Primo Levi wrote that the Nazis were "made from the same cloth as us." © Martin Argles/Guardian/Camera Press

Primo Levi: A life shaped by darkness

The writer turned his imprisonment in Auschwitz into a powerful testimony
December 10, 2015
The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein (three volumes). Penguin Classics, £120 

It was a war zone, but the house at No 26 Glockenstrasse appeared intact. All around it was devastation: pavements were broken, roads were impassable, and the stench of blood, piss and cement hung in the air. Nazism had been defeated, but the house at No 26 remained: a monument to human cruelty.

This is the scene Primo Levi conjured in “Angelic Butterfly,” one of his science-fiction stories, written in the early 1960s. Although Levi is better known for his books describing his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, the extraordinary variety of his writing is startlingly revealed in Ann Goldstein’s edited Complete Works. This is the first time all of Levi’s writings have been translated into English and set out chronologically. In three beautiful volumes, Levi’s memoirs, novels, poetry, literary criticism, newspaper polemics, reviews, forewords, fantasy tales and science fiction are now available to English-language readers. The effect is both enthralling and overwhelming.

In “Angelic Butterfly” a scientist called Professor Leeb and some soldiers are seen marching four skeletal prisoners into the house at No 26 Glockenstrasse. A 16-year-old neighbour called Gertrud Enk realised that “something strange was going on,” only to be told by her father: “Let it go, don’t concern yourself with what’s going on in there. We Germans, the less we know, the better.” However, she twice caught a glimpse of those inmates. The first time, the prisoners were lying on straw mats—either dead or sleeping. A guard was calmly reading a newspaper. The second time, they had been transformed into vulture-like beasts, squawking in terror while chained to poles. Enk later recalls that, when the war ended, her neighbours butchered the prisoners for food.

As science fiction, “Angelic Butterfly” is powerful stuff. Levi first published it under a pseudonym, worried that his readers might see writing in that genre as a betrayal. His Holocaust memoirs—If This Is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963)—had made him revered as a witnesses to Nazism’s inhumanity. But, as Levi explained, he moved to science fiction because he “couldn’t persist in an autobiographical mode.” Instead he turned to writing that could “lend itself to a form of modern allegory.”

This is exactly what “Angelic Butterfly” does so brilliantly. The story explores similar themes to those in his memoirs: they are meditations on cruelty translated into a different genre. “Angelic Butterfly” is named after a passage in Dante’s Commedia, in which the poet scolds his readers for being “arrogant, exhausted, wretched.” Dante asks: “Do you not know that we are worms and born to form the angelic butterfly that soars without defences, to confront His judgement?” In Levi’s story, Leeb believes that he knows how to create winged humans, who, like Dante’s “angelic butterflies,” can soar to heaven. The monstrous nature of his experiments is revealed in the numerous Nazi references. Leeb is named after General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, who played a major role in the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Levi’s fictional Leeb dedicated his scientific ramblings to Alfred Rosenberg, prominent ideologue of the Nazi Party. The house at No 26 Glockenstrasse is a microcosm of the concentration camps. As Levi noted in If This Is a Man, they were “a gigantic biological and social experiment.” For Levi, there was a “continuity, indeed, a sort of bridge” between the camps and his science fiction. Both focused on “breaches” in the moral order.

One of the most terrifying of these breaches was the refusal to acknowledge other human beings as human at all. In “Angelic Butterfly,” the house is full of horrors, yet the guard serenely reads his newspaper. The prisoners are neither dead nor sleeping. The neighbours know that something atrocious is occurring, but they pretend not to see. As Levi wrote in The Truce (the memoir he was writing at the same time as “Angelic Butterfly”), German civilians were “deaf, blind, and mute, locked in their ruins as if in a fortress of deliberate ignorance.”

