“Why do you not commit suicide?” – Viktor Frankl
How can one escape the depths of despair and not rejoice? In exploring the horrors of Auschwitz in his book The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi ruminates, “I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact, killed. The ‘saved’…were not the best, those predestined to do good…the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive…The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died” (82). It is a sobering thought to consider yourself in this light, implicitly unworthy, though inherently innocent; the result of an “institution [that] represented an attempt to shift onto others – specifically, the victims – the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence” (53).
The psychological schism gives breath to “another, vaster shame, the shame of the world…[as] there are those who, faced by the crime of others or their own, turn their backs so as not to see it and not feel touched by it” (85). This strategy was of great use to inmates of the Nazi death camps, helping to alleviate their anguish during the daily plight of survival; it was simultaneously employed by German citizens (and myriad others) whose willful ignorance absolved them from complicity. Such were the workings of “the typical case of someone who, accustomed to lying in public, ends by lying in private, too, to himself as well, and building for himself a comforting truth which allows him to live in peace,” (28). Indeed, the violence and inhumanity cannot be reconciled otherwise.
As “an inhuman regime spreads and extends its inhumanity in all directions”, the need for a witness greatens (112). It becomes his burden to account for the atrocities, yet navigating the darkness is a troublesome task. “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, by incorporating extraneous features” (23). This reality serves to highlight the necessity of retelling. To recount in an effort to combat “the shame which the just man experiences when confronted by a crime committed by another, and [igniting in him a feeling of ] remorse because…his will has proven nonexistent or feeble and was incapable of putting up a good defense” (73). A good defense, an embodiment of truth, is the only way to fight ‘useless violence’, but it takes a measure of strength to withstand the pressure – death of body or death of soul, and “nobody can know for how long and under what trials his soul can resist before yielding or breaking” (60).
A year after publishing The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi died in an apparent suicide. He understood early that, “[b]lows…generally are not lethal, but collapse is; a punch delivered skillfully contains its own anesthesia, both corporal and spiritual” (134). This witness, this defender, this transmitter of awful truths, could no longer bear the pressure. In an appeal to find solace from the intractable demons plaguing his soul, this mighty man chose to end his interminable pain.
Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Summit Books, 1986.
Photo: Pit that served as a mass grave for Jews during the Holocaust.