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Primo Levi

“Like Amery, I too entered the lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience in the lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed in cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas?

I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death: when, naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go to the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working.

For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise, were I to survive, I would have been ashamed of it.”


From Primo Levi, succumbing to a null theodicy in his last book The Drowned and the Saved.

A few months after his liberation and return home to Turin, the twenty-six-year-old Levi wrote a poem titled “February 25, 1944,” the day he first walked through the iron gates marked Arbeit macht frei:

I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those day to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.

The crux of the poem is, to me, that wrenching last word of the third line. In Italian, however, overwhelmed reads like “to be submerged” or “to be drowned” (essere sommersi). Free is more like “to be saved” (essere salivate). Hence the book’s title.