Making Sense of the Auschwitz Report Part 11

Part II: What is the context of Primo Levi's testimony?

Posted Jul 23, 2019

Read "Making Sense of Primo Levi's Auschwitz Report," Part I" of this series here

In addition, one of Levi’s biographers, Carol Angier, also criticized Gordon.  Angier describes how Gordon claims there are three reasons why the Auschwitz Report is essential reading: “for the glimpse it offers of the roots of Levi's style; for its status as a very early document on the Holocaust; and for its 'moving enactment' of the friendship between its authors.”

Of these, she claims only “the second seems to me unqualifiedly true.”  She correctly argues that Levi's and Benedetti's “friendship is hardly touched on in the Report, for the good reason that it was not its subject (and that their paths through the camp were quite separate).”  She also surprisingly criticizes the first of Gordon's points, which is the most important: that as Levi's first piece of published writing, the Auschwitz Report is 'the founding moment, the ur-document, of that exceptional voice of reason. 

She argues: “Yes, the Report is the first piece of Levi's postwar writing (or co-writing) we have, and the objective, scientific tone it required must indeed have influenced his choice of style. But also no.  For one thing, he was already 'trying to get back to my writing' in Fossoli (as he wrote to a friend); that writing, alas, we do not have, so we do not know how far his exceptional voice had already come.”  Angier continues that “despite Gordon's best efforts; it is not easy to tell which bits of the Report are [written] by Levi and which not.”  Her feeling is that Benedetti had the greater part, both in the original writing and the later reworking. 

She argues: “He was the doctor whom the Russians commissioned; he was the senior partner; and his letters from Katowice show that he, too, had an observant eye. Certainly, the section on the infirmary is far more by Leonardo than by Levi, and many of the most striking episodes here — the 'life test', the punishments, the blood donations — do not appear in If This Is a Man, for which Levi on principle restricted himself to his own experiences.”

She also points out that during the reworking of the Report in Turin, Levi was writing If This Is a Man, and it was Leonardo, the doctor, who probably placed the Report in Minerva Medica.  Claiming “It is hard to imagine that Levi would have spared much time from his book; and the Report's errors — especially one about Levi himself — show that he did not even proofread it, presumably at either stage. He was famously 'pignolo' (fussy), and would never have let his own work go uncorrected. No: he contributed information and collaborated on the writing, but we will never know how much.”  Angier then concludes that we should avoid exaggerating the significance of the Report.

Angier does address what I found most surprising about the Report: At the end of the first section of the book that describes the living conditions in the Monowitz concentration camp, the false statement is made “that neither of the present writers was able to work in the hospital or in the chemical laboratory but were forced to share the lot of their companions and undergo labours beyond their strength…”  However, we know that Levi did work in the chemical commando – while Benedetti was never employed as a doctor, but apparently was a patient in the hospital and was crossed off the list for gassing four different times by doctors that took pity on him. 

As mentioned, Angier suggests this blatant error is evidence that Levi didn’t proofread the Report and the dominant role of Benedetti.  However, she doesn’t address the issue that the error is in the section that many commentators argue was the work of Levi.  It seems so to me, too, and indeed, in the very next paragraph, the transition sentence that seems to begin in Benedetti’s voice states “From the brief account we have given of living conditions in the Monowitz concentration camp, it is easy to deduce the diseases…” And then the cataloging of diseases begins.

For his part, Gordon is flippant in his handling of the error, and in his introduction, he dismisses the error with the statement “of course, even governments were getting facts wrong in 1945” and then describes how initially the Soviets thought 4 million were murdered in Auschwitz.

I find both of these interpretations wanting.  For one it is more than just a mistake or error because there is a forceful agency behind the statement “neither of the present writers was able to work in the hospital or in the chemical laboratory…”

The more apt question is why they felt the need to make such an adamant statement?  It is difficult to accept Angier’s claim that Levi did not proofread the text and was therefore unaware of the statement.  It seems more plausible that Benedetti could have pressured Levi to include the falsification.  But why?  In deference to the Soviets?  (Which doesn’t make sense because they were no longer under Soviet control when they decided to publish it.)  Perhaps to retain “pure” victimhood?  It also seems odd that Levi apparently never discussed the Report publicly – since it certainly impacts the way we think about his testimony.  Why?

It seems more likely than not that Levi consciously lied or at least consented to go along with a lie about his position in the camp.  It may sound trite or simplistic, but in my opinion, it was likely his peculiar guilt, or more specifically, his shame of victimization and his guilt of surviving, that led him to acquiesce to this.  Proof if you will can be found in his last work The Drowned and the Saved, where he depicted his shame in a very powerful chapter that profoundly explores the depth of his humiliation.  As he stated: “Coming out of the darkness, one suffered because of the reacquired consciousness of having been diminished … we had lived for years at an animal level.”  A feeling his first described in his story “Reawakening” in 1947.

So does the error matter? If my intuition/reading is right – that the error is more evidence of the profound shame he was experiencing in 1945-46 (again by both his survival and his profound victimization) – does it change how we read his testimony? Doesn’t a feeling of shame become the dominant context of If this Is a Man

It seems obvious that Levi’s shame is the context, and that his testimony in If this is a Man is an extended reflection on what it was like to be victimized by the Nazis.  Don’t we feel ashamed about humanity when we set it down?  Isn’t this Levi’s profundity?  His testimony is a profound “working through” of his shame of victimization and the subsequent anger.  Also in this interpretation that highlights the error of the report – likely directed by his elder's “upper hand,” also serves to instigate a type of Oedipal backlash that became clarified/corrected by Levi’s intense desire to remember things exactly in his testimony – this suggests to me the “ur” intent of If This Is a Man is to “get it right”!  Shame and all.   

As I mentioned I never published this essay.  But it reconfirmed my conviction that Holocaust testimony is as much about restoration of dignity - as it is about actual Holocaust experience.  Nietzsche once quipped “my memory says I did that, my pride says I couldn’t have, eventually pride yields.”  What I admire most about Levi is (in clear contrast to both Frankl and Bettelheim) his memory didn't yield, but rather he turned it into a form of pride.  As he once said he “aimed his testimony at the Germans like a gun.”