire, this intoxication with power calls for a greater degree of responsibility, even in the ghetto, where there still was a minimal margin of freedom.
To recapitulate, Rumkowski’s particular characteristic consists in the perennial double nature that his behavior is made up of and that comes out in spite of his context and not because of it. (This double nature is not dialectical.) This is another element that makes us keep our distance from any sociological reading and brings us back to literary grounds. On the other hand, if the life and the actions of Rumkowski make it hard for any hypothetical judge to take a position, this is exactly the same effect that these had on someone who only tries to narrate his story. Hencetelling stories and judging seem to be indistinguishable. This goes against Carlo Ginzburg’s analysis, which, in fact, Cavaglion characterized as an instance of “wishful thinking that sounds like that of a court-appointed lawyer.”31Cavaglion, “Attualità (e inattualità) della zona grigia,” p. 141 note.
Still, there is something that keeps both of the impulses – storytelling and judging – on their feet, that puts them in order, and separates them. This something lies in the fact that storytelling enables us to give a beginning and an ending to “an infinite undefined tangle” [Drowned and Saved, p. 36] without fencing reality inside of a network of simplified concepts. Telling an individual story is the activity that Levi exalted in the most, that which he had the most faith in. It is not by chance that his first idea for a novel, which he had explained to his companions during his imprisonment, was the story of the adventures of an atom of carbon, an idea that took its final shape as a short story in The Periodic Table. Here a scientific object was made a literary subject. This was how Levi operated from start to finish. Storytelling is a specific cognitive and even analytical approach to reality. In telling stories he took onhis nature as a “centaur.” The heuristic value of the concept of the “gray zone” can only come to fulfillment throughan individual story that prepares us for a moral judgment. This is perhaps the most unnerving and, at the same time, unavoidable conclusion we can come to. Conversely, the point that gives us access to a moral analysis for the gray zone is always gotten to through the telling of an individual story.
There is a passage where Levi seems to judge his character Rumkowski: “Had he survived his own tragedy, and the tragedy of the ghetto he had contaminated, superimposing on it his histrionic image, no tribunal would have absolved him, nor certainly, can we absolve him on the moral plane” [Drowned and Saved, p. 68]. Thus it seems that a guilty sentence has been pronounced. However, Levi is not satisfied, in that this statement is balanced by another: “But there are extenuating circumstances: an infernal order such as National Socialism exercises a frightful power of corruption, against which it is difficult to guard oneself. It degrades its victims and makes them similar to itself, because it needs both great and small complicities” [Drowned and Saved, p. 68]. Here we are not dealing with just any set of mitigating circumstances, but with Levi’s going back to dwell on one of his most meaningful and delicate theoretical passages in the whole chapter – that of the contagion between the torturer and the victim, which he had articulated a few pages before by giving his readers a well-known quotation from Manzoni: “Alessandro Manzoni, the nineteenth century novelist and poet knew this quite well: ‘Provocateurs, oppressors, all those who in some way injure others, are guilty, not only of the evil they commit, but also of the perversion into which they lead the spirit of the offended’” [Drowned and Saved, p. 44; see Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (New York: Penguin, 1972) p. 55].
