IT MIGHT be asked why yet another book recording the horrors of Auschwitz is necessary, especially from Primo Levi who dedicated himself, from the moment he was released from that hellish death camp until his apparent suicide in 1987, to bring home to a reluctant world the truth of the virtually unintelligible experiences of millions. His literary masterwork, If This Is a Man, surely needs no appendix.
But this collection does much more than revisit the scene of the nazis’ sociological and scientific experiment, the most obscene that human beings have ever imposed on their fellow kind.
Primo Levi, a chemist, and chemist Leonardo de Benedetti were lucky enough to survive the conditions of Monowitz, a labour camp attached to the main Auschwitz death factory, owing to their “use” in the primitive infirmary where the only treatments for sick internees consisted of aspirin and urotropine.
For those unfortunates who did not respond, there was the ultimate treatment — the “chimney,” as the ovens were called.
The official reports on conditions in the camp by these Jewish Italian compatriots requested by their Soviet liberators is one of the main documents in this book. The other short pieces range from articles, witness statements for the trials of nazi war criminals and speeches to conferences on the Holocaust, all written with a scientific objectivity and a fervent determination to strip the record of a sense of being neither “a plaintive victim nor... a vengeful judge.”
A major concern throughout his years of testimony was Levi’s fear that the truth, initially denied even by those German civilians who had worked alongside the slave inmates of the camps but who “know nothing and remember nothing,” was increasingly being subsumed into a kind of filmic myth. That fear has certainly been realised in the developing historical imagination of succeeding generations since Levi’s death.
But the publication of Auschwitz Testimonies may go some way to fulfil Levi’s 40-year post-war odyssey to bear witness to “the history of today, whose violence is the child of that violence which, by sheer chance, we managed to survive.”