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Primo Levi and His Books: Thoughts at the Sydney Holocaust Museum

March 4, 2011

This week I told 280 people at the Sydney Jewish Museum that Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is the most important book of the 20th century.
I was honoured to be speaking to an audience that included Holocaust survivors. One man was a German Jew who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He had been arrested and interned in 1938. At the museum I thought of Jim Spigelman, Chief Justice of NSW, and his two brothers – both doctors – and of their children: all alive today because their mother and father survived in hiding in a Polish farmhouse within close proximity of Auschwitz. In the latter days of the war the farmhouse was surrounded by Germans while the Spigelmans and their infant Mark hid inside. I dedicated my lecture to Sydney’s Holocaust survivors.

Yes, the most important book of the century – as I argued in my book of book recommendations, My Reading Life. First, because the 20th century was distinguished by its wars and its war crimes and its concentration camps. Second, because of all the books produced by witnesses to these atrocities, Primo Levi’s is perhaps the most moving, the most philosophically challenging, the most questioning and probing when it comes to cause and motivation. It also describes the world of the Auschwitz complex with a gritty reality.

I told the audience that one of the reasons for loving this book, and its companion book The Truce, is the portraits in it of Primo Levi’s fellow prisoners. Of the 13-year-old Polish Jew Schlome who he met on his first hours in the Lager; of Alberto a fellow Italian who became his closest friend and always kept his head held high; of the child in the lazarette, after the liberation, who was called Hurbinek and who looked three-years-old, perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree and “whose tiny forearm – even his – bore the tattoo of Auschwitz”.

Primo Levi describes Doctor Pannwitz the German in charge of the laboratory in the Buna rubber factory, who, stares at Levi’s half-emaciated figure with contempt as if he were sub-human. Writes Levi: “I judge him, and the innumerable others like him, big and small in Auschwitz and everywhere”.

Sydney Jewish Museum

But Levi is curious, and after the war would like to meet Doctor Pannwitz, “not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul”. That is the essence. Levi’s book explores what Auschwitz means about human beings.

Can you believe in God after Auschwitz? Levi’s view is negative. In describing the wailing and rocking of an old man in prayer, after he has avoided selection for the gas chamber, Levi writes, ”If I was God, I would spit on (his) prayer.” Elsewhere Levi says that simply because Auschwitz existed it is impossible to talk of providence.

The underlying notion of his book is that of man at the bottom, at the very worst, of a Hobbesian universe. This is, then, a philosophical and sociological examination of the death camps.

In Turin in January 2001 I visited the cemetery and put flowers on Primo Levi’s grave. The inscription read, Primo Levi 1919 – 1987 and, then, his Auschwitz number, 174517.

I told my audience I had been honoured to make this gesture. I felt I had done it on their behalf.



  1. David Schlessinger permalink
    March 17, 2011 4:42 pm


    After reading this blog, I have no other choice but to go out and get this book.

    All the best!


    • Bob Carr permalink
      March 17, 2011 6:36 pm

      Phillip Roth described it as “indispensable”.

      You will know what he means from the first few pages.

      Primo Levi considered his role that of witness and his work a philosophical and sociological investigation of the concentration camp phenomenon.

      Beyond that, you will find his style magical. The people he describes will live in your imagination. His book is a small memorial to his friends and comrades murdered in Auschwitz.

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