Monday, November 13, 2017

Auschwitz Testimonies: 1945-1986 - Primo Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti

Summary: In 1945, the day after liberation, Soviet soldiers in control of the Katowice camp in Poland asked Primo Levi and his fellow captive Leonardo De Benedetti to compile a detailed report on the sanitary conditions in Auschwitz. The result was Auschwitz Report, an extraordinary testimony and one of the first accounts of the extermination camps ever written. The report, published in a scientific journal in 1946, marked the beginnings of Levi's life-long work as writer, analyst and witness. 

In the subsequent four decades, Levi never ceased to recount his experiences in Auschwitz in a wide variety of texts, many of which are assembled together here for the first time. From early research into the fate of his companions to the deposition written for Eichmann's trial, from the ?letter to the daughter of a fascist who wants to know the truth? to newspaper and magazine articles, Auschwitz Testimonies is a rich mosaic of memories and critical reflections of great historic and human value.

Underpinned by his characteristically clear language, rigorous method, and deep psychological insight, this collection of testimonies, reports and analyses reaffirms Primo Levi's position as one of the most important chroniclers of the Holocaust. It will find a wide readership, both among the many readers of Levi's work and among all those who wish to understand one of the greatest human tragedies of all time. Summary from, image from I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.


*Disclosure: I’m writing this review within days of the sickening events at Charlottesville.*

There is no one who can deny that the Holocaust is one of the—if not the definitive—darkest moments in human history. The scale of devastation has been well-documented, studied in countless schools worldwide, and is something that anyone can prove with a ten-second google search. However, this wasn’t always the case. Shortly after the liberation of the camps, and shortly after the survivors started to trickle home, those who hadn’t been exposed to the truth (or those who chose not to believe what was happening miles from their doors) denied their experiences as a vilification of their captors. Men like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Victor Frankl were instrumental in speaking for those whose voices were silenced, in bringing to light the atrocities they had suffered under the hands of the Nazis, and in giving us a realistic glimpse into what humanity is capable of with a little nudge—both good and evil.

This book is a new compilation of articles, testimonies, and entries by Primo Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti which testify of their experiences being removed from Italy, their internment in the Monowitz camp, and their experiences upon liberation. This was my first exposure to Levi, and I was astounded at how poetic and how heartbreaking his writing is. I entered this book certain that nothing would be new to me, and found myself reaching for a highlighter within the first few pages.

Levi discusses how each generation of artists leaves a mark, finds a new voice to better their art. He talks about the great playwrights of the past, the artists who experiment and improve everyone that comes in their wake through their creations and innovations. His assertion is that the contribution his generation must make is the art of testimony. The passage where he makes the case for testimony as art is hauntingly beautiful — it seriously took my breath away. 

This assertion is the impetus for this collection. Levi’s testimony of his experiences and the testimony of de Benedetti functions in numerous manners. Of the articles included, some of them are true sworn-in testimonies given at various trials throughout their history. Some are testimony as an art form, and the difference between the two is hardly noticeable. Levi was a chemist by trade, I would argue that writing was his calling. His voice is so clear through every medium contained in the book, it was truly beautiful.

Unlike most books published about the Holocaust, there is no overarching narrative in this book. As such, it reads like facts that are laid bare for the world to witness. Considering the events of our current time, this is a style we need more of. By dismissing this book as “yet another”, we run the risk (edit: we are encountering the risk) of a generation who doesn't know (or refuses to see) what happened. By not knowing, by not recognizing the steps that were taken to get to such a heinous period, we begin down the same path. Instead of reading a book that is becoming ancient history, the events of the past few weeks have proven that this is more relevant now than ever before.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: While this is a direct testimony of what happened in the camps, it is well-handled. It is blunt without being sensational.

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