Say­ing Levi’s words out loud

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - SHOAH A L KENNEDY

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

PHOTO: FABIAN BOERNER

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