Posts filed under ‘Primo Levi’
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.
Since everyone’s anguish is our own,
We live ours over again, thin child,
Clutching your mother convulsively
As though, when the noon sky turned black,
You wanted to re-enter her.
To no avail, because the air, turned poison,
Filtered to find you through the closed windows
Of your quiet, thick-walled house,
Once happy with your song, your timid laugh.
Centuries have passed, the ash has petrified
To imprison those delicated limbs forever.
In this way you stay with us, a twisted plaster cast,
Agony without end, terrible witness to how much
Our proud seed matters to the gods.
Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook.
Nothing remains of the Hiroshima schoolgirl,
A shadow printed on a wall by the light of a thousand suns,
Victim sacrificed on the altar of fear.
Powerful of the earth, masters of new poisons,
Sad secret guardians of final thunder,
The torments heaven sends us are enough.
Before your finger presses down, stop and consider.
(translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman)
Who knew that Primo Levi wrote poetry? I certainly didn’t. Till a few years ago I only knew Levi as the author of all those stunning books about the Holocaust – If this is a man, If not now then when? And then one day I happened upon his selected poems in a bookstore and just had to buy it.
Today’s poem, taken from that collection, resonates with the same sense of sorrow mixed with indignation that one finds in Levi’s prose. Here again is the appeal we recognise from his books – a plea for peace, for humanity. Here again is Levi’s simple yet stirring message – “Everyone’s anguish is our own”.
If Levi’s writing moves us it is because the bitter wisdom in his voice is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. To the list of innocent dead that this poem gives us, we have so many new names to add – the children killed at Qana, the infants dying in Rwanda and Somalia. “The torments heaven sends us are enough” Levi writes – we can only pray that somewhere, somehow, the “powerful of the earth” are listening.