From Treblinka, from Auschwitz. Dialogue between witnesses

There are two accounts of the Nazi extermination made right after it happened –  The Auschwitz Report drawn up by Primo Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti at the beginning of 1945 and the report from Treblinka written by Vasily Grossman at the end of 1944. We cannot but listen to the naked words of the two great writers, their dry realism, and the hardness of the facts in a dialogue that brings together two different ways to telling the stories of two different places in the same gigantic death machine.

It is very hard to read these things. And, believe me, you who are reading, it is not any less hard to write them. “So, why do it, then? Why remember?” somebody might ask, maybe.

It is the writer's duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader's civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one's eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished

Vasily Grossman, The Hell of Treblinka, 1944


This book was not written to accuse and not even to invoke horror or execration. The teaching that flows out of this is one of peace. He who hates breaks a law that is logical before he breaks a moral principle.

Primo Levi, presentation of If This is a Man, 1947

“There are days of war when you see more than in ten years of peace.” This phrase of Vasily Grossman was simple, true, and bitter.  Primo Levi  could have seconded it. Both were Jews – Grossman a Ukrainian and Levi an Italian. Both were chemists by profession – Grossman a mining engineer and Levi a paint technician. They were born with fourteen years’ difference in 1905 and 1919, respectively. They both grew up under an oppressive political regimes – Grossman in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Levi in Fascist Italy under Mussolini.

Grossman and Levi never met and never read each other’s works. Nevertheless, their lives and destinies led them both to see earlier and to see more than any later witness of the Shoah in the last months of World War II. We owe to them two works about the concentration camps that readers worldwide still consider essential.

The Hell of Treblinka

The Hell of Treblinka was written by Vasily Grossman, then a journalist and war correspondent with the Red Army in in the fall of 1944. It was absolutely the first description of a concentration camp, its history,  and its geography. There were the people who killed there and those who collaborated with the massacres or were killed. Grossman described the camp’s rules, its divisions, its organizational charts and its systems to carry out the “final solution” and hide the evidence. He wrote about the daily life and final fall of Treblinka. With precision and with passion, Grossman makes the places and witnesses talk as well as the remains of what had been an industry for the production of death that was running at top speed for thirteen months. To his merit, Grossman transformed the pieces of evidence of the destruction of a people into the stories of individuals, into the collective memory of a human community, and into an understanding of a terrible era in European contemporary history.

The Auschwitz Report

The Report on the Hygienic-Sanitary Organization of the Concentration Camp for Jews in Monowitz (Auschwitz—Upper Silesia) was written at the request of the Red Army in Katowice in the spring of 1945 by the chemist Primo Levi and the surgical doctor Leonardo De Benedetti. This was the first  scientific account that analyzed the structure of a camp for labor and extermination. The report was written by two scientists who at the same time were victims who had escaped the massacre, witnesses to the events, and scientifically rigorous writers with effective styles. Their pages unmasked the scheme of the pseudo-medical system of the concentration camp, which, in reality, consisted in procedures for extermination calibrated to the finest detail. Published in the fall of 1946 in the medical journal, Minerva Medica, The Report predated If This is a Man by a year, the book that readers worldwide have recognized as a work pivotal for the literature and history of the twentieth century.

The truths told in The Hell of Treblinka and in The Report on Auschwitz correspond to each other and reinforce each other. This happened just like the paths that the two authors traced out in the history of the twentieth century. Although their styles of writing were so different from each other, they tapped from a common source: a sincere interest for human beings, for their characters, their faces and their trades as well as their ways of expressing themselves, acting, and being. For this reason,  Life and Fate, the title of Grossman’s principal work, published posthumously in 1980, is an emblem that is able to represent both authors.

Until this date, Vasily Grossman and Primo Levi had never been read or studied together. For readers who were acquainted with these texts, it was natural to put The Hell of Treblinka  next to the Report on Auschwitz. Likewise, it was natural to conceive of a project to read them together,  alternating selections relevant to each other. These include the places where they talk about the same aspects of the concentration camps, the same death machines, the same persecutors, and the same victims. The victims – the men, women and children of Auschwitz and Treblinka – had names and characteristics that changed but each one is made memorable by the voices of the two writers.

The Study Center Vasily Grossman and the International Primo Levi Studies Center, both based in Turin, produced this joint reading of The Hell and The Report in collaboration with the Teatro Stabile of Turin. The director and actor Valter Malosti handled the aspects of the performance. On January 23 2017,  the theatrical reading was performed for the first time in public at the Teatro Carignano in Turin as part of the commemorations for the Day of Remembrance.

The selection of texts were edited by Domenico Scarpa and Marco Sisto.

Da Treblinka, da Auschwitz: dialogo fra testimoni (kit)

Il kit - realizzato a partire dalla lettura scenica di brani tratti dal Rapporto su Auschwitz di Primo Levi e Leonardo De Benedetti e da L'inferno di Treblinka  dello scrittore russo Vasilij Grossman, proposto per la Giornata della Memoria 2017 dal Centro Studi Primo Levi in collaborazione con lo Study Center V. Grossman e con il Teatro Stabile di Torino - è stato pensato per gli insegnanti di lettere e di storia delle scuole secondarie di secondo grado che vogliano affrontare  il tema della Shoah.