Friday, May 1, 2009
Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who fought against the fascists during the second the World War. He was captured at the age of twenty five and sent to Auschwitz for one year from 1944-1945. Educated as a chemist, he went on to write what is probably the most highly regarded account by an Italian of life in the concentration camps. He went on to become a successful journalist until his suicide in 1987, 42 years after having survived Auschwitz. After having read his simple and honest recount it becomes more understandable how such an experience cannot be forgotten in one lifetime. The memories still haunted him four decades later.
My own childhood education gave a fair amount of attention to World War II and in particular to the stories of Holocaust survivors. However, it had been fifteen years since I had read a personal account of this nature. It is important for all of us to do for the simple reason that it reminds us how fortunate we are.
It is my impression that pop culture with its happy endings, perfectly manufactured characters, and material excess often has the reverse effect than that which is intended. I often hear the justification to be how people need something light, easy, and happy that allows them to relax after a stressful day. Therefore, watching your standard formula Hollywood film or flipping through Maxim are accepted means for overcoming the difficulties of the day-to-day grind. But what often is happens is that society is instead presented with a reality that does not exist and worse yet, leaves them desiring something unattainable. You cannot have rock hard abs in just six weeks.
A book of this nature, instead, pulls at such a vast range of emotions. One cannot read it without feeling a reoccurring sadness and anger. Yet, for me, the positive aspects were greater. I understood the true strength of the human spirit - capable of overcoming the unimaginable. I was able to see how true individualism without the help of others does not exist. It was impossible to survive a lager without the partnership of at least one other person.
On a more superficial level, the winter at its coldest is something I will no longer be able to complain about when I have a warm down coat and a heated house. Winter for those in a concentration camp meant working 12 hour days in wooden shoes, a cotton shirt and a canvas jacket with temperatures at -20 degree.
Stories such as this allow us to better content ourselves with what we have instead of subliminally pointing out our physical imperfections or small bank account. Finding this self-contentment is a truly relaxing experience which is more likely to be found in a difficult book than in season four of Desperate Housewives.