International Holocaust Remembrance Day

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
Primo Levi: “The Drowned and the Saved”

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day in commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust,
It was on 27 January 1945, that Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland) , the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp, freeing the survivors and revealing to the world the depth of the horrors perpetrated there.

At the beginning of 1945 Germany was being invaded and there were “insane transfers” from camp to camp: survivors of Majdanek were sent to Auschwitz, those of Buchenwald to Bergen-Belsen, the women of Ravensbruck towards Schwerin, everyone was being snatched away from liberation

Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. This is a threadbare truth known not only to psychologists but also to anyone who has paid attention to the behaviour of those who surround him, or even to his own behaviour. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even grow, but incorporating extraneous feature”
Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (Incipit)

The Drowned and the Saved is the last book completed by Primo Levi before his death, where he asks if we have already begun to forget about the Holocaust

Drawing on history, philosophy, and his own personal experiences, Levi breaks his book into eight essays, ranging from topics such as the unreliability of memory to how violence twists both the victim and the victimizer. As the Holocaust recedes into the past and fewer and fewer survivors are left to tell their stories, The Drowned and the Saved is a vital first-person testament.

Primo Levi (1919 1987) was an Italian chemist, and author of memoirs, short stories, poems and novels. At the beginning of the Second World War he joined an anti-Fascist group, but was captured and taken to the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. Levi survived the Holocaust and returned to Italy.

He is mostly known for his “If This is a Man” (1947), in which he narrated his experience in Auschwitz.

“The Drowned and the Saved” was his last work, published in 1986, a year before his death: it is a collection of essays in which he returned once more to his internment at Auschwitz, in a moving meditation on memory, resiliency, and the struggle for trying to comprehend an unimaginable tragedy.

In contrast to his previous autobiographical books, this was an attempt at an analytical approach where he tried to rethink the experience of the Lager against the risks of simplification and the fallacies of memory.

This book is also linked to the concept of grey zone, a term coined by Levi, which today has become commonly used, especially in socio-political analysis.
In “The Grey Zone”, the title of the second and longest of the essays contained in the collection, he dealt with the those Jews who compromised and collaborated with their oppressors in exchange for preferential treatment. (It was a key facet of Nazi practice to attempt to turn victims into accomplices.). While Nazis were responsible for inhumane conditions, some of the prisoners survived thanks to their compromises that made them acquire privileges.
Acknowledging that it is a characteristic and almost human necessity to the human need to always divide the social field into ‘us’ and ‘them’, into two clearly distinct and identifiable groups, Levi explored the space which separates (and not only in Nazi Lagers) the victims from the persecutors. He made no judgments but merely presented evidence and asked questions.

The epigraph of this book is taken from Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns,

And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns.

Coleridge’s words portray the Ancient Mariner as a victim of his own destiny, condemned to remember, first, having sinned by killing the albatross and then having survived his fellow sailors, who died because of his sin. The constant recounting of his tragic story is his “agony”.

As in the case of the Ancient Mariner, Levi, the survivor, cannot escape the urge to tell about his dramatic past, trying to rationalize those horrific events in these essays. in order to try to calm his agony.

È avvenuto, quindi può accadere di nuovo: questo è il nocciolo di quanto abbiamo da dire.”
Primo Levi: “I sommersi e i salvati”

Oggi è la Giornata della Memoria, in commemorazione delle dell’Olocausto.
Fu il 27 gennaio 1945 che i soldati sovietici entrarono in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Polonia), il più grande campo di concentramento e sterminio nazista, liberando i sopravvissuti e rivelando al mondo la profondità degli orrori ivi perpetrati.

Dall’inizio del 1945 in Germania erano cominciati dei folli trasferimenti da campo a campo: i sopravvissuti di Majdanek furono mandati ad Auschwitz, quelli di Buchenwald a Bergen-Belsen, le donne di Ravensbruck verso Schwerin, tutti venivano portati lontano dalla liberazione.

La memoria umana è uno strumento meraviglioso ma fallace. È questa una verità logora, nota non solo agli psicologi, ma anche a chiunque abbia posto attenzione al comportamento di chi lo circonda, o al suo stesso comportamento. I ricordi che giacciono in noi non sono incisi sulla pietra; non solo tendono a cancellarsi con gli anni, ma spesso si modificano, o addirittura si accrescono, incorporando lineamenti estranei “
Primo Levi: “I sommersi e i salvati” (Incipit)

Questo è l’ultimo libro completato da Primo Levi prima della sua morte, dove chiede se abbiamo già cominciato a dimenticarci dell’Olocausto

Attingendo a storia, filosofia e esperienze personali, Levi suddivise il suo libro in otto saggi, che vanno da argomenti come l’inaffidabilità della memoria a come la violenza distorce sia la vittima che il carnefice. Mentre l’Olocausto per molti diventa un lontano passato e sempre meno sopravvissuti restano a raccontarci le loro storie, “I sommersi e i salvati” è un testamento indispensabile scritto in prima persona.

