NEWS The Ceremony in Fossoli: “It Might Happen Again, But Literature Can Save Us”

fossoliBy Daniela Modonesi*

“Reading Primo Levi’s works, especially in Fossoli, makes us understand once again and once more how only great literature, great art and great souls can save us from the water of the global deluge.” These were the concluding words of yesterday evening’s speech delivered by Ernesto Ferrero, president of the International Primo Levi Studies Centre, to celebrate 100 years from the birth of the Turinese writer. It took place in a transit camp inside the same shack from which 75 years ago Primo Levi was deported together with other 649 “pieces”, following the Nazi humiliating nomenclature.

“In a similar shack,” – reminded Pier Luigi Castagnetti, president of the Fossoli Foundation, promoter of this event together with the Primo Levi Centre – “alongside some hovels running parallel to Via Renesina, Levi and three friends were eating pasta when they learnt that on the following day, the 22nd of February 1944, they would have left with the first convoy available. Today, we remember that four-days-long travel, those horrible freight wagons, arriving in Birkenau in desperate conditions and the extermination camps tragedy. It’s a tragedy that significantly marks the history of the 20th century, as well as the whole human history. Levi’s reason to survive was to share his experience, so that it would inspire the newer generations. In fact, his books and his testimonies, including the interviews for the RAI network, are still strongly relevant, especially the ones about the processes of dehumanisation afflicting both the victims and the perpetrators. In these he talks about the need of re-building those lost parts of humanity, and to stay human.”

The Italian head of state, Sergio Mattarella, shared similar ideas in his speech: “The remembrance of Primo Levi is a precious heritage, and a source of ethics and humanity. He left the lager after touching the deepest point of an evil abyss, facing the annihilation of human dignity, the hell on earth. The wounds left on his existence wouldn’t heal completely, nonetheless he had the strength to think again, to tell the world and to entrust us with the task not to forget.”

There were many representatives of Judaism in Italy, such as Lisa and Renzo Levi, Primo Levi’s sons, Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), the vice-president of the Primo Levi Centre, Dario Disegni, and the UCEI council members, David Menasci, Arturo Bemporad and Riccardo Moretti. The mayor of Carpi, Alberto Belelli, took the chance to highlight how “our community understood its primary role on the subject of the holocaust remembrance. We can’t feel like simple spectators, we have to keep sharing the testimonies actively. In these years, we found, together with the Fossoli foundation, a location inside of the international deportation web. Starting on 2023, the camp’s purpose is going to focus on history and knowledge, aiming to become a relevant reference point for the history of deportation in Italy. Moreover, on Sunday hundreds of students are hopping on a bus leaving for Mauthausen, as part of the latest edition of the “Remembrance Journey” project. We’ve always asked these students to engage with the ones who couldn’t leave. We’ve also asked them to find the will to say ‘Stop. Think it through. You didn’t see what I did’ when they felt something unfair happened to them.”

Introducing the intensive reading performed by Fabrizio Gifuni of some extracts from “If This Is a Man” and “The Drowned and the Saved”, Ernesto Ferrero revealed that he considers himself as “a friend of Primo Levi, because I had the great honour to meet him back when I worked for the Einaudi publishing house, in March 1963. He came to me with the draft of ‘The Truce’. As soon as I read the second page, I knew I was standing in front of one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and I barely knew him.” And if, according to Italo Calvino, a classic book is a book which never stops saying what it has to say, Ferrero adds a little variation, thinking of Primo Levi: “It’s a book that keeps giving us more and more and keeps growing as time goes by, just like ‘If This Is a Man’. In addition, he was 26-years-old when he wrote the book, and he preferred to hide behind the reductive personas of the ‘Sunday writer’ or a ‘chemist who writes’ out of modesty. As if chemistry were a mild but noticeable disability, whereas it offers many information tools.”

In fact, as a good lab technician and “student of vortexes”, Primo Levi tried to understand the workings of the extermination machine, the human society, what was inside the head of the Germans and of those who comfortably laid low in the so-called by him ‘grey zone’, “which represents a cornerstone of modern anthropology” as Ferrero remarked. “It is the zone of those who pretend not to see and not to know, thus supporting the worst crimes, to preserve peace, or because they have a family, because they want to get ahead, because someone else is going to eventually do the same. Levi looks into this matter, and writes about it looking to the near future and to the present, although without a vengeful purpose, nor pushing towards indignation or negative feelings. Levi had very little interest in conveying such message, as well as he didn’t want to give the impression of being a pitiful victim.”

The latter emerging from an unpublished document Renzo and Lisa Levi have donated on the occasion of the centenary. It is the letter Primo Levi wrote in November 1945, a month after he came back home. Primo writes to his cousins, who fled to Brazil, to tell them about his own history. He also writes about Italy, which needed to recover from a persistent fascism. “And if in 2019 an Italian Senator of the Republic waves a preposterous full-blown historical forgery such as ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, if anti-Semitic outrages in France end everywhere else keep increasing, if we are here, today, analysing and tackling the issues of a recurring problem affecting not only Italy, then it means that even after 75 years the recovery is still incomplete.” Just as Primo Levi warned in the conclusion of ‘The Drowned and the Saved’: “It occurred, so it might happen again.”

In those same pages, the writer tells about how many times students asked him about the behaviour of his tormenters, the SS. “The term is incorrect. It makes one think about twisted minds, people who were born in a wrong way, sadists, with a violent tendency. On the contrary, they were cut from the same cloth as us. Average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely evil. They were not monsters, they were just educated in the wrong way. They were mostly middle-class workers. Some of them believed fanatically in Nazism, most of them were indifferent to it, others feared it, or wanted to get ahead, or were just too obedient”.

Thus the education and the upbringing are key elements for a better society. “The works of Primo Levi – stated Ferrero – are an ode to the joy of knowledge and competence. And in this time, in which knowledge seems to be becoming a guilt, we have to respond to Levi’s urgent invitation to act and think like a chemist. We have to use the chemist’s competences, which means weighing, measuring, differentiate, filtering through, experimenting, keep verifying the results, as they’re always uncertain.” Therefore rigour, precision, learning from one’s own mistakes, perseverance, vision, willing to combine, creative curiosity. “It applies to the use of words as well. At the present time, it is sloppy, coarse, cynical, deceptive and language-loathing. It has been reduced to few unoriginal and empty words, worsened by obscene language, bent to a giant mass market’s will which is meant to trick millions of clueless people and haters. As social media build walls around us, we give up to living in the squalor of a linguistic misery, bound to become moral and civil misery. That’s the exact opposite of the rigorous measure and extreme accuracy described by Levi.”

*Translated by Simone Simonazzi, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.