Seemingly, there is an issue that serves as a theoretical point of arrival for The Drowned and the Saved. This is the issue of the deprivation and the contagion that the victims are exposed to in the lager. This issue -- as dense with meanings as it is problematic – consists in a delving into the nature of power, and Rumkowski stands out as anexemplum of it. This is another reason that it is surprising – already back in 1961 -- to read a passage from a piece by Levi in Il Ponte, a journal edited by Piero Calamandrei, where he brought in this very aspect of his reflections on the lager: “The functionaries of the Auschwitz camp, even the ones at the highest levels, were prisoners. Many of them were Jews. However, you should not believe that this eased up the conditions of the camp. On the contrary.... Re-read that terrible page in Hoess’s diary where he talks of the Sonderkommando, the squad that was working in the gas chambers and the crematory and then you will understated what the contagion of evil is.”32Primo Levi, “Testimonianza per Eichmann [Testimony for Eichmann],” Il Ponte, XVII 4 (Aprile 1961), pp. 646-650: 649. This text has not yet been anthologized, but is recorded in the New Discoveries/Scoperte recenti section of the web site of the Centro Studi Primo Levi Studies Center, Turin (www.primolevi.it). This is twenty-five years before the publication of The Drowned and the Saved and the issue of the contagion of evil was already there, emphatically. Significantly, Levi referred to the other exemplum, the one that he chose to comment on “The Gray Zone” chapter with. It really seems that Levi had already envisioned this articulation of the issue of evil and of the deprivation of the victims.33There is a similar consideration on the contagion of evil in Levi’s 1976 “Preface to Presser’s The Night of the Girondins”: “Evil is contagious. The man who is a non-man dehumanizes others, every crime radiates outwards and surrounding itself with accomplices won over by fear or seduction... to the opposite camp. It is typical of a criminal regime such as Nazism to undermine and confuse our capacity for judgment.” [The Black Hole, p. 36].
However, let us return to the Manzoni of The Drowned and the Saved. There is one thing we should think of first. In a chapter that is so torturous on the level of its line of argumentation, in a chapter where Levi tries to help himself and us understand the origins and the phenomenology of privileges in the lager and of its power relationships, he could have sought quotations of support from the fields of sociology, anthropology, and history. Instead, Levi entrusts us to Manzoni, Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann. His field of knowledge is literature, and especially novelists. This too is probably one of the clues that we should follow in order to get ourselves off the trail of The Drowned and the Saved as a “historical non-fiction.” Levi’s quotation from The Betrothed is not something he simply put in for emphasis, but is, as has been said, part of the argumentation itself. Namely, it is a general moral consideration that Levi draws from the scene in the second chapter where Renzo is blinded by a hate for Don Rodrigo and imagines in his mind the ways he could kill him. This happens right after he had talked to Don Abbondio and discovered why Don Abbondio refused to celebrate his wedding. “Meanwhile, Renzo walked with angry speed towards his house, uncertain what he should do, but itching to do something strange and terrible.” [The Betrothed, p. 55].
It is the behavior of the persecutor, Don Rodrigo, that provokes Renzo, an otherwise peaceful man, to have a violent reaction and pushes him to think his thoughts along the lines of his oppressor’s. The narrator follows Renzo in thisprocess down his paths and accompanies him as he stalks off heavily and deliberately. The narrator gives us a glimpse of his mind through the agitation of his body, unraveling his thoughts without any fear of exposing the darkest sides of his reactions – in fact, with a desire to do so, to get to know the darkest consequences of what was happening. The narrator does this because finding this out is indispensible for the story, for what is to follow, and for its strength. Certainly, there is nothing in common between Renzo and Rumkowski as characters. Renzo is mild and honest, a victim of an abuse that he has just found out and that he cannot get over, who is portrayed at the moment when he is at the height of his anger.34The quotation from Manzoni continues thus: “Renzo was by nature a peaceful young man with a horror of bloodshed, a straightforward young man, with a hatred of the underhand. But, at that moment, his heart and mind were full of fantastic plans for a treacherous murder.” In reference to the relationship between Levi and Manzoni in relation to the topic of contagion, Gian Paolo Biasin comments in his essay, “Contagio”: “Levi’s words broaden the perspectives of meditation on morality from that of a single person to an entire generation (the single person was the novel’s character Renzo Tramaglino, who was subjected to the violence of Don Abbondio, the cowardly priest who refused to officiate at their wedding because he was afraid of Don Rodrigo; and the nature of the ‘perversion’ (the “corruption that brings into the hearts of the victims” p. 55) caused by the offence is more subtle and dangerous than an outbreak of violence and are mostly purely mental; it simmers in thousands of different ways, from abjection to infamy, form hate to desperation, and from vendetta to resignation” [Riga, 13, 1997, monograph