……..These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is A Man’ by Primo Levi.
In the ‘Thought For The Day’ slot on the Today Programme on Radio 4 last week I heard someone describe their thoughts and feelings on visiting Auschwitz concentration camp. A few days later I began to read the magnificent novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, which I reviewed here. The shadow of the concentration camps and the man-made hell on earth to which millions of Jews, and others, were subjected hangs over the novel, a kind of evil that felt like it sat by my shoulder throughout my read of that book – I just couldn’t shake the feeling even though I was immersed in the novel.
That feeling while reading ‘HHhH’, and the words from that “Thought For The Day”, have echoed in my head, and I’m reminded of how I’m drawn to fiction and non-fiction about the Second World War and about the Holocaust in particular. But of course, as well as acknowledging that it holds some moth-to-the-flame appeal to me as a topic for reading, I’ve also been thinking about why.
At the age of 18 I was fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz. This was in 1979, when Poland was still Communist and behind the Iron Curtain. Somehow a group of teachers and youth club leaders I knew persuaded the then Local Authority of Strathclyde Regional Council to lend us tents and a mini-bus to travel around behind the Iron Curtain. God knows what they were thinking of (!) but somehow they agreed to it. After months of preparation and interminable paperwork to secure visas, we spent about 6 weeks touring around East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The trip was hugely influential for me in so many ways, but none more so than the day we visited Auschwitz near the Polish town of Oswiecim. I recall the entry through those gates, the words above me, watching a documentary of the Holocaust in a small cinema, listening to the commentary in French because there was no English version in those days and quickly realising the language of the commentary was irrelevant as these were images which needed no words, the flowers and candles freshly placed in remembrance against the Execution Wall and the huts converted to long glass cabinets and filled floor to ceiling with hair, and spectacles, and suitcases, and shoes. I can’t describe how it felt now anymore than I could then.
But what affected me more, and what has stayed with me more, was the camp at Birkenau. Auschwitz then had been converted into a monument and museum by the Polish Government whereas Birkenau had been left to lapse into ruin and decay and was all the more chilling and awful as a result. The grass was knee-high, the huts broken down, rotting, with little glass left where the windows had once been and the bunks on which so many had tried to sleep and survive were piled high and haphazard. Somehow this desolate, windswept, and barren place made much more of an impression on me and it has never left me.
When I returned from that trip, I tracked down a copy of Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”, the story of his year in Auschwitz and “The Truce” the equally moving story of his nine month struggle to survive after liberation and get back through a war-ravaged Europe to his home in Turin. Reading that book was the beginning of so many books I’ve subsequently read over the years about the Holocaust, those who perpetrated it, those who turned a blind eye to it, those who suffered it and those who survived it. It’s only as I take stock of what I’ve read over the years do I realise how much I’ve read on that subject.
As a teacher I was amazed at the clever, subtle way the Holocaust was handled for children in the books When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and the magnificent I Am David by Ann Holm, both of which I read to pupils over the years. As a young man I read the incredibly powerful book Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally, and watched in awe as it was transferred magnificently to the cinema years later as Schindler’s List.
In recent years I was impressed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, and I went on to watch the film of this with my daughter and it made me realise that it had brought much-needed awareness of the Holocaust to a whole new generation of children and young people, in the same way that I Am David had done in previous years.
I read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer and immediately followed it with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I preferred. My first introduction to the writing of Bernhard Schlink was The Reader. I thought it was such a good book and one that made a very powerful impression on me. I’ve now got the film of The Reader on my Sky + but it’s been there sometime and I’m avoiding watching it. I have a feeling I’m going to be disappointed in the film, despite the fact that I’ve read good reviews of it in several places.
But good as all these books, and several others, have been, none of them have had that profound effect on me that the first reading of Primo Levi did. There was a simplicity about the survival instinct he wrote about and a perfect balance between observation and emotion in his books. Above all they are books of such dignity and gentleness in the midst of a world which was the very opposite. He describes in his afterword to If This Is A Man that his time in Auschwitz was in some respects his “university” But his latyer reflections on that time are the most powerful and moving. He ends the afterword thus
“And, finally, I was helped by my determination., which I stubbornly preserved, to recognise always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck”