Saying Levi’s words out loud
ON THE first Sunday after the Brexit vote, Philippe Sands and I met for an event at Southbank Centre. We saw each other across the venue floor and simply walked in and hugged. We also swore softly. It had been a strange week. At the event, the usual chat from authors who have just published books became less usual — we discussed literature’s place in politics and in the struggle to achieve and maintain human rights. An EU citizen in the audience talked about her worries for the future in the UK, the way her daughter now cried at night.
Months later now, and political uncertainty leaves these issues still unresolved.
As we left the event, Philippe mentioned that 2017 would bring the 70th anniversary of the publication of Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man — a shattering and beautifully wise book, not only about his experiences in Auschwitz, but about the actions and attitudes among perfectly normal human beings that prepare the way to the industrial reclassification of human beings, to indignity, fear, torment and the extinguishing of lives — in houses, in ditches, in prisons, in camps.
I was familiar with the European idea of literary events that took place over extended time periods. (Europe, with its vestigial memory of book burnings and enforced silences, retains a passion for literature. Audiences will happily spend a whole night at an event, listening to the voices in books, to the otherwise-hidden hearts of others.) It suddenly seemed very right that, in these times of monetised suffering, we should let Levi’s voice, a survivor’s voice, a wise man’s voice, speak to us at length in a building created as a statement of hope after the Second World War, a building created by Britons and by refugees from a broken world.
And so Philippe and I embarked upon a project to curate a live reading of If This
Is A Man in collaboration with the Southbank Centre and the head of literature there, Ted Hodgkinson.
For Philippe, a human rights lawyer who has conducted prosecutions in the aftermath of genocide, a Jew who has lost relatives in the Shoah, the project is deeply personal and speaks to the other strands of his work as a performer, a writer and a man who has sought out the children of prominent Nazis in an ongoing exploration of guilt, remembering and forgetting.
For myself, as a writer, I know that books are paths to empathy, friends in need, acts of defiance and memorials for the dead. As a human being, I can do nothing but endlessly grieve and remember that millions of human beings were destroyed in a variety of man made hell mouths across Europe during World War Two. Books are paths to empathy and friends in need
As antisemitism rises again and as authoritarian solutions are advocated far and wide, I know we sorely need Levi to be read aloud in every street.
Among my earliest memories are stories of Ilsa Reinstein, a fellow-student at my mother’s teacher training college. My mother was nervous, she still can be. But Ilsa was older, a married woman with two daughters. Ilsa was assured. Ilsa ignored the college authorities when they said she ought to wear a corset. She took my mother under her wing and lent her confidence, was her friend. Ilsa, I was told, had escaped from Nazioccupied Europe hanging underneath a train, along with her husband. She was a refugee, a survivor. Ilsa gave me the first news that the world contained deep cruelties and might require escape, defence, defiance.
Ilsa said one should remember the names of people, hold them, because this means they will never quite be gone. So, although I never met her, I remember the name of Ilsa Reinstein, her bravery and her kindness to my mother.
Perhaps it was Ilsa’s story that pushed me to read about the Holocaust as a child, to try and understand how wrong my species can go. I was a teenager in the 1970s, a time when the Shoah was finally being examined more fully in the UK’s wider society, with TV dramas and books. Lukas Heller’s 1985 TV movie, Hitler’s SS: Portrait In Evil stayed with me. Heller was a German Jewish émigré born in Kiel in 1930 and he understood the complexity of terror and its corrosive effects.
His drama didn’t allow the viewer to identify only with the victims and indulge in comfortable compassion. Time and again, he made me ask the question — if it was my life or a stranger’s, even a friend’s — would I stand up? Would I save my own skin? If I wasn’t in the victimised group would I be cowed by the bullying, the filth of violence and torture? He taught me a little vigilance and prepared me to read Tadeusz Borowski, Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rebecca West — the voices remembering horror, attempting to understand its roots and kill them — the voices we no longer mention in our wider culture. No need to burn books if we forget them. No need to recall Heine’s warning that where books are destroyed, the next victims will be men. Ilsa and Heller prepared me to read Primo Levi, over and over again — his insight always more relevant and beautiful.
Somewhere in my childhood, I prepared for flight. I questioned and doubted the strength of my morality. Culture exists, in part, to make us do that and a culture is sick if neglects that duty.
We are malleable, it is possible to soak us in hate and lead us astray. And it is possible to bring towards light.
The reading of If This Is A Man, the remembering of Levi’s name, is a small effort to correct an ailing culture and a way of lighting something in all who attend. So together we will raise Levi’s voice, breathe when he breathed. Of course we will — he is part of what can help to save us. There is no need to burn books if we forget them
A live reading of Primo Levi’s ‘If This Is A Man’ will be performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday April 30, as part of Southbank Centre’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ festival. www.southbankcentre. co.uk/whats-on/119302primo-levi-if-man-2017