[NOTE: Part I can be found here.]
I can’t find the quote right now, but Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi—who wrote Survival In Auschwitz, which I consider the single most definitive and brilliant book on the camps from the point of view of someone who experienced them firsthand—said that for many ex-inmates, comparisons between what happened in the camps and their lives afterwards didn’t help (although it certainly did for the interviewee I quoted in Part I of this series). Levi said that even though the camps were exponentially worse than the rest of the more petty difficulties of life outside the camps, that each state (camps versus ordinary life) had its woes, and that survivors could still get annoyed and upset afterwards at the smaller frustrations and sorrows of ordinary existence.
That’s the human condition for most people; few are able to keep the contrast constantly in mind like the man in the Part I interview, and there’s no shame in that.
Levi was a scientist who wrote about the camps as though he were a scientist studying them: cool, dispassionate, analytical. He died as a possible suicide in a fall in 1987 at the age of 67. Whether he killed himself or died accidentally has been hotly debated and the answer is still unclear.
Levi is an author whose work I greatly admire, and I am hardly alone, as his biographer Carole Angier writes:
We feel we know and love him from his work, because we know and love his gentle, rigorous, witty, open mind. But the rest of him is completely closed. Primo Levi is, in fact, one of the most secretive writers who ever lived. And not only in his work. Though he gave hundreds of interviews, he used them not to lower the walls but to raise them still higher, by presenting a careful construct of himself almost to the end. He presented the same construct to most people throughout his life; even, as long as he could, to himself. That construct – the calm, rational, optimistic man – was his ideal: an ideal he managed to reach in much of his life, because it was both a moral imperative and a psychological necessity to him.
But it was not the reality. “I have no instincts,” he said, with his smile, “or if I do, I repress them.” But the more he repressed them, the more they resisted, and took their revenge. The man who loved and spoke to the whole of humanity found private, emotional life impossibly hard. And the man who chose optimism, because one must not spread despair, found he had locked the despair inside him; and more and more often it rose and drowned him.
Even though it is not known whether Levi killed himself, it is known that he suffered from depression. But his depression predated his Holocaust experience and represented a lifelong struggle. A different man, a different temperament, than the man interviewed in Part I. And yet Levi managed to live and work for about forty highly productive and creative post-Holocaust years until his death. If he did kill himself (and the preponderance of evidence is that he did; he certainly was depressed prior to his death) it was his own temperament, and his own unhappy family history, that probably led him to it:
…Auschwitz did not destroy him. It came very near at the time, and immediately afterwards. But after that it did almost the opposite, requiring him to understand and to communicate, the two things that kept him alive. “I am a talker,” he said. “If you stop up my mouth, I die.” When, in his last depression, he felt he could no longer communicate, he died. That is what killed him, not his memories of Auschwitz. Neither Alex the Kapo of If This Is A Man [the European title of Survival in Auschwitz], nor his heirs, should imagine they have that victory.
Angier also offers a few excerpts from Levi’s great masterpiece about the camps. Here is a passage that reflects with Levi’s usual brilliance and extraordinary clarity on the mindset in the camps that brought some small (very small, in this case) measure of optimism to a situation so full of nearly unfathomable misery:
Strange how, in some way, one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening, it is your turn for the supplement of soup so that even today, you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.