Humanist Heroes: Primo Levi

My humanist hero is Primo Levi, one of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust.

Born in 1919 in Turin into a middle-class Jewish family, Levi trained and worked as a chemist before being arrested as a member of the anti-fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. After the war he went on to become an acclaimed author and poet, always returning to his experiences at Auschwitz until his death in 1987.

I first discovered him in my early 20s through his poem The Song of those who Died in Vain which was printed inside the cover of Manic Street Preachers’ Gold Against the Soul.

Sit down and bargain

All you like, grizzled old foxes.

We’ll wall you up in a splendid palace

With food, wine, good beds and a good fire

Provided that you discuss, negotiate

For our and your children’s lives.

May all the wisdom of the universe

Converge to bless your minds

And guide you in the maze.

But outside in the cold we will be waiting for you,

The army of those who died in vain,

We of the Marne, of Montecassino,

Treblinka, Dresden and Hiroshima.

And with us will be

The leprous and the people with trachoma,

The Disappeared Ones of Buenos Aires,

Dead Cambodians and dying Ethiopians,

The Prague negotiators,

The bled-dry of Calcutta

The innocents slaughtered in Bologna.

Heaven help you if you come out disagreeing:

You’ll be clutched tight in our embrace.

We are invincible because we are the conquered,

Invulnerable because already dead;

We laugh at your missiles.

Sit down and bargain

Until your tongues are dry.

If the havoc and the shame continue

We’ll drown you in our putrefaction.

Such a reference was typical for this serious and literate band but it led me to explore the man and his work and despite his broad popularity his importance to me still feels personal to this day.

A ‘front-line’ atheist

Levi was an atheist throughout his life. He recounted that even when he studied for his Bar Mitzvah he failed to make contact with a god. His teacher presented him with an unappealing tyrannical god and he felt that to expect worship and belief in an unknowable being seemed “like an act of violence.”

But in Auschwitz, Levi was suddenly forced to become a ‘front-line’ atheist. Not in some conflict with religion but with life itself. For him, the argument against god from evil was not just a philosophical argument, it was a daily lived experience in the lagers.

So for me, Levi is what you might call an existential hero. His achievements as a partisan, a chemist, an author and a poet are notable but that is not why I am writing this.

I look to him — through his extreme of circumstances — to reveal or perhaps confirm something about my mundane ones. How did he go on to find meaning when his experience did nothing but confirm for him his lack of belief in a god? How do I? How do we?

Levi claimed to have considered praying once when in Auschwitz but rejected the idea of only doing so in such a difficult moment. In doing so he challenges the commonly-held belief that in difficult times all people turn to religion (sometimes described as ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’).

Levi’s qualification to be my existentialist humanist hero is, appropriately, an accident.

He was not unique. There were of course many atheists targeted by the Nazis, for whom atheism, Jewry and communism formed an unholy trinity, fit only for ‘purification’.

And it would be wrong to paint Levi’s resilient atheism as heroic. As he himself said “the worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died”.

There was no heroism or skill in his survival then but, through his subsequent memoirs, fiction and poetry he proved himself to be one of the most powerful, lucid chroniclers of the Holocaust.

Even the Periodic Table — named by the Royal Institution the best science book ever — saw him reflecting on his experiences by analogy to chemistry.

Perhaps it seems that I am moved by his dogged humanity. But I don’t think that his is a story of the ‘triumph of the human spirit’. Let alone of humanism. Like many Survivors, Levi never stopped struggling with what it mean to survive and continued to experience the depression (a point of connection I wonder) that he first developed before the war.

His outlook, unsurprisingly, is characterised by a bleakness that could be seen of typical of a godless worldview: “…And all of us, human seed, we live and die for nothing, The skies perpetually revolve in vain” (The Black Stars).

Hope lingers

In spite of the bleakness, I feel Levi maintained a difficult but angry sense of hope.

A parallel could be drawn with Satre whose experience of the French resistance fostered his intellectual, nihilistic ethics. But I feel that Levi’s experiences forged a more personal nihilistic humanism.

Take for example The Song of those who Died in Vain, my way in to Levi’s work. Its defiance implies one last chance and I have kept its words close as a warning of what I — a government bureaucrat — must never lose sight of.

This contradiction is a key to what makes him my hero: he was forced to engage honestly with the most difficult question of how we find hope and meaning in a blind universe where there is no higher purpose.

This is not a question that Levi answered — his death in 1997 is seen by many as suicide.

And perhaps it is a question that can never be answered easily given the persistence of supernatural explanations that have shaped us as a species.

But he tried. And for me Levi’s tentative, fragile hope is all the more powerful because it survived the winter that was Auschwitz and because it is articulated with empathy that he never surrendered.

Is anything sadder than a train

That leaves when it’s supposed to,

That has only one voice,

Only one route?

There’s nothing sadder.

Except perhaps a cart horse,

Shut between two shafts

And unable even to look sideways.

Its whole life is walking.

And a man? Isn’t a man sad?

If he lives in solitude a long time,

If he believes time has run its course,

A man is a sad thing too.

– Primo Levi, Monday (January 17, 1946)

Originally published on Humanist Life