Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi with Leonardo de Benedetti
Stan Cohen on Primo Levi's report from the death camps
On January 27 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the network of concentration, labour and extermination camps near Ausch witz in Southern Poland. They first entered Monowitz, a satellite of the central Auschwitz-Birkenau complex run by the Nazis in collaboration with the industrial-chemical corporation IG Farben. Among the several hundred sick and dying left behind by the retreating Germans were two Italian Jews, both from Turin: a 46-year-old doctor, Leonardo de Benedetti, and a 25-year-old chemistry graduate, Primo Levi. They had both arrived in Auschwitz on the same train convoy, probably in the same cattle truck, eleven months earlier. Of their 650 companions in the closed train, only 24 were to survive the hard labour, filth, violence and illness. De Benedetti’s wife, separated from him on arrival, was murdered by gassing as were 525 others.
After liberation, survivors were moved by the Soviets until Levi and De Benedetti reached the holding camp at Katowice in March 1945. There the Russians asked them to write about living conditions at Auschwitz. They drafted a short report about four months later and in 1946 reworked this into a paper published in a Turin based medical journal Minerva Medica. There it lay forgotten until 1993 when (both authors dead) a local Turinese historian republished it.
Primo Levi is one of the few people who have not just contributed to the distinctive late 20th century genre of “testimonial literature,” but who undisputedly belong in the privileged space shared by testimony and literature. In his books about his time in the concentration camps, above all If This Is a Man (originally called Survival in Auschwitz), the power of eye-witness account is allied with literary skill and authorial mastery. This early Report is from a time before Levi emerged as writer; it is an artless, almost banal chronicle of the appalling physical conditions in the camp. It gains its fascination more from the way it anticipates Levi’s later, great work than from its own almost bureaucratic form, which is closer to a contemporary human rights report.
At the centrepiece of this new edition is Judith Wolf’s English translation of the 70-page text. In addition there is a substantial Introduction by Robert Gordon, who describes the Report as a “remarkable document” .Its origins are indeed remarkable and so is its status as one of the earliest detailed testimonies about life in a concentration camp. Less remarkable now are the details in the long medical section, which must have been mainly written by de Benedetti. This describes the six pathologies most prevalent in the camp (dystrophic diseases; diseases due to cold; diseases of the gastrointestinal apparatus; infective diseases; conditions requiring surgery; and work related-conditions); and gives an account of the workings of the infirmary at Monowitz. Levi’s contribution was probably more on the opening parts (the train journey and arrival); the “social” content of the middle (living, eating and working conditions) and the closing parts (the selections for the gas chambers).
Gordon finds places where the Report anticipates the style and substance of Levi’s later writings – for example, its use of sarcasm and irony. But as the translator reminds us, the Report was not intended as literature and nothing in the text is a metaphor. The language of medicine collapses because of the reality it tries to convey. An example: during a period of no medical services at all in Monowitz, the sick were forced to work every day until they collapsed from exhaustion. The Report: “Confirmation of death would then be carried out in a singular fashion; the task was entrusted to two individuals, not doctors, who were armed with ox sinews and had to beat the fallen man for several hours on end. After they had finished, if he failed to react with some movement, he was considered to be dead, and his body was immediately taken to the crematorium. If, on the contrary, he moved, it signified that he was not dead after all, he would be forced to resume his interrupted work.” Nothing in the text is a metaphor.
Gordon does wonderfully well to remind us of the importance of friendship in Levi’s writings, even under grotesque circumstances. The Report itself results from the great friendship between Primo and Leonardo de Benedetti, whom Levi called “Nardo”. Nardo also returned to Turin and they lived for forty years only a block away from each other; Nardo worked as an anonymous family doctor while Primo became a famous writer, and they supported each other through their regular bouts of depression. Nardo died in 1983 at the age of 85. In a memorial piece (reprinted here), Levi describes his friend’s smile as “… childlike but never unmindful or sad”; he writes that Nardo stood out from all the other survivors by his perseverance in keeping alive the network of solidarity among his fellow prisoners. Levi committed suicide four years later, in 1987. Attempts to explain this action (he didn’t leave a note) still range between “the burden of witnessing” and the effects of prolonged depression and the erosion of his close networks of support. ■
Auschwitz Report is published by Verso