If This is a Man by Primo Levi

The mighty and brilliant Philip Roth is quoted on the cover of the edition of this book that I read. He calls it: “One of the [20th] century’s truly necessary books”. I agree with him. This really is a necessary book; necessary that it was written and necessary that it is read.

It is Levi’s account of his time as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Tony Judt, in his magisterial account of the post-war history of Europe, ’Postwar’, concludes after his sweeping and profound analysis of the period that the Nazi genocides are the defining event for Europe in the modern era. Judt knew his onions; so the enduring importance of Levi’s book is only confirmed.

The translation by Stuart Woolf is outstanding. The writer’s humanity and learning shine through and the careful, thoughtful style is superbly transcribed.

I won’t attempt to summarise the ‘action’ of the book. Everyone knows – or everyone should know – something of the bestiality and cruelty of the Nazi concentration camps. What makes this book stand out is the civilised nature of the writer’s perceptions and descriptions. He makes the point a number of times that the death camps seemed designed to remove all that makes a man, leaving only a husk. But he does not allow that to happen to him and he admires others who do likewise.

There is a chapter called ‘The Canto of Ulysses’, where the writer describes how he tried to teach Italian to a fellow prisoner, in the most horrible conditions imaginable, by drawing on this Canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It captures, in a strangely beautiful way, the essence of culture and its value for all of us.

The author offers no particular analysis of what made the Germans and their collaborators do all this. Their insanely prosaic and practical approach was based on the principle that their captives had no value whatsoever as human beings but only as units of labour. That is why all the children and older people were immediately killed on arrival at the camps, while anyone with sufficient ability to contribute some labour, as determined by the capricious and evil judgements of those in charge, was worked to death. How all this could have happened remains one of the greatest unanswered questions – perhaps it is unanswerable –  of human history.

This is a magnificently humane book. Everyone should read it.


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