issue dedicated to Primo Levi, ed. Marco Belpoliti, p. 262]. Nevertheless, I think that the broadening that Biasin wrote about is already present in Manzoni, who expresses himself with a proposition in universal terms. It is clear that Manzoni is referring the specific case of Renzo. Perhaps is it not that Levi, after having traced – if you can trace – the linearound the space of the “gray zone” – focused on several specific characters, that he keeps on referring to individual stories in order to explain, describe and narrate universals? Furthermore, Biasin maintains that the violence that runs through Renzo is “purely mental.” Analyzing it more deeply, the excerpt from Manzoni turns out to be more complex. Renzo imagines a type ofviolence that is concrete and physical and imagines various scenarios for murdering Don Rodrigo. First, he wanted to strangle him, but was dissuaded by the thought of the security measures adopted at the palace. Then he falls back on an ambush very similar to a hunting scene. Renzo’s piece of imagination seems both lucid and animalistic, rational and strategic as if it were the behavior of a hunter. It is his thought of Lucia that dissuades him from murder once and for all. This, in any case, is the difference from the contagion that Levi describes, which is one that never can be stopped because it is not aware of any alternatives, concrete or moral. Rumkowski is a man who was offered a terrible privilege, who accepted it, and who persisted in it without batting an eye.
On the other hand, while Manzoni was manipulating the plot of a novel that, although “historical,” is a piece offiction, Levi was working on a matter that really happened and hence a more delicate one. Because Levi was dealing with a “half-conscience” [See Drowned and Saved, p. 68] or “half a mind” that really existed, he needed more and more to understand and, at the same time, he found it more and more shaky, hard, and risky to make a judgment. A person charged with an offense cannot be spared from judgment because he or she, as victim, was contaminated or perverted by a persecutor or corrupted by an evil ruling order. Yet, these can be considered mitigating circumstances. In the midst of his chapter, “The Gray Zone,” Levi is not so sure that he wants to step up into the role of judge: “The condition of the offended does not exclude culpability, which is often objectively serious, but I know of no human tribunal to which one could delegate the judgment” [Drowned and Saved, p. 44]. The paradox lies inthe contrast between the words “objectively serious” and “human tribunal.” This is the point where the guilt is separated from the guilty person. Judgment prevails against the guilt. Against the guilty person, what prevails is a desire to understand, while judgment seems to be suspended and uncertain.
What is most surprising and revealing about Levi’s attitude is his quotation from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1603-4), specifically from a scene in Act II. Isabella, a young nun, begs Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, topardon her brother, whom he had just sentenced to death for having gotten his fiancé pregnant before marrying her. Levi quotes her words:
But man, proud man
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven /as make the angels weep.
[Drowned and Saved, p, 69; Measure for Measure, Act 2: 2, ll. 117-22].
Isabella has asked Angelo for an audience in order to persuade him to pardon her brother Claudio. The two conduct a dialogue on authority and power and on the vices and the needs that are bound in with power. The story has a development that is typical of court proceedings in the 1500s – the so-called monstrous ransom, where the judge asks the wife of a condemned man to give herself to him in exchange for saving her husband. Angelo asks Isabella for something similar. In this case, Isabella is not a wife but a sister in both senses of the word – a sibling and a nun. These two are the key characters in the events in the play. They are both run through with paradoxes and ambiguities. Angelo is “A man of stricture and firm abstinence” [Act 1:4, l. 12], as the Duke describes him. According to Lucio, Claudio’s friend, Angelo is “a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense” [Act 1:5, ll. 57-59]. Once he has taken office as the duke’s deputy, he is subject toa fascination with power. This comes out in his unwarranted sentencing of Claudio and in his frenetic urge topossess Claudio’s sister, one that turns into a demand for a monstrous ransom. On her part, Isabella, who has made purity her rule of life, has to deal with the contradictions between justice and mercy as well as between her love for her sacred rules and her love her brother. (Even though she is one step away from taking her vows, she has not yet taken them and hence is free to speak with men.) Isabella soon becomes aware of power, in its ambiguity and appeal, both in its carnality and in the words it speaks. Curiously, the first words she speaks (to a fellow nun) on entering are: “And have you nuns no farther privileges?” [Act 1:5, l. 1]. It is not known what the privileges are thatshe was talking about with her fellow nuns off-stage. In any case, her entrance is an oxymoronic one. Instead of considering what is being given up in the life of the nuns, she considers its privileges – that is, the powers of obedience. The words that best reveal the tension that Isabella always is under are those that she first addresses to Angelo:
I have a brother is condemn’d to die;
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.”
