Risk and Reward

Near the end of The Drowned and the Saved, Italian Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi writes about his remarkable correspondence with German readers. Having supervised the 1960 translation of his immediate postwar memoir Survival in Auschwitz into German, he feels unable to provide a prologue. Instead he includes a letter to his translator, disclaiming all hatred of Germans as such but confessing a desire to understand them. What follows is a touchingly and painfully frank account, heavy with quotes, of the letters from Germans who sought to answer that desire, along with his responses to them.

Coming at the end of a quietly devastating series of essays on the memory and interpretation of the camps, the chapter on correspondence moves the practice of witness and accounting into strange and precarious terrain. “Audience engagement” is not, one remembers, a new idea; but time was it required composition and invited true dialogue. Levi selects only some of the forty correspondents he reports hearing from, and to the extent that one risks extrapolating from such responses, one must suspect that the discouraging letters were likelier to be typical of the book’s German readers than the more profound and engaged. After all, Americans have our own experience with soft denials and implausible deflections where historical responsibility is at stake; we know how it works and what it looks like. But beyond the matter of the responses is the mere unsecured risk of address. The writer, Levi says, addresses everyone and no one, shouting alike from the city rooftop and into the wilderness. The correspondent must be brought face to face with the people who do hear, and with them the gap between what is intended and what is heard. The time and effort involved in those letters–reading and replying–is perhaps the only clear testament to hope in that book.

These words of Primo Levi and his German readers were the terminus of an unintended literary journey that began with the show Babylon Berlin on Netflix. Set in 1929, in the shadow of two wars, the show can’t help but be dark. Still, it offers more or less what is required of a police story underneath however much grit and gloom. It led me to a novel by Philip Kerr, whose recurring protagonist is a German police detective-cum-soldier of fortune, neither Nazi nor resister but just innocent (and yet knowing) enough to be sympathetic. This book (Field Gray; it’s fine) took me to the Eastern Front and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the dozen years in which the Europe between Hitler in the west and Stalin in the east was made into a zone of deliberate and massive killing of civilians. From there I scanned my shelf for Levi, whom I’d always suspected I had an obligation–but never before the impulse–to read. So an innocent, escapist streaming video binge led me fatefully beyond the shelter of fictional resolutions, however hard-boiled.

Reading Bloodlands, I had something of a shock to see that my knowledge of that era is mostly a broad awareness of its touchstones and atmospherics. The Ukrainian famine, the Great Terror, the war against civilians on both sides of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Holocaust itself–it’s not hard to stop at a summary and distorted knowledge of these things, each of which stupefies the imagination. Being told together they can completely reorient one’s understanding of an era of war that I have seen mostly from London, Washington, occupied France, D-Day, Flossenburg, and Auschwitz rather than Warsaw, Baba Yari, and Treblinka. Levi himself cannot correct that distortion for me; history is told by survivors, and Auschwitz had some survivors, where Treblinka and Sobibor had almost none. But what he records is likewise a brisk, stern reorientation from the Holocaust that has receded into abstraction, from the “never again” voiced by the shocked but unreformed and uncomprehending conscience.

These words and thoughts presented themselves during Lent, when I with much of the Christian world adopt some minor dietary inconveniences and behavioral adjustments in witness to, well, something, at any rate. I did not undertake all this reading out of a sense of duty, still less of penitential mortification. But the horrors Snyder unfolds did indeed drive me to prayer of a most inchoate and futile kind. And the calendar did momentarily suggest some possibility of penance. But that mistake becomes apparent immediately. The season’s meager forays into discomfort can only show how very different fasting is from true hunger, let alone hunger imposed and enforced as a policy. Self-imposed penance for the sins of the world is an impossibility; it can even be a perverse delusion. Nothing in that world can be assimilated to our prostrations or hair shirts. “Weep not for me, but for yourselves,” as Jesus says, which I don’t invoke to deny the tears rightfully due history’s victims. Late last year I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, written in 1948, and today I am even more irritated at the memory of that book’s parade of trivial non-events and at the impregnable fortress of solipsism Merton builds in the midst of actual events. He sees the people of Cuba and admires their simplicity and faith, he spends two weeks in Harlem and gets indignant on behalf of the oppressed, but they don’t interest him. His course of penance does. The world outside of his head intrudes, quite powerfully, at the end in the death of his brother in the R.A.F. I gather that the most important part of Merton’s story had to be left out, and that his memoir is not typical of his later work, and I am glad to know that. But the temptation to curve into ourselves in the guise of making a gift to the world is perpetual.

The risk of address is different. I have read these books compulsively, with a fervor that is different, and maybe more base, than enjoyment. Perhaps it is curiosity. But not only do I still have no real purchase on the events they depict, I have only the faintest sense of what it means for someone like Timothy Snyder to push through these archives, let alone for Primo Levi to unearth his experiences, in the hope that someone will read and be changed. Snyder records names and details, where he can, out of the 14 million he accounts as killed as a matter of policy (leaving out combat). Levi writes letters to one woman whose Social Democrat father was sent to Dachau and whose husband worked for I.G. Farben. One woman in the wake of millions dead and millions more complicit in greater or lesser degrees. It can seem insane. These writers are, in different ways, trying to restore humanity to people who surrendered it or had it stolen. That is not as optimistic as it sounds. Humanity is restored with dread and vengeance no less than with kindness and pity. In the face of such tasks, and the unfathomable probability of meeting success in them, oblivion and forgetting can seem comparatively rational.

I suppose it is trite to draw from this a hortatory warning about the relative resurgence of Nazis and, to a lesser extent, “tankies” in the margins of polite company–although the old habits of denial and minimization have come back with them, ready to be put to ghastly uses we can only guess at. Historians of terror, and their avid readers, can’t help but strain in hearing echoes. But it might be noted that totalitarian-style propaganda today is crowdsourced and networked in a way that 20th-century practitioners could only marvel at. Doctored photos and “crisis actor” allegations can appear in minutes and spread in hours after a massacre; folk tales of black helicopters and imminent race wars can be nurtured and elaborated over decades and mutate spontaneously and instantly as circumstances require.To most of us this is amateurish, or outlandish, or even funny.  But the authoritarian potential in this “libertarian” garb should be evident to anyone. It should be evident especially when it engages legions of “normie” supernumeraries in re-presenting this paranoia and contempt for facts in respectable forms. So it is with the outrageous and violent rambling of powerful people. Or the yearning, often virtuous, among some of the smart and dissatisfied for some movement of history greater and more apparently demanding than our unhappy, checkered reality to be dissolved into, at whatever cost to their own impulse to judge and decide things for themselves. Or the cynicism that preemptively judges all possible positions as false.

It’s easy to see how people who feel relatively secure will dismiss or minimize those portents, even now, when many and various witnesses have told us not to accept these self-assurances so complacently. We have no way to know what specific form a new catastrophe will take, but we have every reason to know that it will be neither so sudden as to be obvious nor so gradual as to be invisible, and thus irresistible.

The holiest religious virtues will not be a talisman against this. At best they may help us face our limits and our duties more frankly. To hear those who have risked speaking to us of the unspeakable is, itself, only a start. There is, for us, no vicarious payment for what has been suffered. But perhaps there can be an advance against the burdens that may come, prompted by the unsecured debts of those who have chosen to speak to us. The risk they have taken in speaking to us, at least, may be rewarded if we wish it.


One comment

  1. […] favorite post of the year was about books that address the horrors of history: “These writers are, in different ways, trying to restore humanity to people who surrendered […]


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