Wiener Library Blog
If This Is A Man at the Southbank Centre
Posted by Katy Maydon, Monday 5th June, 2017
I am a Postgraduate History student who is focusing my studies on the Holocaust and antisemitism. I am interested in the education of the Holocaust and in curation and archiving. I am volunteering at The Wiener Library because I feel that educating the public about genocide is an important task and it is one I am excited to be involved with.
If This Is A Man at the Southbank Centre
The stage is simply set. The small orchestra of one violin, one viola, two cellos and a piano sit centre stage and two podiums stand on either side. A large screen hangs in the background intending to project images of the readers. As I write this, however, the screen shows a black and white photograph of a handsome young Primo Levi.
Levi, Auschwitz survivor, noted chemist and author, whose work we are all here to bear witness to, is portrayed in these photos as healthy, jovial and intelligent; not as the skin and bones he became at Auschwitz. Today, 30 April 2017, my afternoon and evening will be devoted to a seven-hour reading of If This Is A Man, Primo Levi’s memoir of his time at the camp. This event, which was organised by the Southbank Centre as part of their Belief and Beyond Belief season, aims to mark the 70th anniversary of the book’s first publication. Whether or not the curators also considered that this day marks the death of Adolf Hitler I do not know, but needless to say it adds to the poignancy. As the reading begins I have little idea of what to expect; I don’t know if I will be tired or emotional, enthralled or unengaged. At this point I can only sit and listen.
Auschwitz and Survival
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite.
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, pp. 17-18
In some ways Levi’s story is similar to that of countless others:his survival owes itself to his strength, expertise and, most importantly, chance. Nonetheless his experience is also unique. Levi was brought to Auschwitz in February 1944; If This Is A Man follows Levi though work, hunger, exhaustion, thirst, illness, injury and struggle. He describes how he stayed alive while many others around him perished. He lays out simply and beautifully the reasons he feels that he lived while his friends did not. Levi’s account is also one of reflection on the human condition and what it means to be a man and is one of the most engaging and insightful survivor stories I’ve, personally, ever read. In my opinion, Levi’s memoir should be required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a human being.
The fifteen readers tasked with giving voice to Levi’s work range from classically trained actors to those who are survivors themselves, from chemists and playwrights to barristers. While some are certainly easier on the ears than others, all voices add to the performance, be it from their eloquant reading or from their own, poignant story. The curation is perfect. The readers are paired with their chapters wonderfully. The British chemist Sir Martyn Poliakoff, for example, reads the story of Levi’s chemistry exam. The seventeen chapters are broken into three ‘acts’, each one several hours long and with two breaks in between.
The format followed thus: each reader was responsible for part of the story (either a chapter or two or part of one) and entered from the opposite side of the stage to which the last reader exited, giving the performance a wonderful fluidity. These readers were punctuated with beautiful, meaningful music, either between chapters or during readings. During Anita Lasker Wallfisch’s reading, for example, a beautiful cello piece was performed. Wallfisch herself was at Auschwitz; she was a member of the Women’s Orchestra there and played the cello. For her, and for us, knowing this added a layer of both sadness and strength to her reading. Moreover, it became clear that his evening wasn’t just for the audience, it was also for the other survivors. The moments when Levi’s work were accompanied by music are some of the most memorable for there are parts of Levi’s story that are so poetically written that when put to music sound almost lyrical. He explains the feelings and emotions of being in Auschwitz in such a way that most writers could only dream to do.
...This year has gone by so quickly. This time last year I was a free man: an outlaw but free, I had a name and a family, I had an eager and restless mind, an agile and healthy body...My days were both cheerful and sad...the future stood before me as a great treasure. Today the only thing left of the life of those days is what one needs to suffer hunger and cold; I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself...This year has gone by so quickly.
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, 159-160.
The final of Levi’s seventeen chapters is named ‘The Story of Ten Days’ and this chapter was slightly different, as it was performed by every member of the ‘cast’.
27 January. Dawn. On the floor, the shameful wreck of skin and bones, the Somogyi thing.There are more urgent tasks...the living are more demanding; the dead can wait...The Russians arrived while Charles and I were carrying Somogyi a little distance outside. He was very light. We overturned the stretcher on the grey snow. Charles took off his beret. I regretted not having a beret.
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, 192.
To have each person read part of this chapter, one that covers Levi’s last ten days before liberation by the Russians, was fantastic. Levi was a mixture of all of these people: a chemist, a writer, a public speaker, an artist, a man and a survivor. As with all other survivor stories, you know liberation is on the horizon, but to have every reader speak during this chapter added a feeling of togetherness, as if we, the audience, were living these last ten days with him, heading together towards Levi’s freedom.
If I had to describe this event in four words I would choose the following: intense, challenging, moving and memorable. It was a truly unique and extraordinary way to experience such a tremendous piece of autobiographical work.
I see now that there are two ways to approach Levi’s story: to read it, either for study or to simply try to understand and experience it.
Levi, Primo. If This Is A Man. London: Orion, 1960.
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Library holds a number of works by Primo Levi, along with a selection of biographies and analyses of Levi’s approach to confronting his experiences during the Holocaust. Some of this material is listed below:
- Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist by Myriam Anissimov
- Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi
- Primo Levi's Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics by Robert S.C. Gordon
- Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections by Jonathan Druker
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Personal Narratives; Italians; Primo Levi; Holocaust Literature; Holocaust Fiction; Memory; Philosophy
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