Our favorite books 1. – Primo Levi, Uri S. Cohen

We asked Nikoletta Kende to introduce the most impactful book she has read about the Holocaust.

Our favorite books 1. – Primo Levi, Uri S. Cohen
Primo Levi Holocaust survivor sitting at his work desk, around 1960. Source: Wikimédia Commons/CDE Digital Library

If we wish to analyze the language of Holocaust-survivors, we’ll definitely encounter Primo Levi, who was a survivor himself. His book, The Drowned and the Saved that was written based on his experiences and knowledge about the concentration camp, dedicates an entire chapter (‘Communicating’) to survivors’ linguistic devices, how those translate into struggles and possibilities.

Levi’s book is characterised by a real diversity, with chapters that take the reader through some truly deep questions about the Holocaust. Topics include dilemmas of memory, stereotypes, communication, Nazi violence, the role of the intellectual, the shame of the survivors, and the ‘grey zone’ of victim/perpetrator distinction (Robert S. C. Gordon ed. The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi).

The most important aspects of the chapter on communication are the notion of the unspeakable, and the advantages of language skills.

The unspeakable vs. linguistic devices

Levi opens his book with describing a characteristic attitude of survivors: the deep fear stemming from the Nazi persuasion that nobody will believe what had happened to the survivor within the camps. The perpetrators were convinced they could bury all evidence and told the imprisoned over and over that nobody would ever believe that this happened to them. Therefore, many survivors talk about a recurring dream, in which they tell their stories, and their loved ones physically leave them alone, a sign of their disbelief.

I think this is a spot-on illustration of a deeper layer of language, the one we can only grasp by researching and analyzing. The events of the Holocaust were describable by using words and sentences. The survivors could talk about the atrocities, the trauma they underwent, and yet, it seemed so absurd, so improbable that humans are capable of such destruction, that it transcended the only device that could have expressed and proven their experience: language felt inadequate.

This fear was conjured by their own experience and the manipulation of Nazi perpetrators, as illustrated by the following excerpts of DEGOB protocols.

“We arrived in Birkenau at night. We were processioned in front of a big floodlight, and I was separated from everyone dear to me. Thus, our group consisted of young women only, and we were taken next to the crematoriums. The sky was red from the big fires and we smelled human flesh. We thought in a few hours it would be the same fate for us; We threw away our luggage, picked up stones and started yelling ‘we want to live’! Officers came up to us and tried to calm us. This went on for about 3 hours, until an SS officer stood up and yelled: “We are a civilised people. You wouldn’t believe such a story that Germans would burn people in 1944?” A girl exclaimed that she herself saw how a person was thrown into the furnace. Then the SS took her and another woman, showed them around the entire camp, so they could see there were people living there. Only the crematorium he did not show them.” (Protocol no. 1931)

“First we didn’t want to believe that the gas chambers do exist. We saw the flame, and the lingering smell was unmistakable, but we thought they’d burnt only those who died of natural causes.” (Protocol no. 1330)

Language as a token of survival

On one side, language expresses the lack of means to express the experiences lived. During the Holocaust, however, language took on a new characteristic for the deportees: it was a tool of understanding rather than expression, and it helped Jews to survive. Understanding the German language used by SS could increase the chances of survival for those imprisoned in Nazi camps. If they understood the language of their captors, detainees knew when to speak and when to keep silent, or where to go to avoid getting in a dangerous situation, as illustrated by the following excerpt:

“There was a selection on 16th September, and as a result I was taken to Görlitz with a transport. In Görlitz we worked at the Wumag factory. I was at the office and I had a very serious job. Out of the 300 women I was only fluent in speaking and writing in German, and they took me to the office because of that. I was fairly well off there.” (Protocol no. 2476)

Language skills provided a better chance to avoid hard physical labor, for instance, which was carried out by weakened victims due to the abysmal hygienic conditions and poor subsistence. Instead, some could work at the back-office, which increased their chance of survival.

Another important aspect is to regard Levi’s, just as anyone else’s, work critically. His is a male perspective on the experience of concentration camps, and in order to gain a more balanced view, we need to explore the work of women authors to gain a full picture (as they were forced to work and live in other areas as the men and there were also differences in the atrocities they suffered).

During the Holocaust, medical experiments on deportees were quite common. In this context, the experiences of experiments related to pregnancy and childbirth are mainly expressed by female voices on the subject side (of course, there may also be male voices among those who carried out the procedures).

The sensitivity of the subject is reflected in the fact that among the survivor testimonies, notably few go into detail about such events and interventions. One of the most important sources to mention here is a survivor of Hungarian origin, Dr. Gizella Perl, who worked as a gynaecologist in Auschwitz. An article ( supplemented by interview material with her guides readers through the ethical dilemmas she had to live through as a Jewish doctor in the camps. The dichotomy that haunted her throughout her life was that, by performing abortions, she was taking the children of women, yet giving them the opportunity to survive. Because, as she put it:

“The greatest crime in Auschwitz was to be pregnant”.

It is noteworthy that the words of Gizella further reinforce that, in such critical situations and similar ones, language is one of the main tools that can help people to survive. For, as she explains:

“I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. […] “

Overall, in order to fully understand the functions and importance of language during the Holocaust, we need to draw on sources from victims and survivors with different experiences, in addition to the classic perpetrators’ documents.





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