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Richard Eder

To Survive Was to Lose the Right to Speak THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED by Primo Levi; translated by Raymond Rosenthal (Summit Books: $17.95; 190 pp.)

December 27, 1987| Richard Eder

The flight of an arrow is a fall, too. The leap in our own heart comes a moment after the ascent dies. The height of the shaft is apparent only when it begins to curve down.

The accomplishment of Primo Levi, in four books dealing entirely or partly with his experience in the German death camps, was to discover and demonstrate the creative resiliency that the human spirit was capable of in such hellish circumstances.

"Survival in Auschwitz," "The Awakening," "The Periodic Table" and "Moments of Reprieve" did this not by rhetoric nor by the deductive application of some overarching philosophical or religious principle. Levi's process was inductive, befitting the profession of chemist that he followed before he became one of the most remarkable writers of our time.

The power of the work came from startling fragments of information and anecdote, filtered through Levi's own peculiarly delicate and steely spirit. It was a lens of extraordinary fineness that, in apparently total darkness, fixed a galaxy of unsuspected lights.

A fine lens and, seemingly, a fragile one. When Levi committed suicide last spring, there was probably not one of his admirers who did not have a pang of wondering: What is left of this unique affirmation of life? It was an inevitable question, even if not truly relevant. Levi's art suggested that the human spirit could prevail over death and despair; not that the individual human could avoid them.

In any event, "The Drowned and the Saved," published not long before Levi's death and appearing now in an excellent translation by Raymond Rosenthal, provides a haunting context for an answer. It is not a suicide note, but there are moments that seem like a forewarning.

It is a series of meditations by Levi, once again upon what went on in the camps. I say "once again" but there is a difference. The teeming, radiant recollection of detail that was present in his earlier works has undergone a sea-change. Literally, a sea-change; a cold mist has crept in. After having told us what happened, Levi is now asking: What really happened?

He relied upon memory, and now he questions the very act of remembering. Were there any real witnesses? he asks. Because those who experienced the death and degradation of the camps in their purest form are, in large part, those who perished. Above these, there were categories of the relatively privileged. They were, he writes, a small minority of the inmates "but a potent majority among those who survived."

There were the political prisoners whose ideology and experience in resistance gave them a moral toughness that sometimes translated into physical toughness. There were those who possessed skills useful to their captors: Medical personnel, bricklayers, or, in his case, the scientific training that won him a post in the chemical works adjacent to Auschwitz.

And there were those who took part in running the camps, and whose degree of complicity varied widely; from that of the work-squad leaders, or kapos, who were known to beat squad members to death, to clerks who sometimes used their positions to help other inmates or to work with the Resistance, to simple messengers and bed-straighteners. (The Germans had a fetish for squared-off sheet corners, and some of the prisoners were detailed to see that the beds were satisfactorily taut.)

Levi's preoccupation with the privileged--"The Saved" of the title--has two aspects, though they are related. One is the question of memory.

The ability to witness, he writes, depended upon a certain detachment, a certain vitality; above all, a certain quality of internal resistance. And this, almost inevitably, was the gift of those who were in some way favored. Several of the most detailed histories of the camps were written by those who worked in the camp offices. In his own case, there was his job, which earned him a frail protection from the worst of the horrors.

Such vantage points were necessary for the act of recording, he concludes; but by the same token, none could provide an ultimate account of hell. Those who knew could not tell, in other words; and those who could tell could not fully know.

This is no marginal disclaimer. Levi is saying--and here is the sea mist coming in--that his mission to testify was flawed from the start. And he goes further. His meditation upon privilege suggests that not only his writing, but his very survival is in some sense suspect to him.

He tries to come to terms with what he calls the "gray zone." Surely, he writes, the messengers and bed-straighteners cannot be faulted. Certainly the three kapos who drowned a prisoner in a vat of soup because he resisted being beaten up are guilty.

The special squads who shepherded their fellow prisoners into the gas chambers and sorted through their ashes afterwards for gold teeth worked under threat of death; and the Germans executed them periodically, unit by unit, in order to eliminate witnesses.

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