Primo Levi’s sad words:
I hit upon some bargains recently in Hodges Figgis, a brilliant Dublin book shop, one of which is Survival in Auschwitz, by the Italian Jew, Primo Levi. I have always liked Levi’s books – especially his succinct, objective, dispassionate style. I marvelled and still marvel at how dispassionate his voice is as he recounts how he was taken away to the concentration camp. Take these two sentences that I find very moving: “There are few men who know how to go to their deaths with dignity, and often they are not those whom one would expect. Few know how to remain silent and respect the silence of others.” (p. 18) Then when the prisoners had been “processed” i.e., sorted into those fit for work and those suitable only to be exterminated immediately, stripped naked, shorn like sheep of every hair on their bodies, given rags and broken down shoes to wear, insulted, bruised and beaten by guards, insulted and spat upon, then we get this powerful and disturbing sentence: “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” (p.26) The book then goes on and on drawing the reader into this hell created by the Nazis. It is beautifully written - to say that an account of surviving in Auschwitz is beautifully written is in itself a travesty of language – how can words that capture such depravity and degeneracy be beautiful? I am captivated and ensnared by this book.
But the phrase the keeps coming into my mind over and over again like a mantra is the phrase “the demolition of man.” What a wonderfully sad phrase. I have been trained for years as a teacher both at college and over years of experience to “build up” those human beings that I have the privilege to teach. Teaching for me is one of the most profoundly important professions – I would even say vocation – which we have in human society. The other would be medicine to my mind. Then all the other caring professions come after that.
The biggest thrill and satisfaction a teacher can get is seeing his students reach their potential whatever that may be for them – doing as well as they possibly can academically, personally and socially. Then there are the pupils who come to you for advice, others that come to you with their problems and those that come to thank you for some perceived favour which you had never noticed that you did. For me working closely with committees on the putting together of a school Year Book is always exhilarating. Working with pupils on other committees – graduation, work experience, community placement, cookery etc allows one into the wonderfully hopeful, though at times disturbing and frightening, world of the modern adolescent. These enriching experiences cannot be overvalued. No money would pay you for the satisfaction you get from a parent thanking for what you did for their son, or two young graduands wanting their photographs taken with the teacher.
Now to oppose to that the “demolition of man”, the systematic taking apart of an individual, taking away a person’s dignity and humanity, is to my mind unreal. And yet it was and is real for many who live on this planet earth. I can hear my mother say, “You would not treat an old dog or an old cat that way!”
So many feelings are welling up in me – anger, disbelief, dismay, and dejection, a feeling of sickness, despondency and so on and on. Also so many thoughts and questions are rushing through my mind – why? Were they criminally insane? Were they deluded? Were they just following orders? Where were their morals or ethics? How could so many apparently good people be intoxicated by the propaganda and utopian promises of a mad man? How could they have subscribed to the vitriol and sheer hatred of races such as the Jews? How could they have believed in hegemony and genocide? Where were the Churches in all this – those official representatives of Jesus on earth? Where were they? I know there were many brave clerics who spoke out against Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, but none from officialdom!
The dignity of man resides in life, in dying and in death. This is what we have been taught and what we civilized people must go on teaching. Let us speak about the “building up” and edification of humankind. As Pope Paul VI said to the UN when he addressed it in the mid sixties of the last century: “No more war, war no more!” This is a good slogan or sluaghairm (The Gaelic word from which slogan derives) – the words that call us all together!!! Let us build peace here and now in our own lives, amongst all those whom it is our privilege to come in contact with. Another slogan I like is one from Winston Churchill: “Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war.”
I have appended above a picture of a torture table, complete with whip, which I took last December at Dachau, a camp not nearly as infamous as Auschwitz where Primo Levi spent his time.