[Act 2:2, ll. 34-36]
The guilty act has been separated from the guilty person because it is Isabella herself who has judged her brother’s
action guilty. Angelo, in response, finds Isabella’s line of reasoning absurd:
Mine were the very cipher of a function
To fine the faults, whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor.”
[Act 2:2, ll. 39-41].
Understandably, Angelo incarnates the point of view of the law. However, the clash is not Antigone’s classical dilemma between the logos of the state and the bonds of a family. Rather, the tension is that between universal and individual law, between transcendental justice and the circumstances of the individual.
This is exactly what the “gray zone” is about. One of extremes of this concept is that the action and actor areseparated the most. Rumkowski is a deputy like Angelo. He too succumbs to the disturbing allure of power. He is ambiguous in his two faces as judge of others and victim of himself. He feels that he is an executor of universal justice in virtue of a nomination whose motivation has escaped him. On the other hand, Levi, who narrates his story, recognizes the legal guilt of the person who was sentenced, but he cannot pronounce a verdict on him because hekeeps on wanting to put himself in his place. Isabella, in fact, seems to embody Levi’s alter ego. This is not onlybecause, as her brother says,
she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.
[I, iii, vv. 179-81].
This is also because she is split, like Levi (at least throughout the whole chapter on the gray zone), between universal understanding and individual judgment, between the law and the man, between the purity of principle and rule, on the one hand, and the impurity that principle and rule have to deal with on an everyday basis, on the other. Levi, however, addresses impurity with an obviously lighter touch than Isabella.
As we put together the context of the words of Isabella that Levi presents us with, we can see something more. In effect, the whole speech of the young novice is based four key passages. It is in these passages that there is all of the paradox, all of the going back and forth, and all of the moral ambiguity that Levi had immersed us in as hedescribed the story of Rumkowski and of what is gray. First, there is the fact that the sentence can be annulled: “I, that do speak a word, May call it back again.” Second, there is the judge’s gown, which evokes clemency, albeit oxymoronically and in the manner of Levi,
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
[II, ii, vv. 60-62].
Third, there is the exchange of roles, the “taking the place of” that involves the repeating of the same crime. This istherefore the idea – this really a universal idea -- that people are judged about the moral grounds that they occupy.
If he had been as you and you as he,
You would have slipt like him;
But he, like you, would not have been so stern....
Would to heaven I had your potency,
And you were Isabel! should it then be thus?
No; I would tell what 'twere to be a judge,
And what a prisoner.
[II, ii, vv. 63-65; 67-70].
Fourth, there is the abuse of a person’s privilege – natural or political privilege – in the tyrannical exercise of his power:
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength;
But it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
[II, ii, vv. 112-14]).