Primo Levi (1919-1987) fu un chimico italiano, autore di memorie, racconti, poesie e romanzi. All’inizio della seconda guerra mondiale si unì a un gruppo antifascista, ma fu catturato e portato nel campo di concentramento tedesco di Auschwitz. Levi sopravvisse all’Olocausto e tornò in Italia.

È noto soprattutto per il suo libro autobiografico “Se questo è un uomo” (1947), in cui raccontava la sua esperienza ad Auschwitz.

“I sommersi e i salvati” fu la sua ultima opera, pubblicata nel 1986, un anno prima della sua morte: è una raccolta di saggi in cui ritornò ancora una volta sul suo internamento ad Auschwitz, in una commovente meditazione su memoria, resilienza e lotta per cercare di capire una tragedia inimmaginabile. In contrasto con i suoi precedenti libri autobiografici, questo fu un tentativo di approccio analitico dove cercò di ripensare all’esperienza del Lager, sfidando i rischi della semplificazione e degli inganni della memoria.

Quest’opera è legata anche al concetto di zona grigia, termine coniato da Levi, che oggi è divenuto d’uso comune, soprattutto nell’analisi socio-politica.
In “La zona grigia”, titolo del secondo e più lungo dei saggi contenuti nella raccolta, si occupò di quegli ebrei che scendevano a compromessi e collaboravano con i loro oppressori in cambio di un trattamento preferenziale. (Era un aspetto chiave della pratica nazista quello di tentare di trasformare le vittime in complici.). I nazisti furono responsabili di comportamenti disumani, tuttavia anche alcuni prigionieri sopravvissero grazie ai loro compromessi che facevano acquisire privilegi.

Riconoscendo che è caratteristica e quasi necessità umana il fatto di dividere sempre il campo sociale in “noi” e “loro”, in due gruppi chiaramente distinti e identificabili, Levi esplorò lo spazio che separa (e non solo nei lager nazisti) le vittime dai persecutori. Non emise giudizi, ma si limitò a presentare prove e porre domande.

L’epigrafe di questa raccolta è tratta dalla poesia di Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

“Da allora, a un’ora incerta,
torna quell’agonia ritorna,
e finché la mia orrenda storia non sia detta
brucia dentro di me brucia il cuore mio.”

I versi di Coleridge ritraggono il Vecchio Marinaio come una vittima del proprio destino, condannato a ricordare, prima, di aver peccato uccidendo l’albatro e poi di essere sopravvissuto ai suoi compagni, morti proprio a causa del suo gesto. È quindi condannato a raccontare la sua storia a chiunque riesca a convincere a prestare ascolto . Il racconto costante della sua tragica storia è la sua “agonia”

Come nel caso del Vecchio Marinaio, anche Levi, il sopravvissuto, non riesce a sottrarsi all’impulso di raccontare il suo drammatico passato, cercando di razionalizzare quegli orribili eventi in questi saggi e tentando così di calmare la sua “agonia”.

86 thoughts on “International Holocaust Remembrance Day

  1. Wonderful post, Luisa. I once turned down a job with a publisher because he told me that concentration camps were not really so bad because they were really for people who could not care for themselves. And people who are inconvenienced because they have been required to wear masks and compare this indignity to being a holocaust victim really raise my blood pressure. Some many idiots, so little opportunity to educate.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You’re right, and you don’t know how many in Italy share that silly idea 😷
      It is said that the mother of the imbeciles is always pregnant, and sometimes it seems to me that the human race will be doomed to succumb because they do not want to learn anything from past mistakes.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I can only hope we are able to learn from these atrocities. I do fear for future generations, but I also hope that there will never be any repetition of what happened in the second world war. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You are right, Luisa. There’s also the problems with Russia and the threat to Ukraine. On top of all of this we have the problems in the Middle East with millions being forced to become refugees. It is all very worrying.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Humanity seems to always want a boogie man or enemy. Why it continues to be the Jews, I am never sure. Even today, U.S. politicians compare any rule or law they do not like to what happened to the Jewish people under the Nazis. White supremacy is still a very real problem. Thanks for the timely reminder Luisa. Stay well. Allan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s also something I don’t get. The hatred towards Jews. Still. I mean, there are other cultures – those still stuck in the middle ages – one can think of as despicable. But Jews? Looking at Austrian history until the monarchy ended … so many cultures were part of it. Where would Austria be without those influences from the past centuries when it was a multi-cultural state? Hungarian, Czech, Italian, … So many wonderful actors, writers, musicians, … were Jewish and it disgusts me – still – how so many of my countrymen could fall for this little (sadly Austrian) creep when he overran his former home country. Just imagine … what if he had been accepted as a choir singer (was it the Burgtheater?) in his early years. But he didn’t have a formal suit which was required and he was denied the job … one of many disappointments and frustrations leading up to the most horrible crimes in history. One shall never forget! Never! Thanks, Luisa, for this great post!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly! Another disappointment! Forgot that … am currently reading lots about the great Austrian cabaretists, theater actors and writers of the past and the still present (Karl Farkas, Ernst Waldbrunn, Josef Meinrad, Otto Schenk, the Hörbiger and Wessely dynasties, Fritz Muliar, Felix Dvorak, Molnar, Hugo Wiener, …) as well as the monarchy so fine arts is a bit more in the background. Even though I do love to visit the Kunsthistorische Museum (Fine historical art) in Vienna.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. II love this post, Luisa. I have Promo Levi’s main book. Today there are many events all over the world, including
    the UK, devoted to remembering the atrocities of the war, and so I disagree that humanity will not remember..
    because we will remember, forever!

