Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi

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.


cleverwebname June 12, 2009 at 4:30 AM  

Agreed. Amazing book, and after my contemporary, annoying, over-educated/under-employed circumstances I will always be happy as long as my feet are warm. I wonder if people just enjoy the inanity that is much of pop culture because they recognize that these scripted characters are idiots and therefore feel smarter than such celebrities.

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quillcards June 13, 2009 at 8:16 PM  

If you liked that, you may like 'Fateless' by Imre Kertész, whose credentials are that he tells his story through the eyes he had as a 15 year old boy deported from Hungary.

He won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel.

There are some things he says in the novel that a person can carry with them.

Tyler June 15, 2009 at 2:59 AM  

I remember reading this book when I was a student in France in 2004. It was the first book I was really able to comprehend in French (a translated version.) It really disturbed me, and I was haunted especially to learn that Levy later committed suicide. But I learned so much from it. Thanks for posting this and refreshing my memory on a phenomenal book like this.

The Scrap Miser June 20, 2009 at 1:50 AM  

I have nominated you for the lovely blog award. I agree with your comments completely and I love your "voice" (writing style)

you can pick your award up at

Tomcat June 24, 2009 at 5:43 PM  

I agree. I have been fascinated with first-hand accounts of the holocaust from a young age and this book certainly brings out human suffering at its most desperate but also at its most triumphant. Maintaining one’s humanity in a world where one is de-humanised is truly a lesson we can all learn from and is as relevant today as it was then.
For a very different account I would recommend Ka-Tzetnik - particularly the book Salamandra. I think it provides an interesting angle on the surreal circumstances of the camps. He coined the expression regarding Auschwitz as the “other planet”

Tabi Inc. June 25, 2009 at 12:18 PM  


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Ferdinando August 10, 2009 at 12:57 PM  

I read this at high school, the original version cause I'm Italian. Levi really shocked us. Thank you for making me know his voice went spread abroad too.

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