Roughly 1.5 million men, women, and children died at Auschwitz; somewhere between seven and ten thousand were alive in the camp when the Red Army liberated it on January 27, 1945. One of those who survived, thanks to his training as a chemist and his utility to his captors, was an Italian Jew named Primo Levi. After making his way home to Turin, Levi began to write about his experiences. Over time, he became one of Italy's most celebrated poets and novelists.
The following poem--"If This Is a Man"--is perhaps Levi's most profound and anguished literary response to his experience of the Holocaust. It challenges the reader--or the hearer--to acknowledge the comfort of her circumstances and then to consider whether another in radically different circumstances can even be considered a man or a woman. It poses a problem--in a form that is at one and the same time both historical ("reflect on the fact that this has happened") and yet almost unimaginable--that forces us to think about the nature of our common humanity. It forces us to acknowledge the necessity of empathy while also confronting the limits of our capacity to empathize. It is, in short, a poem that challenges us to think seriously about our commitment to humanity. And then, in the end, with language based on the shema (see Deuteronomy 6), it challenges us to remember.
Here, then, is my translation from the Italian of Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man":
You who live safe
In your warm houses;
You who find on returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a bit of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
Without enough strength to remember
Vacant eyes and cold womb
Like a frog in the winter:
Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
When staying at home and going out,
Going to bed and rising up;
Repeat them to your children:
Or may your house fall down,
Illness bar your way,
Your loved ones turn away from you.
Tomorrow evening at 7:30 in CCB 140, I will give a brief talk about Primo Levi, this poem, and the challenges it poses to our ideas about humanity. All are welcome.