    Joanna

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wish I was as sure as you that we will never forget!
      I don’t have much faith in the memory of mankind. One of our Italian historians jokingly said that man’s historical memory lasts as long as that of a goldfish,… and I don’t think he was completely wrong. 🐟

      Like

  4. I did rsearch on the concentration camps a couple of years ago I think there are still unanswered questions.
    The big question on my mind is why the allies did not bomb the chambers. Even bomb generally, come to that, but specifically the gas chambers.
    Okay, there was a long time when the allies *could* not bomb, because they were too far away.

    The “reasons” generally trotted out were mainly that (a) nothing was known until liberation and (b) that it would have slowed the allies’ main thrust, which was to disable the German war machine.
    .
    But I believe that there was credible evidence from maybe the midpoint of the war, and… think how many lives might have been spared.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think no one could honestly deny the existence of the gas chambers: whoever did it had interests, was a hypocrite or WANTED not to know.
      Even delations against certain categories of people were only caused by personal interests… which, on a larger level, are the causes of all wars

      Liked by 2 people

      1. certainly by the middle of the war, there were plenty of credible escapees. We never hear about it through the media, but some people *did* escape from those camps.

        And certainly at the political level, a big international Jewish group, I think the main one, the World Jewish Congress, was lobbying for bombing. At very senior levels – to FDR and Churchill.

        The trouble is, this far afterwards, everything is speculative, but it is far from black and white.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. According to my great-grandmother’s sister who I still knew as a kid, the “normal” people really didn’t seem to know the true horrors of the concentration camps. Having come from Bohemia, my aunt who lived in Styria then, was just happy to have work and survive somehow … those really were hard times, the years after WWI particularly. The Nazi regime had a very clever and evil system where people – especially Jews – were moved from one place to another from one district to another until no one really knew anymore who was where. The perfect (disgusting) propaganda machine at work.

      Like

      1. Yes but the people directing the raids would have been far from ordinary people. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they would have known. They must have been very senior.

        Plus of coursde the political leaders could have overruled them, had they wished.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, of course, they probably knew much more. And there would have been rumours. I guess the situation in big city Vienna was much different than in the rural parts of Austria. However, it’s just too horrible to contemplate … wondering who to trust, your neighbours, your kids’ teachers denouncing you because you said the wrong thing … the big international leaders should have intervened much, much earlier and stomped the little evil guy into the ground …

        Liked by 1 person

      3. but of course, international leaders had other priorities, too. I suppose the clearest example of that was Stalin, who certainly had an agenda beyond winning WW2, but it must have been true for every nation.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the educational post, Luisa. I’m Jewish but I didn’t know that today was International Holocaust Remembrance Day (I didn’t realize there was a commemorative day separate from Yom Ha’Shoa, the Jewish day of Nazi Holocaust remembrance). Thank you for educating me, and for the interesting perspectives on Levi’s work!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Purtroppo non si tratta solo di ricordare.
    Moltissime nuove generazioni hanno una conoscenza superficiale dell’accaduto, ed ignoranza e razzismo portano a enormi fenomeni di recrudescenza di fascino, negazionismo e antisemitismo.
    Ci vorrebbe una cultura ed una conoscenza più profonda dell’accaduto, ma non credo che lo studio scolastico possa bastare a spegnere questi focolari.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lo studio scolastico può non bastare, ma è un buon inizio. Ricordo che quando con la mia collega di lettere abbiamo accompagnato i nostri studenti a Dachau alcuni si sono sinceramente commossi,
      Mi auguro che non sia stata una reazione superficiale del momento, ma che a qualcuno quell’orrore faccia ancora meditare sulle atrocità che l’uomo può compiere

      Liked by 1 person

  7. La memoria umana è uno strumento meraviglioso ma fallace.
    Un assioma quanto mai vero e attuale. La gente dimentica in fretta e cancella i ricordi sgradevoli. La giornata del 27 gennaio dovrebbe essere ricordata tutti i giorni perché quegli orrori non abbiano più a ripetersi.

    Liked by 1 person

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