I recently read two very moving books, both classics of World War II-literature. One was Italian chemist Primo Levi’s relentlessly frank first-person account of life in the camps, If This Is A Man (aka. Survival in Auschwitz, 1947), the other was the collected letters and diary entries of young Danish seaman and resistance fighter Kim Malthe-Bruun, Kim (1945). Read together, they chart different parts to survival and salvation and suggest why the two should not be confounded.
Aged 24 when he was arrested by the Germans, Levi spent roughly a year in Auschwitz and managed to survive through a combination of ingenuity and sheer luck. When the SS vacated Auschwitz in January of 1945 he was in the camp’s sanatorium with scarlet fever and therefore abandoned in lieu of being forced on the death march on which the majority of the internees perished. After a circuitous journey through the Europe of the aftermath, he returned to his hometown, Turin. He lived there, working as the manager of a paint factory, until his death in 1987.
Kim Malthe-Bruun entered the Danish resistance against the German occupation in September of 1944, aged 21. A couple of months later, in December, he was arrested by the Gestapo for smuggling arms. He spent almost four months in police custody and was tortured. On April 6th 1945, he was executed in Copenhagen, by shooting.
Levi’s meticulous descriptions of the particulars of camp life, though most of the time very matter-of-factly, are born of a profound indignation that keeps the disillusionment Levi very understandably exhibits in check. A key chapter describes the difference between the “drowned” and the “saved” amongst the inmates – the Häftlinge – in the camp. You are either a survivor or you belong to the anonymous mass of Muselmänner. The former manage to survive longer because they discover some angle that secures them less strenuous work, more than the standard daily ration, etc., while the latter soon perish. The distinction is entirely dichotomous; the third way of the civilized world is, as he writes, absent from the world of the Lager.
“Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed, and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.”
This harrowing observation makes one wonder whether survival is indeed salvation, since it comes at such cost. Nobody but a camp survivor can perhaps answer this, but it is clear that the symbolic significance of surviving an affront to civilization at the scale of the camps is of immeasurable importance.
Kim, who of course never experienced atrocities at the magnitude of the camps but nevertheless suffered at the hands of the Moloch that created them, achieves something similar in his writings. They are emphatically the words of a young man, aged by circumstance but with his inquisitive idealism intact. While in his cell, he managed to write a number of letters – some sanctioned, others clandestine – to his girlfriend and family, as well as to his brethren in the resistance movement. An avid reader, he finds inspiration in the Bible provided him and tries to grasp the example of Christ while remembering his earlier reading of the Defence of Socrates. In the process he conjectures:
“On the way up there, for interrogation, it struck me, or maybe it was while I was up there that I suddenly felt, “You should come with me into the woods, alone like a lumberjack, just for a short time, and everything in you would change, perhaps not forever, because you are cut from a different stock, but at least so that for a while you would see and contemplate the depth of the World, feel the infinite richness of the World that surrounds you, but which you do not understand, for a while.” In a flash it occurred to me, “I wonder whether these people have ever seen the moon reflected in a still forest lake, or whether they have ever seen the wind frolic in the grass at the brink of a hill, when it flows over the precipice and down, towards the lake.”
These are the thoughts of somebody who has not been spoiled by the indignities he has suffered, who is still in a situation where he can think about what is going on on the other side of the bars of his cell. In the description of one of his compeers, present at the moment when the sentence was read to him, Kim looked on the judge with a mixture of pity and leniency. His letter to his mother is similarly reconciled, uniquely concerned as it is with the well-being of his loved ones. He clearly managed to keep his humanity intact, believing in the salvation this extended him.
Levi on the other hand, not having died and being a survivor of something far more gruesome, had to deal with the difficulty of life after. Something of a sentence to serve on this earth, but one he – through his writing – managed to turn into at least a suggestion of hope for our common salvation:
“We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away, and that the Häftling is consequently nothing but a man without inhibitions. We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits are reduced to silence.”
The picture is Giovanni Bellini’s Death of Saint Peter Martyr (c. 1509) in the National Gallery in London. The excerpts from Levi are from Stuart Woolf’s rather awkward translation, while the ones from Kim are my own, equally awkward attempts at turning his words into English. Kim is, by the way, available in several English editions, the latest being Heroic Heart – The Diary and Letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun, New York: Random House, 1998.