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The Curious Curator's Book Blog

Contemporary art curator. Student. Book addict. Art lover. Geek. Dreamer. Curious about everything. Check out my website http://thecuriouscurator.com/

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If This Is a Man and The Truce

If This Is a Man / The Truce - Primo Levi, Stuart Woolf, Paul Bailey

It is hard for me to translate my experience of this book to words. It's not that my feelings are ambiguous, or even that I can't find the right words; my problem is that it created such an emotional and intellectual response from me, that I'm finding it difficult to know where to start, or how much of it really belongs in a review.


This is actually two books in one: If This is a Man recounts Primo Levi's experience of entering and living on one of the Auschwitz concentration camps, and The Truce follows his struggle to return home after leaving the camp. Levi writes in a remarkably contained, almost dispassionate way, which, as he explains in the afterword, is not only a consequence of his analytical and scientific mind, but also an attempt to create a valuable and valid witness account, unaffected by strong emotions.


Primo Levi was twenty-four years-old when he entered the camp (or Lager, as it was known), which is how old I am at the moment, so I couldn't help comparing myself to him, and wondering how I would have reacted to what he and countless others went through. It's difficult to imagine. The whole of the If This is a Man book is filled with innumerable examples of the horrific events that took place, but the one that most profoundly affected me was the "treatment" they received on the day of their arrival. Here is a group of human beings, torn from their normal lives and homes, slowly being transformed into something that is only a shadow of themselves, at best. In a matter of days, what defines them as human is reduced to nothing. This was a deliberate effect from the Nazi's part, since it was easier to perpetrate unspeakable horrors to beasts, to shadows, than to something you could recognize as a human being. It's an honest, deep-felt and terribly empathic description of what he felt and what he saw in the eyes of others, and it's chilling to the bone.


After this first part, The Truce is almost a relief. Although also filled with a lot of suffering and miserable conditions, it is nothing compared to what went on before, and like Levi, I felt myself recovering, almost forgetting the most gruesome details of what I had just read before. I guess that's the way the human mind works, and I really believe that, were it not from the survival's stories and the effort on the different nations' part to keep the concentration camps as a testament of those times, humanity would, sooner or later, forget what happened, or at least remember it like we remember the Inquisition, or the Napoleon Wars. Bloody events, but events that lack the human, individual side that is necessary for true empathy and understanding. World War II will remain as a terrible scar in history of the World, but the collective memory will dwindle, and we need books like this to remind us, those who weren't there, who didn't go through it or anything like it, of how low humankind can go, and has been, and will in all probability go again.