Thursday, 27 April 2017

If This is a Man

One of the pieces of information we discovered during our trip to Trieste last month was that M's uncle Joachim was sent to Auschwitz on the same transport as the Italian author Primo Levi, who chronicled his experiences in detail in If This is a Man, deservedly considered one of the most important, if not the most important pieces of literature about the Holocaust. Like Primo Levi, Joachim was one of the very few survivors from that transport, and they were both among those in Auschwitz until the bitter end when it was liberated by the Russian army in January 1945. I have just read If This is a Man because it felt important to me to understand what Joachim experienced. This is the review I posted on Goodreads:
I read this book on two levels. Firstly as Primo Levi's extraordinary account, written with piercing clarity, of the year he spent in the squalor, deprivation and horror that was the slave labour camp of Buna-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III. Secondly on a personal level as an account of the experiences of my husband's uncle, Joachim, who was sent from the Fossoli camp in Italy to Monowitz in the same transport as Levi, and was one of the tiny handful of survivors from that transport. Again like Levi, it appears he was one of the prisoners who stayed at Monowitz to the bitter end; presumably he was also one of the inmates of the infirmary who were left to their own ten days of Hell but were spared the death march on which all the healthy prisoners were dispatched ahead of the arrival of the Russian army. While every prisoner would have experienced the horrors of the camp in their own way and (for the fortunate few) must have found their own individual means to survive, the realities of arrival, of day-to-day life, and of the dreadful last few days after the Germans left were the same for all. The indignities, the starvation, the cold, the near presence of death, would have been the same for Joachim as they were for Levi. Tragically although he survived Auschwitz, Joachim never recovered his health and died in 1947 aged just 38. Distance and sickness meant he never saw his family again. Primo Levi wanted the world to hear his story; in telling it he has allowed me to hear Joachim's, so long after it took place, and in hearing it to honour his memory.
Since finishing the book at the weekend it has been much on my mind. I notice how often I complain that I am "hungry', then acknowledge to myself just how far away I am from the experience of real hunger, which for Primo Levi and the other inmates of Monowitz was extreme and sustained for the entire year they were in the camp. I have also been wondering how Joachim managed to survive. From Levi's telling, the survivors pretty much without exception found some way to "organise" some kind of advantage that left them a bit less cold, hungry and friendless than the majority. Levi's survival was in part due to the generosity of an Italian civilian working at the Buna factory who gave him extra soup, and his background as a chemist which earned him an indoor job in a laboratory during the winter of 1944/5. My guess is that Joachim was in some way able to benefit from his linguistic skills as a native German speaker; the inability to understand German seems to have been a positive disadvantage, and there would surely have been ways he could have capitalised on his knowledge of the official language of the camp.

I find reading about the Holocaust a hard thing - how could it not be? - but while this book was difficult it was also the work of a magnificent writer, a necessary and cathartic exposition of a terrible and utterly unnecessary evil. It is the most important book I have read in a long time.


  1. Oh I think I must look this book up! ... what a cathartic experience (perhaps??), to read it, with the family connection ...

    I've always felt .... oh, many things!, regarding WWII specific to Germany, as my grandfather was able to secure immigration to the US, while his sister (they were orphans) was not. So he came here (thus here I am!) and she stayed there, ending up married to a man in the military ...

    So many twists and turns of fate.

    1. Addendum, I meant to say, my grandfather immigrated in the 1930s ...

  2. Twists and turns of fate indeed. Both Joachim's brothers left their home city of Danzig in 1939 for the US, but never made it further than England. Joachim went to Poland, their mother joined him there and they then went on to Trieste, I think also intending to leave for the US. Family rumour has it that they "missed the boat". Enjoy is the wrong word, but I think you would appreciate this book and be glad to have read it. The edition I read paired it with his sequel, The Truce, which describes the nine months and the long convoluted journey it took for him to return to his home in Italy.

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