In the camps, the difference between “the drowned and the saved” was down to luck. For Levi, raised in a prosperous Piedmontese family and “accustomed to being considered equal to everyone else,” the advent of Italian anti-semitism in 1938 came as a shock. After all, some Italian Jews had even supported Mussolini. Despite persecution, Levi completed his doctorate in chemistry in 1941. He joined the resistance, but was captured and held in a camp at Fossoli di Carpi (near Modena). In February 1944, he was deported with 650 others to Auschwitz. Only 23 of them survived the war.

When Levi arrived in the camp, he met (for the first time) Jews who spoke Yiddish, a foreign tongue for him. He later admitted that the “consciousness of feeling different was forced on me. Someone, for no reason in the world, decided that I was different and inferior.” He confessed: “At Auschwitz, I became a Jew.”

How did he become one of “the saved”? His survival was partly due to the fact that he arrived at the camp when labour shortages in Germany were becoming acute. He possessed valuable chemistry skills, and his rudimentary knowledge of German enabled him to respond swiftly to orders. Ironically, a bout of scarlet fever also helped: Levi was in the infirmary when the German guards forced its prisoners on a death march towards Buchenwald and Mauthausen. Levi was left behind. He had a duty to recall and revive the memory of those who drowned.

For too long his meditations went unheard in English. This is what makes the Complete Works so remarkable. Goldstein not only gives us Levi’s compositions in new and elegant translations, but also allows the translators to comment on their art. As Levi argued in his essay “To Translate and be Translated,” the best translators “transfer from one language to another the expressive power of the text,” a truly “superhuman undertaking.” “People who translate,” Levi remarked, “should be honoured, inasmuch as they strive to limit the damage done by the curse of Babel.”

Levi was preoccupied by this “curse of Babel.” He was profoundly aware of the ways the Lager (or camp) contaminated language. “Lagerjargon,” as he called it, was barbaric. Auschwitz also led Levi to insist that writers think in more complex ways about those easily bandied-about words: perpetrator, witness and victim. In The Drowned and the Saved, he wrote about the “Grey Zone,” which included a range of people, from the Jewish Kapos and Sonderkommando squads (who helped maintain order and disposed of corpses) to prisoners who inflicted cruelties on their comrades to survive. People in the “grey zone” found compromise too easy and unremitting suffering too hard. But their “mistakes,” Levi suggests, were not enough to make them equivalent to the guards and SS, just as some guards had painfully guilty consciences did not mean they could be equated with their victims.

The conflation of moral positions was lazy. Liliana Cavani, director of The Night Porter (1974), once argued that: “We are all victims or murderers and we accept these roles voluntarily.” Levi disagreed. “I do not know, nor am particularly interested in knowing, whether a murderer is lurking deep within me,” he wrote, adding, “but I do know that I was an innocent victim and not a murderer. I know that murderers existed, and not just in Germany, and that they still exist, retired or on active duty, and that confusing them with their victims is a moral disease, an aesthetic license, or a sinister sign of complicity.”

Levi noted that young people often asked him to explain how the “torturers” (the guards and the SS) of Auschwitz could act so inhumanely. In response, Levi rejected the term “torturer” on the grounds that “it implies deformed individuals, born bad, sadistic, flawed at birth.” In reality they were “made from the same cloth as us.” It was “mental laziness, nearsighted calculation, stupidity, or national pride” that made them turn to Hitler. When National Socialism was destroyed, they felt their lives diminished, until they were “rehabilitated a few years later by unprincipled political gamesmanship.”

The marginalisation of the Holocaust depressed Levi. The last article he published before he died on 11th April 1987 was entitled “The Black Hole of Auschwitz.” In it, he warned about the dangers of trivialising the Nazi years. He recalled that “the Americans refused to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz while they repeatedly bombarded the adjacent industrial districts,” concluding that, “If today’s Germany cares about its place among European nations, it cannot and should not whitewash its past.” It was a comment that echoed “Angelic Butterfly.” When asked what happened to Leeb, readers are told that “According to the official version, he’s dead... But I’m sure that’s not true… I believe that if you searched for him, you would find him, and perhaps not too far away. I believe we haven’t heard the last of Professor Leeb.”

It is a bleak vision, but Levi may still be proven right.