Levi’s quotation from Shakespeare can be a key to the story of Rumkowski. The quotation certainly shows that Levi believes that people are fragile and that he also believes, surprisingly, that that they are ridiculous and tragic at the same time. The angels are crying, certainly, but why? To paraphrase Shakespeare, they are crying because of thefantastic tricks played by an “angry ape of glassy essence. Levi does not give us the end of Isabella’s passage. Otherwise, we would find out that the very angels “with our spleens, / Would all themselves laugh mortal” [i.e.would die laughing]. In addition, the protagonists of this tragicomic staging are men who are constantly placed before their own ridiculous and trifling actions. Yet, these men do not hesitate to challenge fortune. They do not give in, like Isabella with the Duke, like Lilith with God, and like Levi with matter, with his material that is farther and farther away and more and more fleeting. We should not be tricked by the verdict of guilt that Levi seemingly passes. He had never passed judgment. His field remained that of literature. This involves understanding, switching back and forth from the point of view of the judge to that of the person judged, and having the eye of an individual but a contemplation of humanity. To say this in terms borrowed from [eighteenth-century writer] Giambattista Vico, his Rumkowski had immediately stopped being a “physical truth” [vero fisico] and had become an “ideal portrait” [ritratto ideale]. He had become, in Levi’s own words, “a symbolic and compendiary figure” [Drowned and Saved, p. 68]. Furthermore, Levi adds, more explicitly:
In the Shakespearian flavor of this grotesque and tragic story, I had glimpsed a metaphor for our civilization: above all, the imbalance in which we live, and to which we have become accustomed, between the enormous quantity of time and energy we spend in order to attain power and prestige and the essential futility of such aims.
“Itinerary of a Jewish Writer,” Black Hole, p. 165
At the same time, ambiguity and the gray as well as tragedy and farce are carried in triumph by Levi, Levi the chemist, the scientist grounded in matter, someone skeptical about every kind of philosophy. As a partisan for action over theory, he kept on going along the ways of the craft that he had dedicated thirty years to. He kept on distilling, separating, and weighing with stoic patience. The gray zone is a tool in this analysis that is especially delicate and fragile. It is a tool that makes the readers responsible for using it.
At the end of the long process of this article, we are left with two contrasting impressions. On the one hand, the story of Rumkowski resounds with the failure of any attempt at drawing distinctions and making things clear. This is not the first time in Levi’s writings that we are staring in the face of failed experiments, unlikely results, and the births of unsusceptible and mysterious hybrids. The Periodic Table is both a parade of problem solving and a victory lap that imperfect matter takes after defeating the crystalline theory of books, lessons, and words. However, in thiscase, we cannot say that the story of the Elder of Łódź quietly takes its place in the catalogue of chemical reactionsgone bad. This story, instead, has become the definitive metaphor for these reactions on two levels. On one level, it is the metaphor of the crushing victory of the singularity of human error over theory. On a deeper level, it is a metaphor of a darkness that holds clarity in check, that clarity that Levi had invoked so much, even as an ethical stance.37On this, see the essay “On Obscure Writing” (1976) in Other People’s Trades (London: Abacus, 1991), pp. 157-63.
Nevertheless, this negative impression has a counterweight -- the steady, manifest struggle of the writer with the object of his analysis. Such an object is something viscous, toxic, poisonous, and opaque, but it is pregnant with meanings that, despite everything, he keeps on observing and wanting to tell the story of. All in all, Levi’s result –the final suspension of judgment -- does not invalidate the experimental process. Certainly, it encourages us toreread all of Primo Levi’s works in the light of ambiguity, obscurity, darkness, and chaos. At the same time, it justifies narration and the words of literature, whose mastery does not lie in the perfection of the periodic table but rather in knowing how to untangle the tangled threads of what people do and what happens to them, separating out the elements even when the mixture may prove to be resistant to any kind of analysis.
Short biography of Martina Mengoni
was born in Pontedera (Pisa) in 1985. She studied at the University of Pisa and the University College of Dublin. In 2009 she earned her degree in Philosophy from the University of Pisa, with a M.A. thesis on Primo Levi. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the Fondazione San Carlo in Modena.
Garboli translates this as ignorante di ciò che in lui riflette l'immagine di Dio [ignorant of what in him reflects the image of God].I used Levi’s translation in the Italian original version of my article.