25th February 1944
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 days to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.
(Translated from the Italian by Brian Swann and Ruth Feldman)
February 1944 was the month in which the camp in Fossoli where Primo Levi was detained was taken over by the Germans. Following the German takeover, all the Jews in the camp were sent to Auschwitz. Some 650 persons were deported – only 23 survived.
Today’s poem is a simple yet strangely moving testament to the tragedy of the Holocaust. The title of the poem lends it a sense of historical authenticity, but it is the helplessness in the speaker’s voice, the sense of being powerless in the face of forces too overbearing to understand or even describe, that gives the poem its force. That and the sense of transcendence, the knowledge that even in the most dire and hopeless of times we cling to the longing to survive, the longing to be free. Only a handful of those who were sent to Auschwitz with Levi survived to walk ‘free beneath the sun’, and this poem mingles perfectly the sense of gratitude mixed with regret that comes with that knowledge.